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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Qatar scores, at least on the soccer pitch

By James M. Dorsey

Qatar won more than a symbolic victory with a decision by European soccer body UEFA to award controversial television network Al Jazeera’s sport franchise, BeIN Spots, the Middle Eastern and North African broadcasting rights for two of soccer’s most prestigious club competitions -- the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League.

The awarding was remarkable given that it came before the first chink appeared in the armour of the seven-week-old UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt had banned Al Jazeera as well as BeIN as part of the boycott.

The ban threatened to deprive fans in the four countries access to broadcasts of the world’s major tournaments to which BeIN holds the regional rights. These include England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the Champions League, the AFC Champions League, the Asian Cup, the CAF Champions League, and the Africa Cup of Nations.

The UAE, in an indication that the hardened frontlines of the Gulf crisis may be softening, lifted days after the awarding the ban on BeIN. It was not immediately clear whether other members of the UAE-Saudi alliance would follow suit. It was also unclear whether Saudi Arabia would push ahead with plans to launch a rival sports broadcasting franchise.

The lifting of the ban on BeIN did not extend to Al Jazeera’s news channels that the UAE-Saudi-led alliance initially demanded should be shuttered. It constituted the second indication in a week that the Gulf crisis may be ever so slowly easing.

Earlier, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash described amendments of Qatar’s anti-terror legislation as "a step in the right direction." The amendments, part of a decree issued by the Gulf state’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, established lists for individuals and entities accused of involvement in terrorist activities and the criteria for inclusion on them.

The decree also amended the legislation to define what constitutes terrorism, terrorist crimes, terrorist entities and funding of terrorism. It was issued days after Qatar and the United States signed an agreement to combat the funding of terrorism, the first such accord with a Gulf state.

The agreement is believed to provide for the stationing of two US Justice Department officials in the Qatari state prosecutor’s office. Under the agreement, Qatar is expected by year’s end to impose travel bans, enforce surveillance, and freeze the assets of individuals with suspected links to terrorism.

While the agreement at first glance appears to go some way to meeting the demands of the UAE-Saudi-led alliance, the devil could prove to be in the details. The fact that the agreement does not define what groups might be included leaves much open to interpretation. Qatar rejects the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s designations, first and foremost among which the Muslim Brotherhood, a group with which the Gulf state has a long-standing strategic relationship.

The lifting of the ban on BeIN, while projected as a goodwill gesture, also served to pre-empt criticism by soccer fans as well as possible punitive measures by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

The AFC alongside world soccer body FIFA’s African affiliate, the Confederation of African Football (CAF), last month in almost identical statements insisted on upholding the separation of politics and football. They called on football stakeholders to adhere to the principles of neutrality and independence in politics as “part of the statutory missions” of FIFA and its affiliates “as well as the obligations of member associations.”

CAF warned Egypt’s two top clubs, arch rivals Al Ahli FC and Al Zamalek SC, that they could be penalized if they went through with a declared boycott of BeIN Sports, in response to a statement by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) supporting Egypt’s participation in the UAE-Saudi-led boycott of Qatar.

The Cairo-based, African group subsequently suspended and imposed a $10,000 fine on Al Ahli coach Hossam El Badry for first refusing to address a news conference at which BeIN reporters were present, then refusing to give BeIN an interview, and finally covering BeIN’s microphone and trying to prevent it from recording the press conference.

CAF has yet to respond to a refusal a week later by Mr. El Badry and Al Ahli players to grant BeIN interviews after the club’s African match against Cameroon's Coton Sport. The players also absented themselves from a post-match news conference in their bid to boycott BeIN.

The decision by the UAE, a driving force of the boycott of Qatar, to lift the ban on BeIN and the apparent softening of positions on both sides of the Gulf divide is likely to make it more difficult for Saudi Arabia and Egypt not to follow the Emirates’ example.

The incidents in Egypt nonetheless suggest that the Gulf crisis will leave deep scars, even if Qatar and its detractors ultimately paper over their differences and end the crisis. The likelihood is that ultimately either Saudi Arabia or the UAE will mount a challenge to Qatar’s commercial grip on the Middle East and North Africa’s sports broadcasting market. It will be both a political and commercial challenge, rooted in a fundamental rift that is likely to play out on the soccer pitch as well as elsewhere long after the Gulf crisis is resolved.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

US moves against Iran raise spectre of wider regional conflict

President Trump visits Saudi Arabia

By James M. Dorsey

US President Donald J. Trump. in a step that could embolden Saudi Arabia to move ahead with plans to destabilize Iran, has instructed White House aides to give him the arguments for withholding certification in October that Iran has complied with its nuclear agreement with world powers.

