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Soccer emerges as the Gulf crisis’s potential icebreaker

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It was on the soccer pitch that 2022 World Cup host Qatar definitively shrugged off the UAE-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state as the crisis entered its third year with no prospect of resolution.

World soccer body FIFA’s abandonment of Saudi-United Arab Emirates-backed plans to expand the 2022 World Cup from 32 to 48 teams just days before the boycott’s June 5 second anniversary could not have come at a more opportune moment.

The FIFA decision came on the heels of Qatar’s unexpected winning of the Asian Cup and was followed by reports that the Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund was negotiating the acquisition of British club Leeds United.

The acquisition would give Qatar a second top European team after Paris Saint-Germain and potentially take the soccer aspects of the rift to the English Premier League, home to UAE-owned Manchester City, at a time that soccer has emerged as a battlefield in the Gulf rift. So would a possible Saudi acquisition of Manchester United.

The soccer pitch has been but one venue on which Qatar has been scoring points. Three years into the boycott, Qatar’s detractors – Saud Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — have failed to either force Qatar to accept demands that would have undermined its independence and sovereignty or convince the international community of the legitimacy of their approach.

On the contrary. Qatar is thriving economically, having with the help of Oman, Turkey and Iran compensated for the rupture in logistics caused by the breaking off of airlinks with its detractors and the closure of its only land border with Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, rather than being internationally isolated, Qatar has succeeded in deepening relations with the world’s major powers – the United States, China, Europe, Russia and India – and reinforced its position as mediator or key player in conflicts ranging from Afghanistan to Gaza.

Ironically, Qatar has been able to turn the Gulf crisis into one of the few issues that the world’s rivalling powers agree on and fortify the cul de sac in which its detractors find themselves. Washington, Beijing, Moscow, Brussels and Delhi all want the Gulf crisis resolved but have failed to convince Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that everyone would be best served by a resolution that allows all parties to save face even if it falls far short of the boycotters’ demands.

Those demands reflected a broader Saudi and UAE policy that aims to shape the greater Middle East, stretching from Central Asia to the Horn of Africa, in their mould and aims to force governments to tow a Saudi-UAE line that promotes autocracy, rejects political participation, opposes political Islam and violates human rights.

They boycotters demand that Qatar align its military, political, social and economic policies with those of other Gulf states, shutter its Al Jazeera television network and other Qatar-funded media outlets, end military cooperation with Turkey and close down a Turkish military bases in the country.

In a rebuke of the boycotters who also demanded that Qatar revoke citizenship granted to political refugees from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, the Gulf state, on the third anniversary of the boycott, issued the region’s first asylum law.

The law applies explicitly to human rights defenders; journalists, writers and researchers; political, religious and ethnic minority activists; and former or current officials opposed to their government’s policies who are threatened by persecution.

To be sure, Qatar’s positioning of itself as a defender of human rights has holes in it that make it look like Emmenthaler cheese. Domestically, press freedom is non-existent. The government abruptly in May closed the Doha Centre for Media Freedom after firing its first two directors for taking the organization’s goal literal. As free-wheeling and hard-hitting as Al Jazeera can be in its regional and international reporting, as careful it is not to cover Qatar’s warts or take reporting to wherever the chips fall when it touches on Qatari interests.

It took widespread criticism for Al Jazeera to suspend two journalists and pull a recent seven-minute, Arabic language video it posted to its social media channels that claimed Jews exploit the Holocaust and that Israel is the genocide’s “greatest beneficiary.”

To be fair, the network said the video “contravened its editorial standards” and mandated that all staff participate in a bias and sensitivity training.

The contradiction between Qatar’s advocacy of political change everywhere but at home is rooted on the one hand in the recognition that transition is inevitable, and that Qatar is best served by being in front of the cart rather than behind it and on the other the seemingly naïve belief that the Gulf state itself can remain immune.

And that’s what explains the crisis and the boycotting alliance’s demands.

If Saudi Arabia and the UAE strive to maintain region’s autocratic status quo to the degree possible by suppressing dissent and activism and projecting military as well as soft power, Qatar’s strategy embraces degrees of change but is wholly built on soft power.

