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Saudi chairmanship of G20 proves to be mixed blessing

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Saudi Arabia’s chairmanship of the Group of Twenty (G20) is proving to be a mixed blessing.

The country and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saw their chairmanship as an opportunity to showcase the kingdom’s leadership and ability to be a visionary global player. But plans to dazzle the grouping and international community with glamorous events in which officials, experts, analysts and faith representatives would develop proposed cutting-edge solutions for global problems at a time of geopolitical rivalry and jockeying for a new world order had to be shelved as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the worst global economic downturn since World War II.

Lockdowns and other public health safety measures, coupled with the evisceration of air travel, meant that numerous preparatory meetings and brainstorming sessions had to be virtual, replacing glamour, generous hospitality, and organic networking with the sterility of online gatherings. For example, Riyadh had hoped that a high-level interfaith summit in October, a first on Saudi soil, would cement its transition from an austere, inward-looking country that promoted religious ultra-conservatism to one that embraces principles of tolerance, pluralism and freedom of religion. The summit will now have to be held online, although there is a chance that a meeting involving a few prominent non-Muslim religious figures will be held in Saudi Arabia itself.

Prince Mohammed may have seen recognition of Israel following the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as a way of dramatically changing  perceptions of the kingdom in the final walk-up to the G-20 summit. However, Saudi Arabia has so far signalled that it favoured normalization but would not do so prior to Israel resolving its differences with the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution. That decision likely represents King Salman rather than the crown prince’s inclination but could be overturned if Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins the November 2020 US presidential election. In that case, Saudi Arabia may well see recognition of Israel in advance of the G-20 summit as a way to smooth what otherwise threatens to be a troubled relationship with the incoming administration.

Prince Mohammed’s ambitions were also dampened by other problems, some of which were beyond his control and others that were of his own making. The economic downturn and oil price plunge cast a dark shadow over Vision 2030, his bold plan to transform Saudi society and the economy. Uncertainty on multiple fronts, including the outcome of this year’s US presidential election, to be held three weeks before the G20 summit, subtle Chinese and Russian pressure to reduce tensions between the kingdom and Iran in a bid to rejig the Gulf’s security architecture, and multiple regional rivalries and conflicts complicated the projection of Saudi Arabia as a bright star on the international horizon. So did multiple controversies that raised concerns about its human rights record and its adherence to the rule of law.

The United Arab Emirates’ decision to forge diplomatic relations with Israel threw another spanner in the works. It highlighted contradicting demands: Catering to United States President Donald Trump’s political needs, countering significant criticism of the kingdom in America’s corridors of power and hedging bets on the outcome of next month’s US election on the one hand, and  Saudi aspirations for unchallenged leadership of the Muslim world on the other. Following in the UAE’s footsteps would have changed the US landscape from a Saudi perspective, but it would have also exposed it to a wave of criticism from the Muslim world, particularly from its non-Arab constituency.

The absence of an international secretariat offers the rotating chair of the G20 a unique one-year opportunity to shape the global agenda, as well as that of the world’s largest economies. Saudi Arabia’s 2020 chairmanship had the potential to give the kingdom and Prince Mohammed a chance to project themselves as agents of change in a region which, with few exceptions, seemed incapable of liberating itself from the shackles of history, tradition, poor governance, and ingrained animosities and rivalries.

Prince Mohammed initially appeared to have set the stage with his Vision 2030, which envisioned far-reaching social liberalisation and economic diversification: Lifting the ban on women driving; relaxation of gender segregation; the subjugation of the ultra-conservative religious establishment and clipping the wings of the religious police; opening up a modern entertainment industry that featured cinemas, Western-style concerts and other forms of artistic creativity; and the propagation of an undefined moderate interpretation of Islam that promoted tolerance and religious pluralism.

The buzz was reinforced by the prospect of an initial public offering (IPO) of up to 5 per cent of Aramco, the state-owned oil company, privatisation of other assets, including the national airline and utilities, opportunities in multiple other sectors of the economy and liberalisation and deepening of financial markets. Much of that buzz began to fizzle out early on as a result of a  valuation of the company at US$2 trillion imposed by Prince Mohammed against the advice of the oil minister, senior Aramco officials, and foreign advisors. The buzz was also dampened by recognition of legal risks involved in a listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) related to potential 9/11-related legal claims, the NYSE and London Stock Exchange’s transparency requirements, and the kingom’s subsequent decision to list on the Saudi stock exchange.

The repeated postponement of the Aramco IPO as a result of differences over the company’s valuation, queries about corporate governance that would ensure that it would not be required to take on non-core projects at the request of the government, and a reluctance to subject Aramco to submit to transparency and reporting requirements associated with a listing on exchanges in New York, London or Tokyo raised questions in investors’ minds. As a result, the IPO valued the company at US$1.7 trillion, well short of the Crown Prince’s goal of US$2 trillion. Shares were also traded only on the Tadawul, Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange.

The kingdom has also suffered significant reputational damage as a result of the grinding war in Yemen and multiple other issues involving human rights abuse and violations of the rule of law. These included the arrests of powerful members of the ruling Al Saud family and the business community on questionable charges of corruption, creating the perception of a power grab.

