“Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” Agreement and the Future of Sino-Iranian Relations
Authors: Yunis Sharifli and Gandab Valiyeva*
Sino-Iranian diplomatic relations have developed in various fields since 1971. During this period, mutual visits played an important role in the development of bilateral cooperation. An example of this is the start of discussions on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement during the visit of the leader of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping to Iran on January 19, 2016. The agreement provides for an investment of about $ 400 billion by China to modernize Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical industries and improve the country’s land and water transport. In recent years, various discussions have been held on the progress of Sino-Iranian relations towards strategic cooperation. When relations are based on strategic partnership, economic relations between states come to the fore and a certain level of trust is established between the parties. On the contrary, in a partnership that we can call a limited partnership, the security interests of the states take precedence over the economic interests, which leads to a limited level of relations (Røseth, 2018). This article will analyze whether Sino-Iranian relations are in line with strategic cooperation in the context of economic, energy, and security factors, and analyze how the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” Agreement will affect the future of relations.
China is important in terms of economic power, and Iran in terms of resources, both globally and regionally. In this regard, the development of Sino-Iranian economic relations has always been important for the two countries. This was due to Iran has rich energy resources and the key role of energy resources in China’s economic development. In addition, China has been a major industrial supplier to Iran which has been under Western sanctions since 2008.
Thus, Western companies began to withdraw from the Iranian market, especially after the financial sanctions imposed on Iran in 2012. In the same year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration announced Iran’s “Look East” policy (Shariatinia və Azizi, 2019). The main goals of this policy were to ease the pressure of Western sanctions, to establish relations with the rising economic powers of East Asia to ensure Iran’s economic development and to attract investment from these countries. During this period, the expansion of relations with Asian countries has always been the most important priority, and China has been at the center of this strategy.
Especially since 2008, when Western countries imposed sanctions on Iran, trade between the two countries has grown rapidly. Thus, between 2010 and 2014, despite sanctions, China’s exports to Iran increased by 29% annually. In terms of trade, the peak of bilateral relations was reached in 2014, when the trade turnover between the two countries amounted to $ 51 billion. After 2014, trade relations declined, despite the gradual lifting of Western sanctions. The reason for this was the gradual normalization of Iran’s relations with the West and the revival of trade relations with European countries in 2015 as a result of the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”. In this context, the trade volume between the two countries decreased in 2016 to $ 30 billion (Teer və Wang, 2018).
Looking at the trade relations between the two countries from a broader perspective, we can see that trade relations are developing to a limited extent, in fact, the development of China-Iran trade relations is developing in parallel with China’s trade relations with other Middle Eastern countries. For example, China’s exports to Iran increased by 16.9% annually between 2004 and 2018. During the same period, China’s exports to Saudi Arabia increased by 16.1% year on year and to Turkey by 16.8%. Another example is China’s $ 18 billion worth of exports to both Iran and Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2018 (Garlick and Havlova, 2020). In this sense, it can be said that China is trying to maintain a balanced relationship with the countries of the Middle East in terms of economic relations in the region.
China’s investment in Iran increased rapidly in 2016-2017 after the gradual lifting of sanctions on Iran, but after the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran in 2018, China’s investment in Iran decreased (Garlick və Havlova, 2020). In terms of foreign direct investment, Sino-Iranian relations are balanced compared to other regional countries. For example, in 2018, China’s foreign direct investment in Iran was $ 3.23 billion, in the UAE – $ 6.23 billion, and in Pakistan – $ 4.24 billion.
The Trump administration’s withdrawal of the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018 and the application of a strategy of maximum pressure have further weakened the development of Iran-China trade relations. In this context, China’s oil exports from Iran fell sharply, which led to a further decline in trade between the two countries. In 2019, trade between the two countries fell to $ 23 billion.
