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Soccer emerges as the Gulf crisis’s potential icebreaker

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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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

Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.

For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.

The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.

No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”  

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

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Middle East

Growing Tensions on the Road to Persian Gulf Security

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The 14 September 2019 drone attacks on oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia have dimmed hope for U.S. – Iranian discussions aimed to reduce tensions and potentially end the armed conflict in Yemen.  Tensions have increased, and oil prices have risen. Certain hopes created by the initiatives of the French President during the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France and the forced departure of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor have lessened.  In fact, the aim of the attacks may have been to lessen the possibility of Iran – U.S. discussions which might have taken place during the start of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later in September.

There is a good deal of speculation as to who fired the drones and from where.  The Ansar Allah Movement (often called the Houthis) has taken credit, but some specialists doubt that they have  the technical knowhow to send drones from Yemen to the targets in Saudi Arabia.  Some speculate that the drones were sent from southern Iraq, possibly by Iranian-backed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces or by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Iraq.  The Revolutionary Guards are nearly “a state within the state” and could take initiatives without orders from the Iranian President or the Foreign Minister.  The Revolutionary Guards could have motivations to prevent fruitful U.S. – Iranian talks at the U.N.  There is also speculation that the drone attacks could be linked to increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates concerning the future of south Yemen where the two countries support different factions.

Whatever the locations from which the drones were launched and whomever pulled the switch, the consequences are clear.  At a time when governments were speaking of a possible path to reduce tensions a “No Exit” sign has been put up near the start of the road.  The road leads to ever-greater tensions which may slip out of the control of governments.  Thus, in addition to the French proposal at the G7, there was an earlier Russian government proposal.

On 23 July 2019, the Russian Government’s “Collective Security for the Persian Gulf Region” was presented in Moscow by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.  The Russian proposal for Collective Security for the Persian Gulf follows closely the procedures which led to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Bogdanov stressed multilateral ism as a mechanism for all involved in the assessment of situations, the decision-making process, and  the implementation of decisions.

It is not clear how the Russian proposal for a Helsinki-type conference will progress.  Russia does not play a leading role in the Middle East today as the USSR did in Europe in the 1970s.  In the lead up to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, non-governmental organizations had played an active role in informal East-West discussions to see what issues were open to negotiations and on what issues progress might be made.  There is a need for such non-governmental efforts today as the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East are growing ever-more tense.

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Algeria’s political impasse: What is next?

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Seven months after a wave of protests began in Algeria; people are still pilling onto the streets of the Algerian capital “Algiers” and other cities nationwide every Friday, reiterating their main demands: the departure of the regime and its symbols and the application of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution stating that the constituent power belongs to the people.

The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm and worldwide admiration since tens of thousands of Algerians first took, peacefully, to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday revolting against former opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country for decades.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, ceding power after 20 years of rule and abandoning his re-election bid. The protesters pressured the authorities, again, to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for April.
Despite the postponement of the election, the public anger continued to mount. Thus, Army chief Gaid Salah emerged as the key powerbroker positioning himself in favor of El Hirak “Popular movement”. He publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets.

Purging Corruption

Gaid Salah responded favorably to protesters’ demands, launching a sweeping anti-graft campaign targeting high-ranked officials that have served the Bouteflika government as well as influential tycoons and businessman.

Two Prime Ministers, namely; Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, the deposed President’s brother Said Bouteflika, tens of ministers, leading industrialists, tycoons, key businessmen, Governors,  and two former Intelligence chiefs, have been remanded in custody for accusations ranging from money laundering, embezzlement, misuse of public money to using officials posts to influence industrial and commercial contracts and granting undue privileges, affiliation to suspicious parties that plot to destabilize the country, plotting against the army, and instigating the opposition to call for a transitional phase before holding any election.

Bouteflika’s resignation puts Abdelkader Bensalah, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker Head of State for 90 days until elections are held. However, elections (scheduled for July 4th) have been postponed for a second time and protesters are demanding his departure.

