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Middle Eastern autocrats sigh relief: the US signals Democracy Summit will not change policy

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The United States has signalled in advance of next week’s Summit for Democracy that it is unlikely to translate lip service to adherence to human rights and democratic values in the Middle East into a policy that demonstrates seriousness and commitment.

In a statement, the State Department said the December 9-10 summit would “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action.” e State Department said that in advance of the summit, it had consulted with government experts, multilateral organisations, and civil society “to solicit bold, practicable ideas” on “defending against authoritarianism,” “promoting respect for human rights,” and fighting corruption.

Of the more than 100 countries alongside civil society and private sector representatives expected to participate in the summit, only Israel is Middle Eastern, and a mere eight are Muslim-majority states. They are Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Albania, Iraq, Kosovo, Niger, and the Maldives.

US President Joe Biden has made the competition between democracy and autocracy a pillar of his administration policy and put it at the core of the United States’ rivalry with China.

We’re in a contest…with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” Mr. Biden said.

Yet, recent statements by the Pentagon and a White House official suggested that, despite the lofty words, US Middle East policy is likely to maintain long-standing support for the region’s autocratic rule in the belief that it will ensure stability.

Popular revolts in the past decade that toppled leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon suggest that putting a lid on the pot was not a solution. That is true even if the achievements of the uprisings were either rolled back by Gulf-supported counter-revolutionary forces or failed to achieve real change.

To be sure, Gulf states have recognized that keeping the pot covered is no longer sufficient. As a result, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have developed plans and policies that cater to youth aspirations with economic and social reforms while repressing political freedoms.

The US appears to be banking on the success of those reforms and regional efforts to manage conflicts so that they don’t spin out of control.

On that basis, the United States maintains a policy that is a far cry from standing up for human rights and democracy. It is a policy that, in practice, does not differ from Chinese and Russian backing of Middle Eastern autocracy. Continuous US public and private references to human rights and democratic values and occasional baby steps like limiting arms sales do not fundamentally alter things.

Neither does the United States’ choice of partners when it comes to responding to popular uprisings and facilitating political transition. In dealing with the revolt in Sudan that in 2019 toppled President Omar al-Bashir and a military coup in October, both the Trump and Biden administration turned to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Israel. While Israel is a democracy, none of the US partners favour democratic solutions to crises of governance.

White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk signalled this in an interview with The National, the UAE’s flagship English-language newspaper, immediately after a security summit in Bahrain that brought together officials from across the globe. US officials led by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sought to use the conference to reassure America’s allies that the United States was not turning its back on ensuring regional security.

Mr. McGurk said that the United States had drawn conclusions from “hard lessons learnt” and was going “back to basics.” Basics, Mr. McGurk said, in a nod primarily to Iran but potentially also to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, entailed dumping “regime change policies.” He said the US would focus on “the basics of building, maintaining, and strengthening our partnerships and alliances” in the Middle East.

Mr. McGurk’s articulation of a back-to-basics policy was reinforced this week with the publication of a summary of the Pentagon’s Global Posture review, suggesting that there would be no significant withdrawal of US forces from the region in Mr. Biden’s initial years in office.

The notion of back to basics resonates with liberals in Washington’s foreign policy elite. Democracy in the Middle East is no longer part of their agenda.

“Instead of using US power to remake the region…policymakers need to embrace the more realistic and realisable goal of establishing and preserving stability,” said Council of Foreign Relations Middle East expert Steven A. Cook even before Mr. Biden took office.” What Washington needs is not a ‘war on terror’ built on visions of regime change, democracy promotion, and ‘winning hearts and minds’ but a realistic approach focused on intelligence gathering, police work, multilateral cooperation and the judicious application of violence when required,” he added.

Mr. Cook went on to say that a realistic US Middle East policy would involve “containing Iran, retooling the fight against terrorism, to reduce its counterproductive side effects, reorganizing military deployments to emphasize the protection of sea-lanes, and downscaling the US-Israeli relationship to reflect Israel’s relative strength.”

The United States is in good company in its failure to put its money where its mouth is regarding human rights and democratic values.