The weakening of economic relations between China and Iran in recent years and the development of economic relations within a limited framework, rather than a strategic one, can be explained by several reasons. The first reason for this limited cooperation is the tough sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States since 2018. In this context, China does not want to further strain the already problematic Sino-US relations by developing relations with Iran. The second reason is the uncertainty of Iran’s long-term economic future and the weak business environment in the country. Chinese companies usually prefer to invest in stable countries. In addition, economic sanctions deter Chinese companies from entering the Iranian market. The third reason is that China’s investment is gradually shifting from developing countries to developed countries that have advanced technologies and extensive industry experience. Finally, another reason for the weakening of trade is China’s diversification of energy imports with different countries.
One of the developed aspects of economic cooperation between Iran and China is energy relations. The main reason for the development of this sector is that Iran has rich energy resources, and China needs energy resources such as oil and gas for economic development (K. Damianova, 2015). Sanctions on Iran limit the development of energy relations between the two countries, but nevertheless, Sino-Iranian energy relations have developed during this period, and China has increased its influence in terms of Iran’s energy resources.
Following the financial sanctions imposed on Iran, Western and US companies have suspended most of their oil and gas projects. This created a new opportunity for China. Although Chinese oil companies have been active in Iran since 2002, a number of upstream and downstream energy projects have been contracted since the sanctions. In total, China’s Sinopec and CNPC companies (China National Petroleum Corporation) have signed a number of projects with Iran to explore and develop oil and gas fields worth $ 14 billion (Davis, Lecky and et al, 2013). One of the fields invested by Chinese companies is the Azadegan field, one of the largest oil fields in Iran. This field is divided into two parts: North and South Azadegan oil fields. China’s CNPC and Iran’s NIOC reached an agreement in 2009 to develop the North and South Azadegan fields. Under the agreement, the project would be implemented in two phases and would produce 260,000 barrels of oil. However, 150,000 barrels of oil were produced in the first stage and 11,000 barrels in the second stage. Iran was forced to cut ties with CNPC in 2014 due to delays in oil production (Khan və Guo, 2017:22). Another important project is the agreement on the development of the Yadavaran oil field, signed in 2007. The first phase of the project produced 25,000 barrels of oil, and the second phase produced 100,000 barrels. It is planned to increase this production to 300,000 barrels in the third stage (Khan və Guo, 2017:21).
In addition to mega-projects, Chinese companies are implementing smaller projects in Iran. CNPC and Iran signed an agreement in 2005 to operate the Kudasht bloc. CNPC has also signed an agreement with the Iranian Oil Company to develop the Masjid-e Suleiman field. China prefers small projects such as the Masjid-e-Suleiman oil field because Chinese companies do not have the technology required for larger and more complex projects, such as North Azadegan and Yadeveran (Dubowitz və Grossman, 2010).
In addition to oil fields, the two countries also cooperate on gas fields. One of Iran’s most important natural gas fields is the South Persian gas field. Following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015, French company Total and China’s company CNPC signed a joint agreement to develop the 11th section of the field. For the development of the field, 50.1% fell to Total, 30% to CNPC and 19.9% to Pars Oil and Gas. However, in 2018, Total officially announced its withdrawal from the contract due to the heavy sanctions imposed on Iran by the Trump administration. CNPC saw this as an opportunity and agreed to buy a 50.1% stake in Total. However, due to increasing international pressure, problems with coordination between the National Iranian Oil Company and CNPC, and the fact that CNPC did not have enough technology to develop the field, the company was forced to withdraw from the natural gas project for the second time. The continuation of the project fell on the Pars Oil and Gas Company.
Along with multilateral cooperation, new relations are being established between the two countries in the field of alternative energy. Cooperation in the field of alternative energy began in 2016 and covers the production of hydropower, wind energy and biomass.
In recent years, although China has become Iran’s largest energy trading partner, Iran ranks seventh in energy supplies to China. In 2020, China imported 542.386 million tons of oil and 101.661 million tons of natural gas from Iran. In 2021, the level of imports increased sharply. However, despite all this, the energy relations between the two countries are limited and there are various problems, which leads to limited cooperation. The main reasons for this situation can be listed as follows.
