Connect with us

Middle East

UAE nation branding encounters early headwinds

Published

on

For at least the last two decades, the United Arab Emirates, aided by some of the world’s foremost consulting and public affairs companies, has waged one of, if not the Middle East’s most successful nation branding campaign.

The campaign has been supported by cutting edge technological and economic initiatives; a bold and assertive foreign policy backed by the UAE’s financial and military muscle; a degree of economic diversification away from oil; socially liberal policies that make the UAE the desired destination for Arab youth and non-Arab expatriates; embracing values of religious tolerance, and positioning of the Emirates as a key node in global humanitarian aid efforts.

For the longest period, this branding deflected criticism of the UAE’s tarnished domestic human rights record; intrusive surveillance of Emirati and non-Emirati dissident voices, journalists, scholars, and activists in the UAE and elsewhere; criticism of its backing of militias in Libya and Yemen and Russian private military companies in Libya; and its willingness to risk encouraging Islamophobia by lobbying in Europe for a crackdown on non-violent political Islam.

However, a series of setbacks in recent weeks raises the spectre of the UAE’s decades-long, multi-million-dollar campaign fraying at the edges, 15 years after it learnt lessons from a debacle in 2006 when Dubai-owned DP World sought to acquire Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O).

The acquisition sparked controversy on national security grounds in the United States. Many questioned the handover of the management of six major US ports to a Middle Eastern company as part of the takeover. A humiliating debate forced DP World to sell the US portion of the acquisition involving the port management to an American finance and insurance company.

Since then, the 705-member European Parliament, in perhaps the most stinging dent of the UAE’s projection of itself, earlier this month voted 383 to 47 votes on a resolution urging European Union member states and potential international sponsors to boycott next month’s Dubai Expo 2020 “in order to signal their disapproval of the human rights violations in the UAE”.

The non-binding resolution also demanded the immediate release of imprisoned Emirati activists Ahmed Mansoor, Mohammed al-Roken, and Nasser bin Ghaith. It furthermore noted UAE violations of the rights of women, foreign workers and prisoners despite significant progress at least when it comes to women’s rights.

Similarly, the UAE, a year after establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, has, beyond persuading the Jewish state to indefinitely put on hold Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, little to show for its claim that the bold move would advance a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett most recently signalled his disinterest in negotiating a settlement and his opposition to the creation of an independent Palestinian state with his speech this week to the United Nations General Assembly. Mr. Bennet didn’t utter the word Palestine even once and referred to Palestine-related issues only in the context of the threat posed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

Likewise, UAE hopes to export oil to Europe via a leaks-prone Israeli pipeline have hit environment-driven Israeli snags. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s government approved a deal between Israel’s state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company and an Emirati-Israeli consortium to pump UAE oil from the Red Sea port of Eilat to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean from where it would be shipped to Europe.

The project is opposed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, environmental groups, scientists and local residents who fear a repeat of Israel’s largest environmental disaster caused six years ago by a leak in the pipeline. Thousands have signed a petition against the deal and hundreds demonstrated against it last Friday across Israel.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, whose Tel Aviv home was one of 50 venues targeted by protesters, said the government was investigating the deal. “The UAE, the relevant government ministries, the environmental organisations — will want to know that a thorough, deep, serious examination has been carried out before decisions are reached. We will make sure that nobody tries to approve a decision beneath the radar while the examination is going on,” Mr. Lapid said.

The UAE’s image has repeatedly been tarnished by allegations that it has used Israeli software and employed former US intelligence officials to spy on its Emirati and non-Emirati distractors.

Those allegations took on greater significance with the admission to the US Justice Department by three former intelligence operatives that they had carried out hacking operations on behalf of the UAE, the indictment of Thomas J. Barrack, the head of former President Donald J. Trump’s 2016 inaugural committee, on charges of failing to register as a foreign agent on behalf of the UAE, along with new evidence of Emirati spying on dissidents in Britain.