It is a strategy that is built on diversified gas sales; maintaining relations with all parties to position Qatar as a go-to-mediator; projecting the Gulf state as a global, cutting-edge sports hub; situating Qatar as a transportation hub connecting continents with a world-class airline; turning the Gulf state into a cultural hub with dazzling museums and arts acquisitions; and investing in Western blue chips and high-profile real estate.

Alongside diplomacy, economics, media and football, gas is increasingly emerging not only as a battlefield but also as a driver of the Gulf crisis. Gas may also prove to be a gauge for the timeframe that Saudi Arabia supported by the UAE has in mind and one reason why they have so far refused to contemplate unconditional negotiations and compromise.

The significance of gas was highlighted when The Wall Street Journal recently disclosed that US officials had prevented Saudi Arabia prior to the declaration of the boycott from invading the Gulf states and seizing Qatar’s operations in the world’s largest gas field.

Taking control of Qatari fields would have not only forced Qatar, the world’s largest liquified natural gas (LNG) exporter, to effectively surrender, but also turned Saudi Arabia into the world’s second-biggest exporter overnight.

If gas proves to be a major driver of the rift, then recently announced Saudi plans to become a major gas player suggest that the dispute could take at least another six years, if not a decade, to resolve.

Amin Nasser, the chief executive of Saudi national oil company Aramco said during the World Economic Forum in January that he expected US$150 billion to be invested in the Saudi gas sector over the next ten years. Mr. Nasser envisioned gas production increasing from 14 billion standard cubic feet to 23 billion by 2030.

Saudi energy minister Khalid al-Falih said in April following the disclosure of recently discovered major reserves in the Red Sea that the kingdom may achieve its goal in five to six years.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia is pushing to become a major gas trader and marketeer, primarily in the spot and short-term markets, by partnering with producers across the globe, including in the Russian Artic.

The kingdom has expressed an interest in acquiring a 30 percent stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic LNG project. Access to the project’s gas would allow Saudi Arabia to negotiate long-term deals and/or sell cargoes on the spot market or increase domestic supply.

Aramco agreed in May to a buy a 25 percent stake in Sempra Energy’s Texas liquefied natural gas terminal in one of the biggest gas deals ever. The deal involves a 20-year agreement under which Saudi Arabia would buy 5 million tons of gas annually from Sempra’s Port Arthur plant, due to begin operations in 2023.

Qatar has partnered with Exxon Mobil Corp. in a $10 billion LNG plant in Texas and has plans to pour a total of US$20 billion into US oil and gas fields.

The Saudi Qatari gas rivalry is also playing out elsewhere.

An Aramco delegation visited Pakistan in April to discuss gas sales as a way of addressing the South Asian country’s energy shortage as it opens its multiple gas fields to foreign investors. Qatar responded by lowering the price of its offering in a move that appeared to give it an advantage despite the kingdom’s increasingly hefty investment in Pakistan.

The prospect that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may only be willing to seek an end to the Gulf crisis once the kingdom has secured its position as a major gas exporter would mean that their boycott of Qatar would still be in place when the Gulf state hosts the World Cup in 2022.

That, more than FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s unsuccessful ploy to persuade Qatar to agree to an expansion of the 2022 tournament from 32 to 48 teams, could prove to be a potential icebreaker.

The tournament puts Qatar’s detractors in a bind. It will be the first time that the world’s foremost mega sporting event is held in the Arab world, a soccer crazy region and even more poignantly, in the boycotting Gulf states’ backyard.

Yet, the boycott bans nationals of the boycotting states from travel to Qatar. Even if fans were to defy the boycott, they would have to go to greater expense and accept more complicated logistics because of the rupture in air and land links.

As a result, boycotting states, in a bid to cater to domestic demand and stave off potential protests, could be forced to breach their own embargo and potentially create an opportunity to put an end to the boycott.

For now, that may seem a long shot and much can change in the coming three years. But if the status quo remains unchanged, soccer could emerge as the Gulf’s best hope.

Author’s note: This story was first published by Global Village Space.

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

Ukraine crisis could produce an unexpected winner: Iran

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 Iran potentially could emerge as an unintended winner in the escalating crisis over Ukraine. That is, if Russian troops cross the Ukrainian border and talks in Vienna to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement fail.

An imposition of tough US and European sanctions in response to any Russian incursion in Ukraine could likely make Russia more inclined to ignore the fallout of violating US sanctions n its dealings with Iran.