The first factor here is Washington’s position. Although Iran-China relations are developing, US-China and US-Iran relations have a significant impact on Sino-Iranian relations. The second reason is China’s energy diplomacy. The main aim here is to diversify energy importers and energy routes. Therefore, China is a place of balanced policy in the Middle East region and imports oil and gas from other energy-rich countries in the region. The imposition of sanctions on Iran restricts oil imports from Iran and leads to an increase in imports from other countries in the region. The third reason is that Chinese energy companies are technologically inadequate and inexperienced compared to Western companies. The last reason is that Chinese companies are reluctant to invest in Iran, which is politically and economically unstable and lags behind other countries in the region in terms of a business environment.
China-Iran security cooperation has been developing since the 1980s. The first line in this relationship is arms sales. Thus, since the 1990s, China has always played a strategic role in Iran’s arms imports, and in most cases, the main share in imports was Chinese weapons (Conduit və Akbarzadeh, 2018). China accounted for 75% of Iran’s arms imports in 2005 and 68% in 2012, and this trend continued in 2014 and 2015. Following the gradual lifting of sanctions on Iran in 2016, Iran’s arms imports from China fell sharply, while imports from Russia increased by 100% (Teer and Wang, 2018). This trend continued between 2016-2019.
A comparison of the arms trade between the two countries with that of other countries in the region shows that the Sino-Iranian arms trade is largely limited and that China lags behind in the arms trade with other countries in the region. For example, China exports drones to Iraq, Pakistan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but does not export drones to Iran. In addition, although Iran accounts for the bulk of Iran’s arms imports from China in the region in certain years, there is no agreement on joint arms production between the two countries. In return, China has a joint drone production agreement with Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Given that China does not export drones to Iran and has no joint arms production agreements with Iran, it can be argued that Iran lags behind other countries in the arms trade with China. In recent years, sanctions and Iran’s imports of weapons from Russia have further weakened the arms trade.
In terms of joint military exercises, security relations between the two countries are limited. In the last ten years, China and Iran have held only three joint military exercises. The first of these exercises was held in 2014 against piracy, the second in 2017 in the eastern Strait of Hormuz, and the third in 2019 between China, Russia, and Iran in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. China has held joint military exercises with other Middle Eastern countries since 2010, including Turkey, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, especially in 2017 and 2019, China conducted separate joint military exercises to maintain balance in relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. As can be seen, China is conducting joint military exercises not only with Iran but also with other countries in the region. The goal is to develop China’s relations with the countries of the region, as well as to increase arms exports through military exercises.
In general, as in economic cooperation between the two countries, security cooperation remains limited. It is expected that this trend will continue in the short and medium-term. This situation can be explained by various reasons. The first reason is China’s reluctance to deepen security relations with Iran. Thus, any military conflict between Iran and the United States could bring China face to face with the United States. This is also true of the arms trade, for example, China prefers to be cautious about developing an arms trade with Iran because of the possibility of arms being transferred to Iranian-affiliated groups in the region or using them against the United States or its allies in the region. Second, China is developing relations in the region not only with Iran, but also with other powers in the region, such as Egypt, Israel, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, so it is trying to secure its interests by acting in a balanced way in the region. The deepening and deepening of security relations with Iran towards strategic cooperation could upset China’s balanced relations with other countries in the region, increase China’s perception of threats, and undermine China’s interests in the region. Finally, a highly armed Iran is not in China’s interests, as it could increase Iran’s aggression in the region and threaten the energy security of China and other countries in the region.
Taking all this into account, we can assume that security relations between the two countries are based on limited cooperation and will not develop towards strategic cooperation in the short and medium-term.
The future of bilateral relations in the framework of the “Comprehensive StrategicPartnership“
Negotiations on “Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation” began in 2016. The deal is expected to cost $ 400 billion and allow China to invest in Iran’s oil, gas, petrochemical, and transport sectors. The agreement provides for investment in the development of the ports of Chabahar and Cask, which could play a strategic role in diversifying Iran’s oil exports. Although the agreement provides for investment in various areas, it is doubtful that relations between the two countries will develop towards real strategic cooperation after the signing of this agreement. First of all, the persistence of sanctions on Iran and the strained relations with the United States, which prevents Chinese and Chinese companies from investing in Iran. Second, China’s balanced policy in the Middle East and its pro-Iranian stance on regional cooperation are likely to hurt its regional and global interests. Third, the fact that various projects that have been closed since 2013 are still on paper, and some have been suspended after they begin, raises doubts about the viability of all projects under this new agreement.