The same can be said for European nations and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority state and democracy. Indonesia projects itself directly and indirectly through Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, as the only major supporter of a moderate interpretation of Islam that embraces human rights without reservations and pluralism and religious tolerance.

That has not stopped Indonesia from allegedly caving into a Saudi threat not to recognize the Indonesian Covid-19 vaccination certificates of pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Media if the Asian state voted for an extension of a United Nations investigation into human rights violations in the almost seven-year-old war in Yemen.

Similarly, Indonesian President Joko Widodo has signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates on cooperation on religious affairs even though the UAE’s version of a moderate but autocratic Islam stands for values that reject freedoms and democracy.

The agreements were part of a much larger package of economic, technological, and public health cooperation fuelled by US$32.7 billion in projected Emirati investments in Indonesia.

The Biden administration’s reluctance, in line with a long list of past US presidents, to do substantially more than pay lip service to the promotion of human rights and democratic values brings to mind Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

President George W. Bush and his then-national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, acknowledged two decades ago that jihadist violence and the 9/11 attacks were partly the results of the United States’ failure to stand up for its values. They bungled, however, their effort to do something about it, as did Barak Obama.

It is not only the Middle East and other regions’ autocracies that pay the price. So do the United States and Europe. Their refusal to integrate their lofty ideals and values into effective policies is increasingly reflected at home in domestic racial, social, and economic fault lines and anti-migrant sentiment that threatens to tear apart the fabric of democracy in its heartland.

The backlash of failing to heed Mr. Einstein’s maxim and recognizing the cost associated with saying one thing and doing another is not just a loss of credibility. The backlash is also the rise of isolationist, authoritarian, xenophobic, racist, and conspiratorial forces that challenge the values in which human rights and democracy are rooted.

That raises the question of whether the time, energy, and money invested in the Summit of Democracy could not have been better invested in fixing problems at home. Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh nailed it by noting that “shoring up democracy is almost entirely domestic work.”

It’s a message that has not been lost on democracy’s adversaries. In what should have been a warning that hollow declaratory events like the Summit of Democracy are not the answer, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told last September’s United Nations General Assembly: “The United States’ hegemonic system has no credibility, inside or outside the country.”

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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MBS policies: Are a threat to the Washington-led Global Order or not?

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In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Amid the Ukraine crisis, Riyadh’s policy towards Washington took a bitter shift. The years-long loyalty of Riyadh towards Washington began to tremble. The Riyadh did not condemn Moscow’s attack on Kyiv, nor it fulfilled the Washington’s expectations by refusing to OPEC Plus’ decision of not increasing the oil production. Whether Moscow’s valiant attempt of opening war against Kyiv, against the will of Washington and NATO, inspired the KSA to take an unpredictable position or Riyadh’s policy shift is owing to its economic and strategic interests, it is quite debatable. This shift not only triggered the minds of researchers worldwide but also caused Biden’s eyebrows to rise. In addition, Riyadh also showed its willingness to join BRICS. In case, Riyadh joins BRICS to ensure its economic and strategic interests; it will challenge the supremacy of petro-dollar, as Saudi Arabia is one of the largest oil exporters. As a whole, it will affect US economy drastically, hence posing serious threats to the Washington-led Global Order.

The wake of the Ukraine war wreaked havoc throughout the globe by destabilizing the global economy. Moreover, this eruption of the conflict increased food and energy insecurity vertically and horizontally. Being a global leader, Washington stepped forward to discourage Moscow and compelled it to withdraw its troops from Kyiv. As a result, Moscow decided to cut off the energy supply to the west. This was just an initiation of the devastation. The clash of interests between Moscow and Washington led to the American use of so-called institutional power, freezing Moscow’s assets. Contrarily, Moscow’s denial to supply energy gave rise to energy insecurity caused by the rising oil and gas prices. Following the primacy doctrine, the global hegemon America took the responsibility to curb this energy insecurity leading to global economic instability. Continuing the long tradition, Washington intended to exercise the influence on the Middle Eastern partners KSA and UAE to supply the energy resources abundantly to fill the energy supply and demand gap.