By the same token, a failure of the talks between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, the European Union, France, Germany, and Britain to revive the accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program would drive Iran closer to Russia and China in its effort to offset crippling US sanctions.

US and European officials have warned that time is running out on the possibility of reviving the agreement from which the United States under then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018.

The officials said Iran was weeks away from acquiring the know-how and capability to produce enough nuclear fuel for a bomb quickly. That, officials suggested, would mean that a new agreement would have to be negotiated, something Iran has rejected.

No doubt, that was in the back of the minds of Russian and Iranian leaders when they met last week during a visit to Moscow by Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. It was the first meeting between the leaders of Russia and Iran in five years.

To be sure, the road to increased Russian trade, energy cooperation, and military sales would open with harsh newly imposed US sanctions against Russia even if restrictions on Iran would remain in place.

That does not mean that the road would be obstacle-free. Mr. Putin would still have to balance relations with Iran with Russia’s ties to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. 

If anything, Russia’s balancing act, like that of China, has become more complicated without the Ukraine and Vienna variables as Iranian-backed Houthis expand the seven-year-long Yemen war with drone and missile strikes against targets in the UAE.

The Houthis struck as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies started their third joint exercises since 2019 in the northern Indian Ocean. The two events were not related.

“The purpose of this drill is to strengthen security and its foundations in the region, and to expand multilateral cooperation between the three countries to jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future,” Iranian Rear Admiral Mostafa Tajoldini told state tv.

US dithering over its commitments to security in the Gulf has persuaded Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hedge their bets and diversify the nature of their relations with major external powers.

However, a Russia and potentially a China that no longer are worried about the fallout of violating US sanctions against Iran could put Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on notice that the two US rivals may not be more reliable or committed to ensuring security in the Gulf. So far, neither Russia nor China have indicated an interest in stepping into US shoes.

This leaves Saudi Arabia and the UAE with few good choices if Russia feels that US sanctions are no longer an obstacle in its dealings with Iran.

Russia is believed to want the Vienna talks to succeed but at the same time has supported Iranian demands for guarantees that the United States would not walk away from a revived deal like it did in 2018.

Against the backdrop of talk about a proposed 20-year cooperation agreement between the two countries, Russia appears to want to negotiate a free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union that groups Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, alongside Russia.

Iran has signed a similar 25-year cooperation agreement with China that largely remains a statement of intent at best rather than an action plan that is being implemented.

Like in the case of China, the draft agreement with Russia appears to have been an Iranian rather than a Russian initiative. It would demonstrate that Iran is less isolated than the United States would like it to be and that the impact of US sanctions can be softened.

“We have a document on bilateral strategic cooperation, which may determine our future relations for the next 20 years. At any rate, it can explain our prospects,” Mr. Raisi said as he went into his talks with Mr. Putin.

For now, Mr. Raisi’s discussions in Moscow appear to have produced more lofty prospects than concrete deals.

Media speculation that Russia would be willing to sell Iran up to US10 billion in arms, including Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 anti-missile defense systems, appear to have remained just that, speculation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would view the sale to Iran of such weapons as particularly troublesome.

By the same token, Iranian officials, including Finance Minister Ehsan Khanduzi and Oil Minister Javad Owji, spoke of agreements signed during the Moscow visit that would revive a US$5 billion Russian credit line that has been in the pipeline for years and produce unspecified energy projects.

It’s unclear if these are new projects or ones that have been previously discussed and even agreed to, such as the one Lukoil stopped working on in 2018 after the US pulled out… Lukoil was concerned about being targeted by US sanctions,” said international affairs scholar Mark N. Katz.

Theoretically, the dynamics of the Ukraine crisis and the prospects of failed Vienna talks could mean that a long-term Russian Iranian cooperation agreement could get legs quicker than its Chinese Iranian counterpart.

Negotiating with a Russia heavily sanctioned by the United States and Europe in an escalated crisis in Ukraine could level the playing field as both parties, rather than just Iran, would be hampered by Western punitive measures.

Tehran-based Iranian scholar and political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that it was time for the regime to retire the 43-year-old Iranian revolution’s slogan of “neither East nor West.” The slogan is commemorated in a plaque at the Foreign Ministry.