As a result, although Sino-Iranian relations have developed over the past 10 years in terms of economic, energy, and security relations, and the two countries have similar views on the international system, the security interests of the two countries, especially China, outweigh its economic interests with Iran. For China, maintaining limited relations with Iran is important in terms of its regional interests in the Middle East, its avoidance of confrontation with the United States, and its ability to prevent the growing perception of the “Chinese threat” in the Middle East. In addition, even if the conservatives, who are more pro-reform than pro-reform, win the June 18, 2021, presidential election in Iran, Sino-Iranian relations are likely to remain limited in the short to medium term for a variety of reasons.
*Gandab Valiyeva has done Bachelor of International Relations at the Azerbaijan State Economic University. She was an intern Center of Analysis of International Relations ( AIR Center). She is an intern Caucasian Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (QAFSAM). Gandab Valiyeva is interested Middle East politics through the internship program, especially Iran’s foreign and energy policy with global and regional powers. Her areas of expertise cover Iran’s foreign policy in the context of South Caucasus and China-Iran relations.
Iranian Strategic Patience: Israel and the Soft Wars
Unfortunately, by tracking the pattern of strategies of many countries based on exaggerated interest in human rights, women’s and democracy issues in Iran (such as the case of the death of the Iranian girl Mahsa Amini), it is no longer possible to ignore the extent of the political, security and cultural exploitation that is taking place. This pattern was adopted previously in Syria, which led to its entry into the quagmire of war since 2011. Therefore, based on the presence of Iran in the same political direction, the same pattern was followed, as the issue is linked primarily to confronting Iran’s rising power.
In principle, there is a strategy that has become clear and known, it is based on cultural backgrounds whose main goal is to fragment societies from within (soft wars). As many countries (Israel in particular) cannot accept at all the reality of Iran’s presence as a major regional power. Where, despite all the sanctions policies pursued to isolate and marginalize Iran during the past 45 years, Iran was able to build its own strength and consolidate its regional influence.
Consequently, those countries that are hostile to Iran have no choice but to move towards exploiting some controversial issues within Iranian society related to human rights, women and democracy, in order to destabilize and weaken it. Accordingly, these countries moved towards the option of soft war through:
- Cultural penetration within Iranian society to tear apart its political structure.
- Supporting terrorist movements, including trying to reproduce a new ISIS.
In this context, there is a lot of evidence confirming these external interventions aimed at plunging Iran into internal conflicts and wars, including but not limited to:
- Seizing arms shipments coming from abroad, which coincided with the internal riots.
- Dismantling terrorist cells that were planning to assassinate figures of Arab origin and carry out terrorist operations in religious places in order to ignite a civil war.
- Arresting terrorist groups linked to foreign intelligence working to smuggle weapons.
Based on these facts, it seems that the main goal is to destroy the societal structure, exaggerate political polarization, and undermine security stability. So that Iran becomes more fragile and subject to division. Practically, the Iranian Republic is facing a hybrid war, whose political goal is based on confronting Iranian influence, where this influence is based on:
– Sticking to the nuclear program.
– Supporting the resistance movements in their confrontation with the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
– Being present in Syria and assisting the Syrian army in its war against terrorist movements.
– Supporting the Houthis in Yemen permanently.
– Consolidate influence in Iraq at all levels.
– Strategic rapprochement with both Russia and China.
Here, it must be recognized that the internal Iranian tensions are a winning card that the United States and Israel have tried to exploit to incite the Iranian people against the regime and clash with it. This new situation or challenge required the Iranian government to adopt a different vision on how to deal with such developments. Where the Iranian government and its security institutions followed a policy of restraint and not taking any provocative step that might lead to a clash. On the contrary, work has been done to:
1- Absorbing the anger of the people and allowing demonstrations.