Other issues include the detention of dissidents, including activists campaigning for the very reforms implemented by the Crown Prince, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the secretive handling of the judicial aftermath, and the insertion of moles in social media companies such as Twitter. Foreign policy fiascos such as the blockade of Qatar and diplomatic spats with Canada and Germany did nothing for the kingdom’s reputation, either.

As a result  the chairmanship of the G20 constituted a badly needed opportunity for Saudi Arabia, but it has thus far been a missed opportunity, at least where the West – where it counts most – is concerned.

The Crown Prince’s insistence on pushing ahead with flashy big-ticket projects, including Neom, a US$500 billion futuristic smart city on the Red Sea; Qiddiya, billed as the world’s largest entertainment city; and a massive luxury tourism drive has raised questions about his priorities at a time when the kingdom needs to focus on structural economic and financial reforms and further social changes.

The major issues confronting G20 leaders – containing Covid-19 and tackling its effects, including job loss and stymied economic growth – are magnified in Saudi Arabia, which had an unemployment rate of just under 12 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, before the effects of the pandemic were felt. The G20 chairmanship created a stage for Saudi Arabia to put its leadership in tackling issues and producing solutions on display. Job creation and economic diversification are what will define Prince Mohammed’s regency.

To be fair, few, if any, G20 members will be able to boast of having put the crises behind them by the time the summit is held. The stakes for Prince Mohammed were reflected in a rare credible poll of Saudi public opinion. Asked whether the kingdom’s ban on demonstrations like the ones that toppled leaders across the Arab world over the last decade was a good thing, public opinion was split evenly: 48 per cent agreed and exactly the same percentage did not.

Saudi Arabia had also banked on a negotiated end to the Yemen war to restore some of the gloss to its reputation. Those hopes have so far been dashed by failed attempts to agree on a face-saving solution for all parties. The failure has fuelled calls in Western capitals for restrictions on arms sales.

A failed bid by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), for English Premier League team Newcastle United reflected the depths to which its reputation had sunk. The takeover bid was withdrawn after massive pressure was put on the Premier League by human rights groups and others to block the sale.

One significant source of pressure came from the Qatar-owned beIN television network, which is one of the Premier League’s biggest broadcasters. The network has charged for years that the Saudi state was behind a huge effort to pirate its programming It  was vindicated by a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling in June this year. In it, the WTO said Saudi Arabia actively promoted and supported the pirate broadcaster, the curiously-named beoutQ. By doing so, the ruling said, Riyadh had breached its international law obligations on intellectual property rights.

Prince Mohammed had walked away from the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires, months after the Khashoggi murder, confident that he had put the incident behind him. His confidence was based on a high-five from Russian President Vladimir Putin and a business as usual approach by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That may have been true for powers like China, Russia and India, but was a premature conclusion with regard to Western powers, with the exception of the White House, an attitude that was not shared by a far more critical US Congress and in much of Europe.

With barely two months to go until the G20 summit in November, Saudi Arabia still has an opportunity to exploit its chairmanship to polish its image and project itself as not only a regional, but global leader in tackling problems with which the world is grappling, chief of which are containing Covid-19 and battling the resulting economic downturn. To do so, it has to quickly adopt a public diplomacy and communications strategy that allows it to put issues that have severely tarnished its image behind it and put its best foot forward.

There are multiple issues that Saudi Arabia could constructively tackle that would significantly improve its image, including a negotiated end to the Yemen war, the release of political prisoners, greater transparency on the Khashoggi case, and formalisation of ties with Israel. But tackling any of these issues entails significant political risk, making it unlikely that the kingdom will successfully do so prior to the G20 summit.

The problem is further that there is little indication that Prince Mohammed has drawn lessons from the fallout of past actions that have significantly damaged his and the kingdom’s image. So far unsuccessful efforts to negotiate a face-saving exit from the Yemen war may be the exception.

Saudi prosecution of alleged perpetrators of Khashoggi’s killing did little to convince the international community that the kingdom honoured due process and the rule of law. Neither did the continued detention of activists, scholars, clerics, businessmen and members of the ruling family on often seemingly trumped up and arbitrary charges nor the continued arrests that seem primarily designed to tighten Prince Mohammed’s grip on power.

Ultimately, the cost-benefit analysis of Saudi Arabia’s G20 chairmanship, once conducted in retrospect, is complicated by factors that it does not fully control. The nature of Saudi Arabia’s relations with the United States three weeks after it hands over the baton of the chairmanship will depend on who wins the US election, who controls Congress and how it approaches a potential Joe Biden administration.

The stakes for Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed are high. How it handles the final stretch of its G20 chairmanship is likely to influence its relations with Western powers as well as its leverage in any future talks on rejigging the Gulf’s security architecture, which would involve a more multilateral approach, as well as an easing of tensions with Iran.

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 Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan

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As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.

China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.

Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.

As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.

Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.

However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.

In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.

With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.

In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.

Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.

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Gulf security: It’s not all bad news

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Gulf states are in a pickle.

They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.

The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”

Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.

The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.

Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.

The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.

From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.

Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.

Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.

Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.

That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.

Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.

The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.

In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.

“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.

There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.

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Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women

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Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.

The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.

Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.

That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.

The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.

A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.

The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.

The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.

The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.

Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.

The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.

Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.

In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.

Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.

To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.

Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.

It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.

The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.

It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.

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