This time the results were unpredictable, as both of these states defied to enhance their energy production. The unprecedented stance of the Saudi Monarch was to comply with OPEC Plus’ decision to decrease production and increase the prices of energy products. This denial of Riyadh was taken as a serious gesture by Washington. It was perceived that Riyadh’s refusal was a gesture for having goodwill for Russia, consequently creating the situation of “Either you are with us or against us.” In other terms, we may conclude that it was a shift in loyalties.

The whole debate revolves around the question, “Whether Riyadh’s policy has strength to shake the foundations of prevailing Washington led global order or not?” Is the global order a volatile structure to be transformed so easily just by shifting a policy of one state, or does this policy shift have some potential challenges? Before directly coming to the horror impacts of this policy, we should better discuss the worth of energy security and its irrefutable importance for the stable global economic system. If the fuel prices aren’t lowered, it will halt or lower the industrial processes of major industrialized states, including the U.S., consequently drastically affecting the states’ GDP and Per capita income. The vulnerabilities in economic position will surely lead to chaos and internal instability.  

The other facet of this debate, “Whether Riyadh is shifting towards Russia or not? Is Russia capable enough to serve the strategic interests of Riyadh? If not, then what does this policy shift mean?” The ultimate strategic interests of Riyadh always centered on attaining regional hegemony by countering Tehran. At the same time, Moscow is already enjoying better diplomatic ties with Tehran. Moscow will adopt a balanced approach between Riyadh and Tehran. Contrarily, there may be some possibilities of extension of this Riyadh-Moscow cooperation from energy to Economic and military cooperation because Russia is capable of providing the defense technology to Riyadh but unable to provide security in the region. Most importantly, Washington’s institutional hold can be used against Riyadh. These threats still can restrict Riyadh from standing up with Moscow. 

The other important frontier of this debate is KSA’s willingness to join BRICS. As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has played a central role in the Petrodollar system. The country has used its vast oil reserves to maintain a strong influence on the global economy and has largely adhered to the practice of only selling oil in exchange for U.S. dollars. This has helped to ensure the continued global demand for U.S. dollars and has contributed to the dollar’s status as the dominant global currency. One potential outcome is that Saudi Arabia and other BRICS countries could agree to use a different currency for oil trade, such as the Chinese yuan or a new currency specifically for use by BRICS countries. This could lead to a decrease in global demand for U.S. dollars and potentially negatively affect the U.S. economy.

Saudi Arabia’s recent policy shift towards BRICS and Russia has raised questions about the stability of the current global order, particularly about the stability of Petro-dollars and global energy security. While it is debatable whether the shift is motivated by economic or strategic interests, it is clear that this move is a serious concern for the United States and has the potential to impact the contemporary Washington-led global order significantly. It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia will follow through with its potential decision to join the BRICS group and how this will affect its relationships with other countries, particularly Russia and the United States. In a nutshell, major global order changes are expected to occur if Saudi Arabia joins BRICS because it will affect the supremacy of Petro-dollars and consequently lead to the decline in U.S. economic power.

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China’s role to make FIFA 2022 Successful

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Image source: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera

Argentina won the World cup in FIFA Football World Cup held on 20 November – 18 December 2022, in Doha Qatar. FIFA 2022 attracted global attention and since the beginning Foot Ball lovers spared time, either to travel to Qatar and watch the matches or sit in front of TVs and watch live transmission. Big LED screens were used to attract Foot Ball Lovers worldwide. It was really a festival mode in many countries. Analysis, Debates, and Arguments also took place, regarding the expected Champion. French was pretty sure to retain its previous title “World Champion” which they got in FIFA 2018, held in Russia. Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and many other nations were keeping high expectations. Even, though some were guessing that Morocco to be World Champion, strong arguments were given that in FIFA 2018, actually, the French team consisted of many Morocco-origin players, with very few original French. As a matter of fact, France has attracted good players from its former colonies and offered them immigration, and used them in FIFA 2018, to win the Championship. There was certainly a strong argument that if Moroccan can make France World Champion, they can also possess the potential to become World Champions.