2- Closely monitoring the security situation and controlling terrorist cells.
3- Revealing to Iranian society the dirty policies of mobilization and media incitement.
4- Evidence that many opposition movements are linked to the agenda of foreign countries.
5- Linking the internal events with the pattern based on the implementation of the Syrian model in Iran.
In this context, and regardless of the extent of the Iranian government’s ability to confront these soft wars, there are very serious political, cultural and internal security challenges that can no longer be ignored, and they require a reconsideration of many policies that were thought to have become axiomatic, including:
– It is no longer possible to pursue a policy that is based on holding Iranian governments accountable and neutralizing the Supreme Leader of the Revolution or the institution of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist(Guardianship of the Faqih), from any responsibility.
– The existence of radical changes linked to security threats, which are no longer confined to the Israeli threat, but have extended to include terrorist movements.
– Increasing the complexities associated with foreign plans that seek to undermine the foundations of the Iranian state.
– Internal crises appear to be the most dangerous, and may lead to making strategic concessions at the level of the nuclear file, the Palestinian cause, and the relationship with Syria and the resistance movements.
In sum, the exaggerated interest in human rights issues comes in the context of the pressures that Iran has been exposed to for decades, to achieve geopolitical goals. However, according to how Iran faced the previous challenges, it seems that it is able to overcome the current difficulties, as the pillars of the state are still solid at all levels.
Furthermore, Iran’s ability to reassess its foreign relations should not be underestimated, based on the equation that Iran’s security is linked to the security of the region. Iran has many options that enhance this equation. There are multidimensional entitlements linked to the Iranian reality, whether in terms of the nuclear program or an increase in the intensity of the collision with Israel or energy security. For example, it is no longer possible to always rely on Iran’s continued restraint in Yemen, the resulting regional and global strategic repercussions, at least on the level of global energy security balances.
Not to mention that if Iran’s strategic patience runs out, it is not at all unlikely that Iran will directly target Israeli interests. Perhaps at some point the confrontation may be direct within occupied Palestine itself. As Iran is fully aware that all attempts to destabilize it cannot be separated at all from the reactions of Israel, which faces an existential danger after losing all its wars with the axis of resistance that is fully and unlimitedly supported by the Iranian Republic.
From our partner RIAC
Resumption of Saudi-Iranian relations, motives, and repercussions on the Middle East region
After 7 years of diplomatic estrangement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, recently announced in a joint statement between Tehran, Riyadh and Beijing that the two countries agreed to turn the page on their differences and normalize relations that have witnessed many tensions over the past decade. The two sides agreed to respect the sovereignty of states and not to interfere in their internal affairs, to resume relations and to reopen their embassies within a maximum period of two months. Tehran and Riyadh also agreed to the activation of their 2001 security cooperation agreement as well as their 1998 general agreement for collaboration in the areas of economy, commerce, business, technology, science, culture, sports, and youth.