For his part, Bensalah, and in a bid to calm them, set a Panel of Dialogue and Mediation, composed of political actors, the civil society, the representatives of the trade union organizations and many citizens, with the aim to mediate between public authorities and people  and hold a “serious and responsible” dialogue to reach a national consensus which would help resolve the political crisis in Algeria, through the organization of a fair and transparent presidential election, as soon as possible.”

However, the Panel itself is facing rejection by protesters who are taking into the streets denouncing its formation, saying it does not represent them along other claims, such as the departure of Bensalah, a former head of the upper house of parliament, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who are regarded by them as part of the old guard.

Despite all these arrangements, Algeria is still at an impasse, with two camps facing each other in seemingly irreconcilable positions.

To resolve this stalemate, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Deputy Minister of  National Defence, Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army (ANP), launched, last week, a call, saying that it would be “appropriate” to convene the electorate on the 15th of September, and that the elections could be held within the deadlines set by law.

In my previous speech, “I have spoken about the priority to seriously launch the preparation of the presidential elections within the coming weeks, and today, based on our missions, prerogatives and our compliance with the Constitution and the laws of the Republic as well, I confirm that we regard as appropriate to summon the Electorate on September 15th and the elections can be held within the deadlines provided for by the law. Reasonable and acceptable deadlines which respond to the insistent demand of the people,” said Lieutenant General.

Theoretically, if the head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, summons the electorate on September 15, 2019, as desired by the head of the army, the presidential election should take place before the end of the current year (mid-December).  The Organic Law No. 12-01 2012 (Electoral Code) provides in article 25 that “Subject to the other provisions of this organic law, the electorate shall be convened by presidential decree within three (3) months preceding the date of the elections “.

As a response, Algerian street has expressed its rejection of elections in the current political conditions. According to demonstrators, no election should take place as long as Bouteflika-era officials remain in positions of power.

For their parts, the opposition parties and civil society groups have also demanded the resignation of the government which constitutes “a popular demand”, voicing rejection of the holding of the elections.

The people are determined to pursue the hirak until the establishment of a state of institutions, widening gap between them and the power constrained, for lack of serious candidates, to cancel the vote twice.

According to observers, these presidential elections are unachievable for the moment because the approach advocated by Ahmed Gaid Salah ” requires the revision of some texts of the electoral law to adapt to the requirements of the current situation, and not a total and profound revision that would affect all texts, as claimed by the demonstrators. The partial amendment means the holding of elections basing on the same mode of organization. This is likely to trigger the street again as the popular movement with its magnitude unparalleled in the contemporary history of the country will, likely, sabotage the preparations for this election. The political climate also does not allow the organization of such an election with the absence of total trust between voters and the political class.

However, it is imperative to go quickly to a presidential election provided that it is transparent, where the mediation initiatives of the Panel or other organizations, can lead to a consensual platform far from the occult practices of the past which saw the majority of the population sulking the ballot boxes, reflecting the state-citizen divorce, noting that an independent election monitoring commission and the departure of the Bedoui government are two prerequisites for a transparent presidential election.

This necessarily implies the cleaning up of the electoral file, the creation of an independent election supervision body where neither the executive (the government – especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Walis) nor the deputies/senators and representatives of the current APCs denounced by Al Hirak, will be stakeholders. 

Only a democratically elected legitimate president, elected on the basis of a transparent agenda, pledging to include the legitimate demands of Al Hirak including a new balance of power and the moralization of management (fight against corruption and embezzlement), can amend the constitution and carry out the profound political and economic reforms to bring Algeria to the new world and make it an emerging country: a pivotal country regionally and internationally.

Economically, it is imperative to quickly resolve the political crisis before the end of 2019 or at most the first quarter of 2020, to avoid towards a cessation of payments at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, and prevent Algeria the depletion of its foreign exchange reserves which would culminated in the economic, social, political insecurity.

From our partner Tehran Times

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