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Saudi keeps eye on religious ball in global competition for talent

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tamed his kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment and made hyper-nationalism rather than religion a pillar of a new 21st century Saudi identity.

But the first beneficiaries of a recent decree to give citizenship to high-end achievers in law, medicine, science, technology, culture, and sports suggests that Prince Mohammed, in contrast to the kingdom’s main competitors seeking to attract foreign talent that include the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore, sees religion as an equally important realm of competition.

The fact that approximately one-quarter of the 27 new citizens are Sunni as well as Shiite religious figures, some of whom are not resident in Saudi Arabia, telegraphs the significance that Prince Mohammed attributes to the religious soft power rivalry between Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority states as well as a powerful Indonesian civil society movement.

The newly minted citizens include former Bosnian grand mufti Mustafa Ceric; Hussein Daoudi, a Muslim community leader in Sweden; Lebanese Shiite scholar Mohammed al-Husseini known for his hostility towards Iran and advocacy of relations with Israel; Mohammad Nimr El Sammak, secretary-general of Lebanon’s National Islamic Christian Committee for Dialogue; and Lebanese Islam scholar Radwan Nayef al-Sayed.

The bulk of the new citizens are prominent medical doctors and researchers, scientists, engineers, and historians. The religious scholars, with exception of Mr. Al-Husseini, were either signatories of the 2020 Mecca Declaration that called for cultural and religious tolerance and understanding and/or members of the supreme council of the Muslim World League.

Prince Mohammed has turned the League that was until 2015 a prime vehicle for the global spread of Wahhabism, the kingdom’s strand of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam, into his main tool for spreading a message of religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.

It is a message that has translated into the infrastructural and economic development of disadvantaged Shiite areas of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and the appointment of Shiites as CEOs of key companies, including Aramco, the state-owned oil company.

It has not translated into allowing Shiites or anyone else in the kingdom to express themselves freely or criticise the crown prince or government policy. Nor has it prompted the government to allow non-Muslim worship in public or the construction of non-Muslim houses of worship.

The naturalisation of Lebanese and Bosnian religious figures came at a moment when both countries are in crisis.

Saudi Arabia is leading a boycott of corruption-riddled and bankrupt Lebanon in a bid to break the hold of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia, on the country. The boycott has further pushed the one-time middle-income nation towards an abyss with more than half of its population reduced to living below the poverty line.

Bosnia is similarly balancing on the edge of a cliff with Bosnian Serbs threatening to blow the federation of Muslims, Croats, and Serbs apart.

Saudi Arabia is the latest state to announce citizenship or permanent resident programmes designed to attract global talent. Qatar became in 2018 the first Gulf state to do so, followed by Singapore in November of last year and the UAE in January.

Various states like the UAE and Qatar had earlier real-estate driven programmes while Qatar also has a record of granting foreign athletes citizenship to shore up its performance in international tournaments.

Saudi Arabia, in a gimmick that sparked discussion as well as mockery, granted in 2017 citizenship to Sophia, a robot with the form of a woman. Mimicking a human, Sophia told a high-brow investor conference that it was honoured to be the first robot to acquire Saudi nationality.

The symbolism of the gimmick was reinforced by the fact that the robot despite mimicking a woman did not wear a headcover or a garb that covered the shape of its body. Dress codes for women had at the time yet to be significantly liberalissed.

The UAE has taken the lead in liberalising socially in its effort to remain attractive to expatriates, enable it to counter Saudi efforts to force companies that want to do business with the Saudi government to headquarter in the kingdom rather than Dubai and project the country as a beacon of moderation.

Racing ahead of the kingdom, the UAE has in the past year laid out plans that give residents the time to look for a new job if they become unemployed rather than force them to leave the country immediately, allow parents to sponsor their children’s visas until the age of 25, and ease visa restrictions on freelancers, widows, and divorcees.

The Emirates further ended lenient punishments for “honour” killings, lifted a ban on unmarried couples living together and decriminalised alcohol. It also reformed personal laws to enable foreigners living in the Gulf state to follow their home country’s laws on divorce and inheritance, rather than being forced to adhere to Emirati legislation that is based on Islamic law.

Saudi Arabia has yet to adopt similar reforms. In the meantime, the government hopes to strongarm companies by warning that it will not grant contracts to businesses that have failed to move their regional headquarters to the kingdom by 2024.

More than 40 companies are expected to move to Riyadh within the coming year, according to Fahd al-Rasheed, president of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City. Mr. Al-Rasheed hopes to have attracted 480 companies by 2030. Saudi officials are reportedly attempting to persuade some 7,000 foreign companies to set up shop in the kingdom.