The Saudi-Iranian agreement is considered the most important diplomatic event in the region during the past years, if it is adhered to, and it will have many repercussions and indications on the conflict-ridden Middle East region. After numerous unresolved rounds in Iraq and Oman in the years 2021–2022, the announcement of the agreement from Beijing is an unparalleled success for Chinese diplomacy, with significant repercussions on the international and regional arena. The agreement is a change in China’s strategy and foreign policy and an important geopolitical breach in the Gulf region, which will enable it to play an important and major strategic and pivotal role with the decline of the American role, which was the main player in the region.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have grown more aware of the necessity of a diplomatic resolution at this time and are more willing to do so, especially after the entry of China with its comprehensive strategic relations with the two parties, which played a significant role in bringing the parties’ differing points of view closer together following years of protracted negotiations. Each of the parties has its own reasons for reaching this diplomatic agreement. On the Iranian side, Iran is now in need of easing the external international isolation and calmed the situation inside Iran after the deterioration of the situation and the demands of the people to overthrow the regime there. Iran also felt the danger approaching after the halt of nuclear talks with the US side and the constant Israeli threat of a possible military strike to stop its nuclear program, and it is now trying to neutralize the Gulf side and relieve the increasing pressure on it.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia wanted to get out of this dilemma and having any role in the event that Iran will be targeted, which might make it and the rest of the Gulf countries vulnerable to danger. As a result, many Arab and Gulf countries declared their refusal to join any armed alliance against Iran prior to Biden’s visit to the Kingdom.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also recently realized the failure of the United States to fulfill its promises to secure the Kingdom, especially in the wake of the attacks that targeted various important infrastructures in the Kingdom over the past few years. While it was anticipated that Washington would respond forcefully and firmly, Washington removed the Patriot batteries from the Kingdom and demonstrated that it had lost the ability to do anything to stop Iran and its arms in the region, despite the repeated targeting during the administrations of both American parties under Trump and Biden. Therefore, it is possible that Saudi Arabia tried playing it differently and went for a political deal that would spare it the negative effects of the conflict with Iran and the betrayal of its allies.
The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia is clearly deteriorating, and the gap has grown since Riyadh recently refused to increase oil production despite Biden’s visit to the Kingdom, which Washington interprets as Saudi support for Russia in financing its war on Ukraine.
There has also been a discernible shift in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, favoring negotiation over conflict and emphasizing economic growth. As a result, Saudi Arabia has tried to improve ties with the majority of its regional rivals recently, as was the case with Turkey. The political solution with Iran may have been reached after all other options had been exhausted, the most recent of which was direct involvement in Yemen to assist the Yemeni government in its fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis.
It is obvious that there will be many shocks in the days to come. The decline in US-Saudi ties and Saudi Arabia’s openness to China and Russia could change the balance of power in the region and the world. The Iranian-Saudi deal, which was supported by China, was also a serious setback for the United States of America and its ally Israel, which may force the United States to change its foreign policy and rearrange its cards again to restore its influence in the region, after it witnessed a major shift towards East Asia, away from the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf.
The Iranian-Saudi deal, if it is upheld and carried out by both parties, will have great and positive repercussions on the Middle East region, which has been enflamed by conflicts for many years, and will mark the beginning of a political solution to many heated and crisis files in the region such as, the Yemeni, Syrian, and Lebanese crises.
This agreement between the two major regional players in the region will not be the end of all of their conflicts, but it is an important step towards developing common visions for thorny issues in a way that contributes to resolving the internal crises of many countries in the region, which may need a long time to be resolved, due to the lack of trust between the two sides, as well as the existence of International and regional countries which are not satisfied with the agreement and will try hard to thwart it.
The commitment of the two parties to the deal and the impact it will have on the regional and international situation will become more clear in the coming months, as well as whether it will result in stability and security in the region or spark new, more complicated confrontations.
Saudi sports blitz encounters headwinds
Saudi Arabia’s sports blitz is encountering headwinds.
Activists, athletes, and the soccer associations of Australia and New Zealand will celebrate their thwarting of world football body FIFA’s plans to accept Saudi Arabia’s tourism authority as a sponsor of this year’s Women’s World Cup.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino admitted as much at a news conference convened this week shortly after he was re-elected unopposed for a third term, even if he belittled it as “a storm in a teacup.”
Nevertheless, the thwarting sent a rare message that money can buy a lot but not everything.
It constituted the first setback in a string of successful Saudi bids to sponsor or host everything under the sporting sun.
Despite its abominable and worsening human rights record, Saudi Arabia has secured hosting rights for the Asian Football Confederation’s 2027 AFC Cup, the Olympic Council of Asia’s 2029 Asian Winter Games, and the 2034 Asian Games.
A regional human rights group, ALQST for Human Rights, has asserted that at least 47 members of the Howeitat tribe in Saudi Arabia have been arrested for resisting eviction to make way for Neom, a US500 billion futuristic science fiction-like region under development on the Red Sea.
Trojena, a mountainous part of Neom, is where the Winter Games are scheduled to be held.