Asserting that Iran has long not adhered to the motto, Mr. Zibakalam suggested that the plaque be removed and stored in the basement of a hardline Tehran newspaper. “It has not been used for a long time and should be taken down,” he tweeted.

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Unified Libya will come only via ballot box, ‘not the gun’-UNSC

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A boy runs in the ruins of the Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli, Libya. © UNICEF/Giovanni Diffidenti

Libya is at a “delicate and fragile juncture in its path to unity and stability”, the UN Political Affairs chief told the Security Council on Monday, urging the international community to remain united in supporting national elections postponed last month. 

In welcoming positive developments across three different tracks of intra-Libyan dialogue, Rosemary A. DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, also recognized the challenges that must be overcome.  

“So many Libyans have told us, the way towards a stable and united Libya is through the ballot box, not the gun”, she said. “We must stand with them”. 

Postponed elections 

Growing polarization among political actors, and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process, led to the postponement of long anticipated elections on 24 December.  

The High National Commission for Elections (HNEC) cited shortcomings in the legal framework along with political and security concerns. To address this, the House of Representatives has established a Roadmap Committee to chart a new political path that defines an elections timetable and process. 

New Special Adviser 

Last month, Stephanie Williams was appointed Special Adviser on Libya, having served as acting Special Representative and head of the UN Support Mission, UNSMIL, last year.  

To date, she has undertaken wide-ranging consultations, including with members of the Government of National Unity (GNU), the High National Election Commission, the House of Representatives, and candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections.  

Oil-rich Libya has descended into multiple crises since the overthrow of former rule Muammar Gadaffi in 2011, which in recent years saw the country divided between rival administrations – a UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in the capital Tripoli, and that of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), led by General Khalifa Haftar.  

Ms. Williams has reiterated that the focus of the political process now, should remain on holding “free, fair, inclusive and credible national elections” in the shortest possible timeframe. 

“In all her meetings, the Special Adviser highlighted the 2.8 million Libyans who have registered to vote”, said Ms. DiCarlo, adding that she also called on everyone to respect the will of the Libyan people and to adhere to the timeline agreed to in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) roadmap, which was endorsed by the Security Council

Welcomed developments 

The UN political affairs chief said ongoing dialogue among political, security and economic actors from across the country was key. 

“We have seen reports of consultations between the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the High State Council, as well as among presidential candidates from western and eastern Libya”, she said.  

On the security track, there have been meetings among various armed groups, as well as the Chief of General Staff of the Western Military Forces under the GNU and the acting General Commander of the rival LNA, with the participation of military chiefs and heads of military departments from both sides.  

Turning to the economy, further steps have been taken to reunify the Central Bank of Libya.  

Moreover, renewed efforts continue to advance national reconciliation based on the principles of transitional justice.  

Security situation 

While the ceasefire has continued to hold, “political uncertainty in the run up to the elections has negatively impacted the overall security situation”, the political chief informed the Council, including in Tripoli. 

It has resulted in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates, she added. 

Similarly, unfulfilled demands made to the GNU by the Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) in western Libya resulted in the shutdown of oil production, causing the National Oil Corporation to declare in December, force majeure – a clause that removes liability for natural and unavoidable catastrophes. 

Following negotiations between the PFG and the GNU, Oil production was restored on 9 January. 

To implement the ceasefire agreement, last month military representatives from opposing sides, called the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), discussed with Turkish and Russian authorities, an Action Plan to gradually withdrawal mercenaries and foreign fighters from the country.     

At the same time, despite serious logistical and security challenges, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) continued its work to establish a ceasefire monitoring hub in Sirte, pending the GNU’s approval on accommodation and office facilities. 

Human rights concerns 

“The human rights situation in Libya remains very worrying”, said Ms. DiCarlo, noting “documented incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation”, which she described as obstacles toward a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections. 

“We are particularly concerned that women and men working to protect and promote women’s rights continued to be targeted by hate speech, defamation and incitement to violence”, she stated. “Some of the disturbing social media posts that posed a threat to the safety and security of these persons were removed after UNSMIL brought them to the attention of social media platforms”.  

Meanwhile, arbitrary detention by State and non-State actors continued across the country, with many detainees subjected to serious rights abuses. 

Migration management  

The situation of migrants and refugees is also highly concerning.  