The competition for foreign talent raises potentially explosive demographic issues, particularly in Gulf states with a citizen deficit where more than half of the population is made up of non-nationals. To some degree, the Gulf states’ efforts to attract foreign talent addresses questions raised several years ago by Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, an erudite Emirati intellectual and art expert, at a time that discussion of the subject was taboo.

Little surprise that Mr. Al-Qassemi sparked controversy by advocating a rethinking of restrictive Emirati citizenship policies that were likely to exacerbate rather than alleviate long-term problems associated with the demographic deficit. Echoing a sentiment that was gaining traction among internet-savvy youth, Mr. Al-Qassemi noted that foreigners with no rights had, over decades, contributed to the UAE’s success.

“Perhaps it is time to consider a path to citizenship for them that will open the door to entrepreneurs, scientists, academics and other hardworking individuals who have come to support and care for the country as though it was their own,” he argued.

By the same token, controversy erupted when Qatar granted 23 athletes from 17 countries citizenship in advance of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. They constituted the majority of the Gulf state’s 39-member team that won Qatar’s first-ever gold medal. It was a debate that made clear to Qataris that there were no easy solutions to a demographic deficit that could prove unsustainable in the long term.

Qataris worried that naturalised citizens could upset their carefully constructed apple cart. Qatari identity was given a boost when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt declared a diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state that was lifted early this year.

“Even so we have a problem,” said a Qatari businessman. “Handing out citizenship will only make things more difficult.”

One group whose citizenship ship claims should be relatively easily resolved are the Bidoon or Without in Kuwait and some other Gulf states. A stateless nomadic minority that failed to register for citizenship at the time of independence, the Bidoon are denied access to public services and often exist in relative poverty.

A student using the handle @_Itsaja_ on Twitter said she and other students had been expelled last Sunday from Kuwait’s Al-Jahra High School when it was discovered that they were Bidoon. Several students sent almost identical tweets.

“I am a student in my last year of science, I study in the evening, I got 98% last year, and today I am expelled because I am from #البدون (#TheBidoon) even though all the required documents are complete.,” tweeted Adin Shamseddin echoing the exact words tweeted by others.

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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Why Israel should support the establishment of the Middle Corridor

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The governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan earlier in the year signed a declaration on improving the transportation potential throughout the region.   Following that, the Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Georgian and Turkish foreign and transport ministries decided that there should be accelerated transport routes throughout the region, which will include the development of the Middle Corridor, a rail freight and ferry system that will link China with Europe.  

It starts in Southeast Asia and China, and runs through Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey before reaching southern and central Europe.   This will permit trains to travel from China to Europe within 20-25 days, thus helping to reconnect the former Silk Road.  As a former Israeli minister, I believe that Israel should be supportive of the establishment of the Middle Corridor, as it will help to strengthen the Abraham Accords if it is expanded to include Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region.

The entire Middle East region used to be connected by train under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.   There are a number of remnants of this wonderful train system in Israel, including the Ottoman train stations in Beersheba, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.    These Ottoman train stations are historic landmarks from a bygone era when train travel across the Middle East was possible. Ottoman-era trains used to travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem, Haifa and other areas of the former Ottoman Turkish Empire, such as Medina and Damascus.

However, since Israel was declared to be independent, there has been no train travel between Israel and the Arab world.    This was one of many causalities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.     Yet in the wake of the Abraham Accords, this all has the potential to change, as the Arab countries no longer view Israel to be the pariah that they once viewed it to be.   If anything, the Persian Gulf countries now view Israel to be a partner in the struggle against Iran, as do the Turkic republics like Azerbaijan, who greatly disdain how the mullahs are treating the Azerbaijani population in the Islamic Republic.   

Thus, if this Middle Corridor is built, we Israelis can try to connect onto it as well, as it will help to counter the mullahs in Tehran by creating a stronger connection between the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab world.   We can connect to it via Turkey by ferry, and then from there, have another set of trains going from Israel to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and from there, to the United Arab Emirates.   In our times, this is within the realm of the possible.   

This will thus help to greatly expand trade between China, the Turkic republics, Israel and the Arab countries.   Already, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan know that it is necessary to have a train that crosses from Israel to the Gulf states.  They are talking about it and thinking about it.  They are starting with trucks with containers that I arranged, where they bring containers from Abu Dhabi to Israel crossing from Saudi Arabia to Jordan to Haifa.  They could continue from there to Turkey via ship and from there to Europe and anywhere else. 