Mr. Trump, long critical of the agreement that strictly limits the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and requires the president to certify Iranian compliance every three months, has reluctantly done so twice since coming to office in January. At the same time, the president has twice imposed new US sanctions on Iran to penalize it for its development of ballistic missiles. Iran argues that it missile program does not fall under the agreement.

Arguments that Iran has failed to comply with the agreement that lifted crippling international sanctions and opened the door to Iran’s return to the international fold, are likely to focus on allegations that the Islamic republic has failed to comply with the spirit rather than the letter of the accord.

Mr. Trump’s decision to task hard-line White House aides rather than the State Department signalled, according to Foreign Policy, the president’s mounting frustration with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s failure to provide him with the arguments he needed. Foreign Policy quoted Trump administration officials as saying that Mr. Trump wanted options, but had yet to decide whether to de-certify Iran in October.

Critics of the Iran agreement argue that it has enabled Iran since the accord was inked in 2015 to increase its capacity to strike Gulf states with ballistic missiles and support proxies, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq, and rebels in Yemen.

Some critics argue that tearing up the agreement would not solve the problem, but that Iranian compliance with the agreement is not enough. These critics have yet to detail what Mr. Trump could do to use the nuclear agreement to counter Iranian policies.

LobeLog reported that emails, allegedly stemming from a hacked email account of Yousef Al-Otaiba, the high-profile UAE ambassador in Washington, suggested that the UAE and a Washington-based Saudi lobbyist were supporting two US groups, headed by former Senator Joseph Lieberman and former Bush administration officials, that advocate a tougher US policy towards Iran.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran would exhaust the agreement’s mechanisms to oppose any US move to undermine the accord, but warned that “Iran has other options available, including withdrawing from the deal.”

Irrespective of what Mr. Trump decides, his move, much like his statements during a visit to Riyadh in May contributed to the eruption of the Gulf crisis and the UAE-Saud-led boycott of Qatar, could encourage Saudi Arabia to step up its long-standing existential battle with Iran.

Lowering relations with Iran, with whom Qatar shares the world’s largest gas field, was one of the demands initially put forward by the UAE-Saudi-led coalition. Kuwait, the lead mediator in the Gulf crisis and one of the Gulf states that has long balanced its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran, this week expelled the Iranian ambassador and 14 other diplomats for alleged links to a "spy and terror" cell.

Saudi Arabia has felt emboldened by Trump’s hostility towards Iran as well as his focus on combatting terrorism even though the US administration appears to be wracked by policy differences between the president and some of his key aides.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who earlier this month cemented his position in a palace coup, has proven to be a brash 31-year old, willing to take risks to establish the kingdom as the Middle East and North Africa’s dominant power.

Prince Mohammed has in the last year been laying the groundwork for an effort to destabilize Iran by fomenting unrest among the Islamic republic’s restless ethnic minorities. The plans have resonated with some quarters in the Trump administration, populated by officials known for their antipathy towards the Islamic republic even if they differ in their attitudes towards the nuclear agreement.

A memo drafted by Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the UAE-backed, Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, that recently circulated among Trump’s aides concluded that “Iran is susceptible to a strategy of coerced democratization because it lacks popular support and relies on fear to sustain its power. The very structure of the regime invites instability, crisis and possibly collapse.”

The very fact that Mr. Trump is considering denying Iran certification in October irrespective of what he decides, is likely to encourage Prince Mohammed to at the very least further finetune his plan and ensure that the kingdom has the building blocks in place.

Against the backdrop of a history of failed US efforts to destabilize Iran, Prince Mohammed’s plan, if implemented, could have consequences that reverberate across Eurasia. “Destabilizing Iran would be like shaking up a kaleidoscope and hoping to get a Titian. It is far from clear that the outcome would be better than what we have now,” warned Michael Axworthy, a scholar and a former British Foreign Office official who worked on Iran.

Using the Pakistani province of Balochistan, already wracked by nationalist and militant Islamic strife, as a spring plank could, moreover, undermine Pakistani efforts to get a grip on at least some of the violent groups operating in the country and could rekindle sectarian strife.

Balochistan borders on the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan. Militant groups believed to enjoy Saudi backing have long launched cross-border attacks, prompting Iranian counter-attacks against the militants on Pakistani soil. Intelligence sources said that Pakistan had detained in early May a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who was on a recruiting mission in Balochistan.

The US Treasury designated at about the same time Saudi-backed Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab, a militant Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan origin as a specially designated terrorist while he was on a fund-raising tour of the Gulf. Mr. Abu Turab is a leader of Ahl-i-Hadith, a Saudi-supported Pakistani Wahhabi group that operates a string of religious seminaries in Balochistan along the Pakistan-Afghan border.