The FIFA World Cup, often simply called the World Cup, is an international association football competition contested by the senior men’s national teams of the members of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport’s global governing body. The tournament has been held every four years since the inaugural tournament in 1930, except in 1942 and 1946 when it was not held because of the Second World War. The reigning champions are Argentina, who won their third title at the 2022 tournament. But the history goes back to Prior to the Lipton competition, from 1876 to 1904, games that were considered the “football world championship” were meetings between leading English and Scottish clubs, such as the 1895 game between Sunderland A.F.C. and the Heart of Midlothian F.C., which Sunderland won.

The World Cup is the most prestigious association football tournament in the world, as well as the most widely viewed and followed single sporting event in the world. The viewership of the 2018 World Cup was estimated to be 3.57 billion with an estimated 1.12 billion people watching the final match.

Seventeen countries have hosted the World Cup, most recently Qatar, which hosted the 2022 edition. The 2026 tournament will be jointly hosted by Canada, the United States, and Mexico, which will give Mexico the distinction of being the first country to host games in three World Cups.

It was a matter of great prestige and honor for Qatar to host FIFA 2022. It is the first World Cup held in the Arab world and Muslim world, and the second held entirely in Asia after the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan.

In 2010, the State of Qatar, having been awarded the rights to host the FIFA 2022 World Cup, embarked on remarkable projects in different fields to meet the expectations outlined in the bid document. It is worth mentioning that Qatar has a population of around 3 million and almost 1.5 million people from all over the world have visited FIFA 2022. A country’s preparations to host an international sporting event need serious consideration. Many aspects must have taken care of including but not limited to changing existing legislation, building infrastructure, workers’ rights and immigration, sponsorships, consumer protection, tourism, free trade, intellectual property (IP) rights, accessibility to stadia, taxation, counterfeiting, gambling, betting, to name but a few. Any country has to meet FIFA’s standards to host such an event. Qatar has the option of introducing new laws, amending existing legislation, and have concluded mutually beneficial bilateral agreements with FIFA. Qatar has directly employed more than 26,000 people to prepare the stadiums only. It is pertinent to note that in the wave of massive infrastructural developments legislation was not left out. Countries such as Russia and South Africa enacted new laws to meet FIFA’s standards and Qatar has also done similar measures to satisfy FIFA Organizing Committee.

The successful hosting of FIFA 2022, has projected and elevated Qatar in the global community, especially in the region. Direct and indirect, tangible and intangible impact of such a mega event will elevate Qatar’s stature and benefit its reparation in the days to come.

However, China was behind the success story as there were 10 ways in which China quietly worked behind the scenes at the Qatar World Cup:-

  • World cup buildings got green electricity from a next-generation power station that harvests only solar energy, built by the Power Construction Corporation of China.
  • People were taken where they need to go in a fleet of 888 fully electric buses, made by Yutong Bus, a Chinese firm that has quietly become, as far as I can tell, the world’s biggest bus maker.
  • The main stadium was built by China Railway Construction Corporation: a firm that pops up in Africa and Europe and around the planet, known for its extraordinary ability to create infrastructure in difficult environments.
  • What’s a sporting event without souvenir merchandise? It’s estimated that almost 70 percent of World Cup-related goods, from footballs to flags to jerseys to whistles, came from a single location in China, a southeastern city called Yiwu.
  • A purpose-built extra-large reservoir provided clean drinking water for sports people and fans. It was constructed by the Gezhouba Group, from Wuhan.
  • The stadium-building operations needed huge amounts of heavy equipment, from massive earth movers to cranes – nearly 100 of these were supplied by China’s Sany Heavy Industry, one of the world’s biggest construction firms.
  • The most innovative venue was Qatar’s Stadium 974, which can be disassembled and reassembled anywhere. Designed by a Spanish architect, the 974 building blocks were made by China International Marine Containers.
  • Notice all the LED floodlights everywhere? They came from the Unilumin Group of China.
  • Most people say air conditioners are a must for survival in that environment – and China’s Midea Co supplied 2,500 air cons for the event.
  • Last but not least, this was the most expensive sporting event in world history and needed a lot of support from businesses.
  • Nineteen China firms signed up to sponsor the event.

Definitely, credit goes to China too.