That means that we can have a train traveling from Europe to Turkey and from there, ships can go to Haifa, and from Haifa to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and from there, to the Gulf states, and they can go back in the opposite direction.    I am in Bulgaria now to check how I can make it more relevant.  After that, a Saudi Arabian agreement with Israel can start with a new train, like what existed in the Ottoman times with the Hijaz Railway.   The people of Hijaz want to make it happen again. This is in the plan of the Abraham Accords Agreement and it will happen in the future.    

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Qatar punctures FIFA’s political fantasy

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If the Qatar World Cup proved anything, it’s that sports and politics are inseparable Siamese twins joined at the hip.

Politics popped up at every twist of the World Cup’s road, whether related to the right of freedom of expression of players, sports commentators and fans; anti-government protests in Iran; anti-Israeli sentiment among Qataris and Arabs; a backlash against Western, particularly German, critics of Qatar; or ultra-conservative religious rejection of soccer as a sport.

Qatari efforts to stage manage the intrusion of regional politics ranged from picking and choosing which protests fit its foreign policy agenda to seeking to ensure, where possible, that events elsewhere in the region would not overshadow or inflame passions during the World Cup.

Palestine is a case in point.

Amid escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Mohammad al-Emadi, the Qatari official handling Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip, travelled to the region to ensure that it and Islamic Jihad, another Gaza-based organization, would not respond with rockets to Israeli use of lethal force against Palestinian militants on the West Bank.

Qatar feared that a response to last week’s killing of an Islamic Jihad commander on the West Bank and near-nightly Israeli raids could spark a renewed Israeli intervention in Gaza, already crippled by a 15-year-long Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

The Qatari pressure puts in a different perspective the Gulf state’s endorsement of expressions of support for the Palestinians during the World Cup in the form of pro-Palestinian flags and T-shirts and a refusal by Qatari and Arab fans to engage with Israeli reporters covering the tournament.

Despite refusing to follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan in recognizing Israel without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Qatar has a long-standing working relationship with the Jewish state that serves the interests of both countries.

The Gulf state, often at Israel’s request, has pumped millions of dollars into paying government salaries in Gaza, providing aid to thousands of families affected by past wars, and funding fuel for the Strip’s power plant as well as infrastructure projects.

Moreover, Qatar became the first Gulf state to put money into Israel when it funded in 2006 a six-million-dollar stadium in the predominantly Israeli Palestinian town of Sakhnin, an investment long before the UAE-led Arab recognition of the Jewish state 14 years later.

Sakhnin and the Doha Stadium are home to Bnei Sakhnin, Israel’s most successful Israeli-Palestinian club.

As a result, allowing expressions of pro-Palestinian sentiment during the World Cup served multiple Qatari purposes.

It gave a release valve to Qataris, a minority in their own country, who were concerned about the impact on their society of the government’s live-and-let-live approach towards soccer fans with very different cultural values visiting their country during the World Cup.

Preventing fans from taking pro-LGBT paraphernalia such as One Love and rainbow-coloured armbands and shirts into stadiums served a similar purpose.

It also allowed Qataris to vent their frustration at perceived double standards in European and American criticism of Qatar’s rejection of LGBT rights, particularly after the German team’s hands-over-mouth gesture in protest against FIFA’s denial of their right to wear pro-LGBT armbands.

In one instance, Qataris wore pro-Palestinian armbands of their own to a match as a protest against the donning of a pro-LGBT One Love band by German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, who attended the game.

Expressions of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli sentiment also suggested that Qatar’s refusal to recognise Israel was more in line with Arab public opinion than efforts to project the UAE-led recognition of the Jewish state as genuinely popular and indicative of a drop in support for the Palestinian cause.

If anything, recent polls show that public support for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel had fallen across the Arab and Muslim world, including in countries that normalized their ties to the Jewish state.

In Bahrain, 20 per cent of the population supports the accords, compared with 45 per cent in 2020, according to a Washington Institute for Near East Policy poll in July. Support in Saudi Arabia fell from 41 to 19 per cent. Even in the UAE, where normalisation had the greatest impact, support dropped to 25 per cent this year from 47 per cent in 2020.

For Qatari World Cup managers, Palestine was low-hanging fruit. Protest against the government in Tehran was a far trickier challenge.

A regional behemoth, Iran is a partner as well as a potential threat with which Qatar shares the world’s largest offshore gas field.

Maintaining relations with Iran has allowed Qatar, at times, to be a background mediator with the United States on issues like the moribund talks to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement.

Qatar feared that allowing stadiums to become venues of confrontation between opponents and supporters of the Iranian government could have persuaded Iran to rank the Gulf state, alongside Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, as an instigator of sustained anti-government protests in which security forces have killed hundreds.