“Large numbers of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and returned to Libya continue to be detained in inhumane and degrading conditions with restricted humanitarian assistance. Thousands are unaccounted for”, the UN official said.  

Ms. DiCarlo pointed out that hundreds of foreign nationals were expelled from Libya’s eastern and southern borders without due process, with some “placed in extremely vulnerable situations across remote stretches of the Sahara Desert without sufficient food, water, safety and medical care”. 

“The United Nations remains ready to work with Libyan authorities on a long-term national response to migration and refugee management in line with international law to include addressing human rights concerns”, she assured. 

Accountability  

To ensure political progress, Elham Saudi, Co-founder and Director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya, said that all who commit abuses must be held accountable, including mercenaries. 

She noted that without law, revenge would be the only winner.  

Ms. Saudi also maintained the importance of an enabling environment for all rights advocates, especially women, and expressed hopes for a human-rights based approach in how Libya is governed, going forward. 

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Embarking on Libya’s Noble Foray Into the Future

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On Saturday the 22nd of January, activists from across the civil society spectrum in Libya gathered over Zoom with one purpose in mind; publicly declaring their support for the 1951 Libyan Independence Constitution. Despite the political turmoil which has engulfed the country since the Arab Spring began in Tunisia in 2011, a strong civil society movement which supports a return to our historical constitution, has always existed in Libya. These supporters, who represent a significant number of Libyans from across the country, see the restoration of the 1951 constitution as the only way to shape their future.

Libya has been through an immeasurable amount of internationally led initiatives, all aimed at providing Libya with long term “solutions”. Only over the course of the past decade, one can count the UN-brokered Skhirat agreement in December of 2015, the 2017 Paris meeting, the 2018 Palermo conference alongside Mohammed bin Zayed’s Abu Dhabi gathering in February 2019. Followed by Putin and Erdogan’s joint call for a ceasefire in 2020, alongside the first (2020) and second (2021) Berlin conferences alongside UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, each and every one of these efforts amounted to nothing.

The main reason behind these, perhaps well-intentioned but failed attempts, was the simple fact that none of these efforts had any grounding in Libyan history or the support of the Libyan people. Reaching consensus in a society as heavily divided as that of Libya, is a significant challenge. However, placing our faith in our history will undoubtedly provide us with a solution that is closer to the hearts of citizens of our nation and which has the potential to assist in competing factions finally putting their differences aside.

This was the catalyst of Saturday’s meeting which sought to once and for all provide an authentically Libyan solution to the issues which have been plaguing the country for over a decade. The first of these is the preservation of our territorial integrity which has for too long been challenged by foreign actors. It is high time that a long term resolution for our country’s ills is found that ensures the exclusion of foreign elements from shaping the future of our great land.

The second issue the gathering sought to underscore was the need to build an inclusive future for all members of Libyan society. For far too long, our country has excluded citizens of certain political persuasions, cultural backgrounds or those who hold different opinions. Every Libyan deserves equal opportunities, protection of basic rights alongside access to justice. This has been impossible in a country which for so long has lacked a cohesive national identity.

These two issues are indeed intertwined with the third issue which the conference sought to highlight, namely, our demand to return to constitutional legitimacy under the leadership of our Crown Prince Mohammed El Hasan el Rida el Senussi. As the sole heir to the throne of King Idris, passed down through the late Crown Prince Hassan, Prince Mohammad is the leader our country has yearned for.

With leadership claims grounded in historical fact that cannot be upended by foreign or domestic elements, from an ideological standpoint, Prince Mohammad serves as an anchor, offsetting challenges to stability posed by foreign elements. This is strengthened by his position as  the scion of a family which has been in Libya for centuries and founded the Senoussia movement, briniging with it Islam, to the country. Furthermore, historical memories of the reign of King Idris, which saw religious tolerance, gender equality and security for its citizens, reflects the future which Libyan’s would like to see for themselves today.

Bringing together journalists, academics, human rights defenders and political activists, Saturday’s gathering was indeed revolutionary. It would have been unimaginable that such a gathering would even have taken place a mere decade ago. Representing not only themselves, but a wide range of segments of Libyan society, those attending over Zoom broadcasted a powerful message; a rejection of foreign attempts top shape the future of the country alongside a return to historical, constitutional, legitimacy under the leadership of the only man who can help Libya exit the current quagmire and begin its noble foray into the future.

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