Mr. Barrack’s indictment, according to Bloomberg News, charges that he was tasked by several unidentified top Emirati officials that include Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed; his brother, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, the UAE’s national security adviser; and Ali Mohammed Hammad Al Shamsi, director of the Emirati intelligence service. Bloomberg reported further that the indictment also references Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, but identifies him only as ‘Emirati official 5.’

None of the Emirati officials referenced in the indictment have been charged with any wrongdoing. Mr. Barrack has pleaded not guilty.

The UAE’s human rights record became this week a matter of public discussion in Australia following a documentary by Four Corners, a flagship program of public broadcaster ABC. Focussing on foreign owners of Australian soccer clubs, including Emirati Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, a brother of the UAE crown prince whose franchise acquired Melbourne FC, Four Corners spent half of its 42-minute program questioning the Emirati human rights record, going back at least a decade, as well as its way of doing football business.

Said a European diplomat: “The UAE has enjoyed a surprisingly long period in the sun. The clouds are starting to gather. There are things the UAE can do to head off the clouds, yet there is little indication that the UAE accepts that people’s concerns will not go away. It may be that the UAE believes that those concerns will count for less as China and Russia’s influence expands. That could be true, but so could the opposite.”

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.

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

Saudi religious moderation is as much pr as it is theology

Published

on

Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to earn brownie points in the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power garnered by positioning itself as the beacon of ‘moderate,’ albeit autocratic, Islam.

A resident of Saudi Arabia since he had a fallout with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, Mr. Al-Husseini represents what the kingdom needs to support its claim that its moderate form of Islam is religiously tolerant, inclusive, non-sectarian, pluralistic, and anti-discriminatory.

More than just being a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini is the scion of a select number of Lebanese Shiite families believed to be descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.

Put to the test, it is a billing with as many caveats as affirmatives – a problem encountered by other Gulf states that project themselves as beacons of autocratic interpretations of a moderate strand of the faith.

Even so, Saudi Arabia, despite paying lip service to religious tolerance and pluralism, has, unlike its foremost religious soft power competitors – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia, yet to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.

Similarly, the first batch of 27 newly naturalized citizens appeared not to include non-Muslims. If it did, they were not identified as such in contrast to Mr. Al-Hussein’s whose Shiite faith was clearly stated.

The 27 were naturalized under a recent decree intended to ensure that Saudi Arabia can compete with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Singapore in attracting foreign talent. About a quarter of the new citizens, including Mr. Al-Husseini and Mustafa Ceric, a former Bosnian grand mufti, were religious figures or historians of Saudi Arabia.

In doing so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman linked his economic and social reforms that enhanced women’s rights and catered to youth aspirations to his quest for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. The reforms involved tangible social and economic change. Still, they refrained from adapting the ultra-conservative, supremacist theology that underlined the founding of the kingdom and its existence until the rise of King Salman and his son, the crown prince, in 2015.

Prince Mohammed’s notion of ‘moderate’ Islam is socially liberal but politically autocratic. It calls for absolute obedience to the ruler in a deal that replaces the kingdom’s long-standing social contract in which the citizenry exchanged surrender of political rights for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The new arrangement expands social rights and economic opportunity at the price of a curtailed welfare state as well as the loss of political freedoms, including freedoms of expression, media, and association.

A series of recent op-eds in Saudi media written by pundits rather than clerics seemingly with the endorsement, if not encouragement of the crown prince or his aides, called for top-down Martin Luther-like religious reforms that would introduce rational and scientific thinking, promote tolerance, and eradicate extremism.

Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, general manager of the state-controlled Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath television networks, spelled out the top-down process of religious reform that would be led by the crown prince even though the writer stopped short of identifying him by name.

“There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam’ is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research, which helped their ideas spread and prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them,” Mr. Al-Muhaini said.

Messrs. Al-Husseini and Ceric represent what Saudi Arabia would like the Muslim and non-Muslim world to take home from their naturalization.

A religious scholar, Mr. Ceric raised funds in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Malaysia during the Bosnian war in the 1990s and defended issues close to Saudi Arabia’s heart even if his own views are more liberal.