As a result, Qatar sought to prevent anti-government banners, T-shirts, and pre-revolution flags from entering stadia. The problem resolved itself when Iran was knocked out of the World Cup in the group stage.

Yet, the larger issue remains. The Qatar World Cup demonstrates that FIFA’s insistence that sports and politics can be separated amounts to a political fantasy.

More concerning than that, it enables FIFA and autocratic World Cup hosts like Qatar to decide what are convenient and inconvenient expressions of politics. That hardly makes for a level playing field, the starting point for any sport.

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The challenges lie ahead Ankara’s decision to normalize relations with Cairo and Damascus

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as they attend reception hosted by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani on the occasion of the opening ceremony of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. [Murat Kula - Anadolu Agency]

Although Egypt and Syria are at the bottom of the list of states with which Turkey intends to reconcile, the 10-year conflict with the two mentioned countries, which is accompanied by conflict and bloodshed in Syria, is on the verge of ending, and Turkey’s relations with Egypt and Syria are returning to normal. 

Of course, the recent progress is due to the efforts of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey; Especially after the negotiators failed to close the last case of incompatibility between the two sides. The process of reconciliation began in 2021, in the city of Al-Ala in Saudi Arabia, and since then, Cairo and Ankara continued to strive and innovate in order to achieve reconciliation and compromise, and finally achieved positive and significant results.

However, the reconciliation between the two states was not at the leadership level; Until Qatar provided the ground for the meeting of Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Doha during the opening ceremony of the World Cup. The sitting of the Secretary General of the United Nations between the presidents of the two countries was not aimed at keeping them away from each other, and it seems that the Egyptians and the Turks had prepared for this occasion a few weeks ago, and the opening ceremony of the World Cup was held as a tribute to the mediation of Qatar, as the appointment was selected.

Regardless of political compliments, the reconciliation of Egypt and Turkey is very important; Because the continuation of tension between the two countries can lead to many risky developments. Relations between Egypt and Turkey became strained after the overthrow of the government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013. At that time, it became clear to political observers that this inconsistency will last for a long time and will not end soon; Especially since the late president of Egypt tried to run his country with the mentality of a one party rule. For this reason, the solidarity of the angry protesters with the security institutions played a central role in changing the situation in this state and marked the end of the Muslim Brotherhood government. Then, the Muslim Brotherhood made Istanbul its alternative capital and began its plans and efforts to return to power from there. This caused a crisis in the relations between Egypt and Turkey, and with the passage of time, the incompatibility between the two states increased.

However, in the past year and a half, the governments of Turkey and Egypt have held several meetings in order to resolve the dispute and end the disputed cases, and they were able to achieve significant successes in terms of security and media. Ankara more or less stopped the activity of the Egyptian opposition in Turkish territory, but the reconciliation between the two sides was not complete and the disagreement over how to manage the Libyan war crisis and the dispute over territorial waters in the Mediterranean remained unresolved.

In the case of Libya, Turkey supports one side of the conflict and Egypt supports the other side. Libya plays a vital role for Egypt in terms of security, and it is an important market for Turkey in terms of economy. In addition, Libya has many debts to pay to Turkey since the Gaddafi government.

On the other hand, after the discovery of gas fields in the Mediterranean waters, which are believed to contain a large amount of energy, there was a dispute between Egypt, Turkey and Greece over territorial waters in the Mediterranean, and the aforementioned states have not been able to find a solution to overcome this challenge.

The issue of ending the tension between Egypt and Turkey is very important, because achieving this goal may help end the war in Libya, and this in itself is reason enough to be optimistic about the current efforts for reconciliation between the two states. However, the price of this reconciliation will be paid by the opposition affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood outside of Egypt.

Of course, the path of reconciliation between Damascus and Ankara is extremely chaotic and risky. It is so difficult to reach the stage of reconciliation between the two states that, according to Erdogan, if he himself goes to Damascus, he will not be able to find a quick solution to end this complex crisis. Turkey and Syria have been fighting indirectly for more than 10 years. In addition, several military powers, including the forces of the Islamic Republic, Russia, the United States, foreign militias, the remnants of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the separatist Kurds of Turkey, and the Syrian armed opposition continue to invade Syria.

Meanwhile, the inability of Damascus to control parts of the Syrian territory has created a power vacuum in different parts of the country. Millions of Syrian refugees live abroad; In addition, millions of other citizens who have been forced to leave their homes have sought refuge in areas far from the war and are still displaced.

Therefore, any solution that is presented to end the crisis should consider the above points. Currently, all sides want the war in Syria to end, but the path to achieving this goal remains elusive.

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