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The Chinese maritime theory of linking and networking the five seas in the Middle East

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What mattered most to China regarding its three joint summits at the end of December 2022 with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and the region, was the deepening of Chinese influence and maritime cooperation, especially with regard to the maritime side, and the emphasis of Chinese think tanks and research on the need for the success of the idea (connecting or networking the five seas in the region), namely are:

(The Mediterranean, Black, Caspian, Persian Gulf and Red Sea)

 And that is with all that it entails politically, economically and socially to unify the efforts of the countries of these seas and achieve their interests, and thus confront the American and Israeli project that aims to fragment the region.

  In this context, the Chinese White Papers document on defense, issued by the Politburo of the ruling Communist Party of China in 2013, stressed the need to develop the “Chinese naval fleet” in order to “defend the near sea and protect the distant seas”.  China’s establishment of a Chinese military base outside its borders for the first time in the state of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, as well as the militarization of the Pakistani port of Gwadar, contributes to the growth of China’s military presence near important sea lanes in the region and the Arabian Gulf, especially in the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab, and nearby  From the Arabian Gulf region.

  The Chinese-Saudi-Gulf summit comes with the expansion of China’s involvement in the Middle East region economically and diplomatically, and China’s attempt to deepen security cooperation.

 Likewise, with China and its intellectual and research centers officially announcing in August 2019, regarding China’s intention to participate in a Gulf maritime security alliance, the beginning of Chinese thinking about a deeper level of military participation in the Middle East.

 Chinese analysts believe that the alliance between China, Russia, the countries of the region, the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in the face of the United States of America is getting stronger and more solid due to the impact of a “cold war” between the West and China, especially with the confirmation of Chinese Foreign Minister “Wang Yi” after the success of his tour in the Middle East.  Clear signs that China intends to shift to play a pivotal role in the affairs of the region.

  We cannot fail to emphasize the “Chinese approach to the Palestinian cause”, and its desire to play a pivotal role in that issue, and it is clear that China is launching something like a counter-diplomatic attack to penetrate the ranks of the allied countries of the United States of America in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, in addition to China’s attempt to form political alliances.  New ones to restrict US alliances in China’s regional and geopolitical strategic scope, such as the Okus nuclear defense agreement between Washington, Australia and Britain, and the Quad Quadruple agreement between the United States of America, India, Australia and Japan, to form a kind of bipolarity between China and Russia in the face of the United States of America.  We find that after the Corona pandemic, the world officially entered the second Cold War, this time between the West and China.

Accordingly, the future US policy in the Middle East is linked to what will be the Chinese behavior in the region.  With China’s attempt to rush to play new security roles, and seek hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa region.

 Likewise, China’s desire to strengthen the security and military aspect of its relations with the countries of the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, by strengthening military cooperation and joint military exercises, and cooperation in combating terrorism, through comprehensive measures to address its roots.  In addition to the Chinese desire to cooperate with countries in the region to confront what is known as non-traditional security threats, such as supporting the region’s efforts to combat piracy, continuing to send warships to the Gulf of Aden and the coast of Somalia to maintain international maritime security, and cooperation in the field of cybersecurity.

  Therefore, the importance of these three joint Chinese-Gulf-Saudi summits is to greatly enhance China’s partnerships, economically, politically and commercially, with the countries of the region, especially in the Gulf region.  Therefore, China today is emerging as a central player through direct investments, partnerships, trade and development.

  Perhaps in the future, China will intervene militarily, or seek to have a security footprint in the region, as it did in the Horn of Africa through its military base in Djibouti.

   Also, given the American influence in the Arab Gulf region, Beijing may change its security policies in the region, if Washington tries to obstruct the flow of oil to China, especially in the event that Chinese energy security or vital shipping lanes used by China are threatened, China may have to expand  Its military naval presence in the Indian Ocean near the Persian Gulf.

  Accordingly, the declared clear Chinese strategy has become to transfer the arena of competition with the United States of America to the Middle East and Africa, in order to avoid strategic competition with Washington and its allies in its immediate regional neighborhood.  By analogy, the expansion of Chinese influence in the Middle East region is a challenge to the existing American hegemony.

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