Mr. Ceric argued, for example, that opposition to Wahhabism, the kingdom’s austere interpretation of Islam that has been modified since King Salman came to power, amounted to Islamophobia even if the cleric favoured Bosnia’s more liberal Islamic tradition. The cleric also opposed stripping foreign fighters, including Saudis, of Bosnian citizenship, granted them for their support during the war.

To Saudi Arabia’s advantage, Mr. Ceric continues to be a voice of Muslim moderation as well as proof that Islam is as much part of the West as it is part of the East and the hard to defend suggestion that being a liberal does not by definition entail opposition to ultra-conservatism.

Referring to the fact that he is a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini said in response to his naturalisation by a country that was created based on an ultra-conservative strand of Islam that sees Shiites as heretics: “The glowing truth that cannot be contested is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open to everyone…and does not look at dimensions of…a sectarian type.”

Beyond being a Shiite Muslim cleric, Mr. Al-Husseini is to have been a Hezbollah insider. A one-time proponent of resistance against Israel, Mr. Al-Husseini reportedly broke with Hezbollah as a result of differences over finances.

He associated himself on the back of his newly found opposition to Hezbollah with the Saudi-backed March 14 movement headed by Saad Hariri, a prominent Lebanese Sunni Muslim politician.

As head of the relatively obscure Arabic Islamic Council that favoured inter-faith dialogue, particularly with Jews, Mr. Al-Husseini ticked off another box on the Saudi checklist, particularly given the kingdom’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without a clear and accepted pathway to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While Mr. Al-Husseini’s history fits the Saudi bill, his impact appears to be limited. He made some incidental headlines in 2015 after he used social media to urge Muslims, Jewish, and Christian clerics to downplay religious traditions that call for violence.

Mr. Al-Husseini spoke as the tension between Israel and Lebanon mounted at the time after Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.

Earlier, Mr. Al-Husseini seemingly became the first Arab Shiite religious figure to address Israelis directly and to do so in broken Hebrew.

“We believe that not all Jews are bad [just as] not all Muslims are terrorists. Let us cousins put our conflicts aside and stay away from evil and hatred. Let us unite in peace and love,” Mr. Al-Husseini told an unknown number of Israeli listeners.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s presence on social media pales compared to that of the Muslim World League and its head, Mohammed Al Issa. The League, the one-time vehicle for Saudi funding of Muslim ultra-conservatism worldwide, and its leader, are today the main propagators of Prince Mohammed ’s concept of moderate Islam.

Mr. Al-Husseini’s 47,00 followers on Twitter and 10,200 on Facebook pale against his Saudi counterparts who propagate a message similar to his.

The League has 2.8 million Twitter followers in English and 3.4 million in Arabic in addition to 662,000 in French and 310,00 in Urdu. The League boasts similar numbers on Facebook. The League’s president, Mr. Al-Issa, has 670,000 followers on Twitter and 272,000 on Facebook.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Vienna Talks: US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran

Published

on

Talks between Iran and other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015/Iran Nuclear deal regarding the revival of the deal resumed at Vienna on November 29, 2021 after a hiatus of five months (the talks which began on April 2021 have been stalled since June 2021). The US has not been participating directly in these talks.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi who won the June 2021 election has not been opposed to engaging with other signatories to the JCPOA, including the US, but has repeatedly stated, that Iran would only return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement, if its key demands are addressed favorably, and would give precedence to its national interest.

 EU political director, Enrique Mora sounded optimistic with regard to the resumption of the talks, and while talking to reporters said:

‘I feel positive that we can be doing important things for the next weeks’

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, also the country’s chief nuclear negotiator,  said that the US is adopting a ‘maximum pressure’ approach (referring to economic sanctions) which would not help in achieving any genuine results.