Saudi Arabia is also bidding to host the 2026 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, and, together with Greece and Egypt, the 2030 World Cup.
The World Cup, like this year’s women’s tournament, is likely to produce headwinds. Not only because it involves not one, but two of the world’s most serious violators of human rights, but also because it will encounter stiff competition.
A joint bid by Morocco, Spain, and Portugal could prove to be a serious challenge on multiple fronts to the Saudi-led effort.
It represents a trans-continental bid that, unlike the Saudi-led proposition, is not designed to circumvent FIFA’s practice of spreading out the tournament across continents.
On its own, Saudi Arabia, as a Middle Eastern state, would not stand a chance so short after last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The circumvention element is borne out by the kingdom’s willingness to fund all of Greece and Egypt’s World Cup-related expenses in exchange for the right to host three-quarters of the tournament’s matches in Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the Moroccan-Spanish-Portuguese bid is likely to spark less controversy than its Saudi-led competitor.
While Qatar demonstrated that human and migrant rights criticism need not put a serious dent in the reputational benefits of hosting a sporting mega-event, it also showed that once a focal point of attention, always a focal point of attention.
Three months after the Qatar World Cup final, one million people signed a petition demanding the Gulf state compensate workers and/or their families who had been injured or died or suffered human rights abuse while working on tournament-related projects.
For Morocco, winning the bid would have special significance. Coming on the back of its darling status during the Qatar World Cup, a win would amount to payback for Saudi opposition to Morocco’s failed effort to secure the 2026 tournament hosting rights.
Saudi Arabia supported the winning US-Canadian-Mexican bid as a way of punishing Morocco for its refusal to back the 3.5-year-long UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The boycott was lifted in early 2021.
Perhaps the strongest headwinds the kingdom’s sports effort has encountered emanate from its controversial creation of LIV Golf, a US$405 million, 14-tournament league, to compete with PGA Tour, the longstanding organizer of the sport’s flagship events.
LIV Golf is “an exercise in public relations. A foreign government’s dollars are being used to enhance that government’s brand and positioning here in the United States,” US Congressman Chip Roy, a Texas Republican, said.
Even worse, circumvention was at the core of a ruling last month by a US federal judge ordering Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), to answer questions and produce evidence as part of the discovery process in a legal battle between LIV and PGA. The PIF funds LIV Golf.
The discovery could cast a spotlight on the secretive fund’s decision-making. The fund’s powerful governor, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, is a Cabinet-level official.
Judge Susan van Keulen’s ruling rejected an attempt by the PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan to evade turning over information connected to the courtroom battle because they allegedly enjoyed sovereign immunity as a state institution and official.
Earlier, US District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman, an avid golfer, ruled that the PIF and Mr. Al-Rumayyan fell under a commercial exception to US laws on sovereign immunity.
Some analysts suggest that Mr. Roy’s comment and the judges’ rulings could lead to LIV Golf being deemed a foreign influence campaign.
This would mean that its employees in the United States would have to register as foreign agents under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA.
The rulings call into question assurances provided in 2021 to England’s Premier League to assuage concerns that the PIF’s acquisition of England’s Newcastle United Football Club would put it under the control of the Saudi state.
The League’s chief executive, Richard Masters, said at the time that the Premier League had been given “legally binding assurances that essentially the state will not be in charge of the club” and that if there was “evidence to the contrary, we can remove the consortium as owners of the club.”
The League has so far refrained from taking the PIF to task in the wake of the US rulings because the Newcastle agreement stipulated that the Saudi state would not exercise control over Newcastle, not that it would not have the ability to do so.
Lawyers for Newcastle said there would only be a case if the Saudi state used its power to intervene in the club’s affairs.
“There’s an unmistakable irony in the sovereign wealth fund declaration emerging in a dispute about another arm of Saudi Arabia’s growing sports empire, but the simple fact is that Saudi sportswashing is affecting numerous sports, and governing bodies need to respond to it far more effectively,” said Peter Frankental, an Amnesty International executive.
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