Ali Bagheri Kani’s statement underscores the fact that any significant headway with regard to the Iran nuclear deal is likely to be an uphill task.  Iran has increased its uranium enrichment and uranium stockpile, away above the limits agreed upon during the 2015 agreement, and has also restricted access of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to it’s nuclear program. Tehran has also made it clear, that if the US lifts all economic sanctions, it will get back to full compliance to the agreement of 2015. Tehran is also seeking a guarantee from the US, that in future it would not withdraw from an agreement, as Donald Trump had done.

 The Biden Administration too has been adopting a more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Iran in recent months (Iranian officials have gone to the extent of saying that Biden’s Iran policy is no different from that of Trump). The US seems to be unwilling to remove all sanctions against Iran. US has also been saying that if diplomacy fails it will need to explore other options against Iran and would not refrain from exerting more pressure . On Monday, a US State Department spokesman categorically stated that ‘If Iran demands more or offers less than a mutual return to compliance, these negotiations will not succeed,’.

US-Russia-China trilateral and Iran

In recent weeks, Washington has made efforts to reduce tensions with Beijing and Moscow, sending out a message that it is keen to work with both countries on certain issues – especially Afghanistan, Climate Change and Iran.

Both Moscow and Beijing have adopted a different stance from Washington on the Iran issue. Washington’s decision to host a Democracy Summit (December 9-10, 2021) has not gone down to well with either especially Beijing.

 During a video conversation on November 24, 2021 with Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi not only supported Tehran’s demands with regard to the JCPOA, but also criticized the Summit For Democracy saying that it will only create further divisions globally.  Russia’s Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, also supported Tehran’s demands saying some of them were pertinent. In a newspaper interview he said:

‘For example, they, the Iranian side, want to guarantee, let’s say, in future Americans wouldn’t repeat the same step as they did before.  The Iranian side also needs some guarantees from the European businesses to fulfill and to implement all that contract. It is quite logical’

US President, Joe Biden while seeking to have a working relationship with China and Russia has also been trying to work together with democracies, and also send out a message that democracies can deliver (hours before his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 14, 2021, Biden signed into law an ambitious 1.2 trillion USD infrastructure package). The Summit for Democracy was aimed at greater coordination with other democracies, especially US allies, on important global issues, but it remains to be seen if the Summit will raise tensions between Washington and Beijing and Moscow, and thus indirectly act as an impediment to further progress on talks related to the Iran nuclear deal.

While Biden’s emphasis on democracies working together, and the need to check China’s growing clout is legitimate, it is important that he does not make the same mistakes as Trump and does not compel Iran to become an appendage of China (imposition of further sanctions at a time when Iran’s economy is in the doldrums will only increase the Anti-US sentiment in Iran). It is also important that the US works closely with its allies on the Iran issue. France, Germany and UK should be playing a more pro-active role in the revival of JCPOA and should not be quiet bystanders. Iran on its part also needs to demonstrate flexibility and pragmatism.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Testing the waters: Russia explores reconfiguring Gulf security

Published

on

Russia hopes to blow new life into a proposal for a multilateral security architecture in the Gulf, with the tacit approval of the Biden administration.

If successful, the initiative would help stabilise the region, cement regional efforts to reduce tensions, and potentially prevent war-wracked Yemen from emerging as an Afghanistan on the southern border of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden and at the mouth of the Red Sea.

For now, Vitaly Naumkin, a prominent scholar, academic advisor of the foreign and justice ministries, and head of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, is testing the waters, according to Newsweek, which first reported the move.

Last week, he invited former officials, scholars, and journalists from feuding Middle Eastern nations to a closed-door meeting in Moscow to discuss the region’s multiple disputes and conflicts and ways of preventing them from spinning out of control.

Mr. Naumkin, who is believed to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, co-authored the plan first put forward in 2004. The Russian foreign ministry published a fine-tuned version in 2019.

Russia appears to have timed the revival of its proposal to begin creating a framework to deal with Houthi rebels, seemingly gaining the upper hand against Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s seven-year-long devastating war.

The Iranian-backed rebels appear to be closer to capturing the oil and gas-rich province of Marib after two years of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war. The conquest would pave the way for a Houthi takeover of neighbouring Shabwa, another energy-rich region. It would put the rebels in control of all northern Yemen.

The military advances would significantly enhance the Houthi negotiating position in talks to end the war. They also raise the spectre of splitting Yemen into the north controlled by the Houthis and the south dependent on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The battle for Marib could be a final stand for the possibility of a unified Yemen,” said Yemeni writer and human rights activist Nabil Hetari.

A self-declared independent North Yemen would potentially resemble an Afghanistan sitting on one of the world’s critical chokepoints for the flow of oil and gas. North Yemen would be governed by a nationalist Islamist group that presides over one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, struggles to win international recognition, restore public services, and stabilise a war-ravaged economy while an Al-Qaeda franchise operates in the south.

The Russian initiative also appears geared to take advantage of efforts by Middle Eastern rivals Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran to reduce regional tensions, get a grip on their differences, and ensure that they do not spin out of control.

Russia seems to be exploiting what some describe as paused and others as stalled talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran mediated by Iraq. Iraqi officials insisted that the talks are on hold until a new Iraqi government has been formed following last month’s elections. The discussions focused at least partially on forging agreement on ways to end the Yemen war.

Mr. Naumkin suggested that the Russian initiative offers an opportunity to carve the Middle East out as a region of cooperation as well as competition with the United States in contrast to southeastern Europe and Ukraine, where US-Russian tension is on the rise.

In the Middle East, Russia and the United States “have one common threat, the threat of war. Neither the United States nor Russia is interested in having this war,” Mr. Naumkin told Newsweek.

A State Department spokesperson would not rule out cooperation. “We remain prepared to cooperate with Russia in areas in which the two sides have common interests while opposing Russian policies that go against US interests,” the spokesperson said.

The Russian proposal calls for integrating the US defense umbrella in the Gulf into a collective security structure that would include Russia, China, Europe, and India alongside the United States. The structure would include, not exclude Iran, and would have to extend to Israel and Turkey.

UAE efforts to return Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab, if not the international fold, although not driven by the Russian initiative, would facilitate it if all other things were equal.

Inspired by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the proposal suggests that the new architecture would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.

Russia sees the architecture as enabling the creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolving conflicts across the region and promoting mutual security guarantees.

The plan would further involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British, and French forces and bases in various Gulf states and elsewhere in the Middle East.

It calls for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions.”

In Mr. Naumkin’s reading, Middle Eastern rivals “are fed up with what’s going on” and “afraid of possible war.” Negotiations are their only remaining option.

That seems to drive men like UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, his Saudi counterpart Mohammed bin Salman, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi to reach out to one another in a recent flurry of activity.

“These are talks between autocrats keen to protect their own grip on power and boost their economies: not peace in our time, only within our borders,” cautioned The Economist.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Reports13 mins ago

World trade reaches all-time high, but 2022 outlook ‘uncertain’

Global trade is expected to be worth about $28 trillion this year – an increase of 23 per cent compared...

Tourism4 hours ago

Coronavirus pandemic could cost global tourism $2 trillion this year

The coronavirus pandemic will likely cost the global tourism sector $2 trillion in lost revenue in 2021, the UN’s tourism...

Development8 hours ago

Despite COVID-19 connectivity boost, world’s poorest left far behind 

Some 2.9 billion people still have never used the internet, and 96 per cent live in developing countries, a new UN report has found. According to...

Middle East10 hours ago

Saudi religious moderation is as much pr as it is theology

Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to earn brownie points in...

Finance11 hours ago

How Smart Investing can be a Significant Strategy for Traders

Despite being one of the biggest sources of passive income, the forex market is still unexplored by many. The main...

Finance12 hours ago

Global ICT Excellence Awards rated highly Moscow for the startups ecosystem development

The Government of Moscow won the second place among state structures in the International contest Global ICT Excellence Awards in...

Africa14 hours ago

Q&A: Arguments for Advancing Russia-African Relations

As preparations are underway for the second Russia-Africa summit planned for 2022, African leaders, politicians, academic researchers and experts have...

Trending