Mr. Abu Turab is moreover a board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV and heads the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities (Tehrike Tahafaz Haramain Sharifain), whose secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil has also been designated by the Treasury. He serves on Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, a government-appointed advisory body of scholars and laymen established to assist in bringing laws in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Mohammed.

Militants in Pakistan and sources close to them have asserted in recent months that Saudi funds are pouring into religious seminaries in Balochistan that are operated by often banned, virulently anti-Shiite groups.

"The ASWJ is a proscribed organisation, legally but it still arranges rallies in the country and takes part in elections. We do not have any clear policy from the federal government on how to deal with them," a senior Karachi police officer told Geo-tv.

The officer was referring by its initials to Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, one of the groups with a significant presence in Balochistan that is believed to have received funding channelled through Saudi nationals of Baloch origin. The officer was responding to a question about law enforcement’s lack of response to ASWJ’s recent creation of a new fund-raising vehicle, the Al-Nujoom Welfare Foundation.

The Trump administration this week refused to pay Pakistan $300 million as a reimbursement for the cost of its fight against militant groups, some of which are believed to be supported by Pakistani intelligence. The US Defence Department said the funds were being withheld because Pakistan had failed to take “sufficient action” against the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based offshoot of the Afghan Taliban.

Instability in Iran as well as increased violence in Baluchistan would further complicate China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. China is already worried that the Gulf crisis could endanger its crucial energy imports from the region as well as Gulf investment in the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that is slated to fund some One Belt, One Road projects.

Chinese nationals have repeatedly been targeted by militants in Balochistan, a crown jewel of the Chinese project that includes the People’s Republic more than $50 billion investment in what has been dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Prince Mohammed appeared earlier this year appeared to set the stage for an effort to destabilize Iran by declaring that the fight between the two Middle Eastern powers would be fought in the Islamic republic, not the kingdom.

Prince Mohammed did not specify what he had in mind but a Saudi think tank, the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies (AGCIS) that is believed to have his backing, argued in a study in favour of Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran. “Saudis could persuade Pakistan to soften its opposition to any potential Saudi support for the Iranian Baluch... The Arab-Baluch alliance is deeply rooted in the history of the Gulf region and their opposition to Persian domination,” the study concluded.

Saudi Arabia further signalled its support for Iranian dissidents with former intelligence chief and ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal attending for the past two years rallies in Paris organized by the exiled People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a militant left-wing group that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime and traces its roots to resistance against the shah who was toppled in the 1979 revolution. "Your legitimate struggle against the (Iranian) regime will achieve its goal, sooner or later. I, too, want the fall of the regime,” Prince Turki told one of the rallies.

Pointing to what he sees as the writing on the wall, former German foreign minister and vice-chancellor Joschka Fischer warned that “the next chapter in the history of the Middle East will be determined by open, direct confrontation between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for regional predominance. So far, this long-smouldering conflict has been pursued under cover and mostly by proxies… Any direct military confrontation with Iran would, of course, set the region ablaze, greatly surpassing all previous Middle East wars.,” Mr. Fischer said.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Friday, July 21, 2017

How will the Qatar crisis affect internal Palestinian politics? (JMD quoted on Diwan)

Hani Masri | Director-general of Masarat, the Palestinian
Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies

Qatar maintains close ties with Hamas and the Palestinian
Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas, while also hosting
Hamas’ leadership in Doha. In this context, we can understand
the significance of the visit of a Hamas delegation to Cairo a day
after the outbreak of the Gulf crisis, and its agreeing to Egyptian
security conditions. This led to the reopening of the Rafah crossing,
allowing Egyptian goods and fuel to enter Gaza.

Here was a change in the policy of Egypt, which had preferred to
deal with Gaza through the Palestinian Authority. The change
was explained by Egyptian anger at Abbas’ refusal to reintegrate
Mohammad Dahlan—the former head of the Preventive Security
Force in Gaza and now an ally of Egypt and the United Arab
Emirates (UAE)—into Fatah’s Central Committee, and the
Palestinian president’s punitive actions against Gaza, despite
Cairo’s warning that an explosion there could harm Egyptian

Egypt, the UAE, and other states opposing Qatar seek to take
Gaza out of Qatar’s orbit. That explains the coincidence of the
Egyptian agreement with Hamas and the understandings
reached between Hamas and Dahlan, the Islamic movement’s
old enemy, whose implementation could lead to a new
partnership in Gaza and the emergence of a strong alignment
against Abbas. This would deepen Palestinian divisions, with
Dahlan’s return hastening the battle over Abbas’ succession.
Israel would be the biggest beneficiary. It would exploit
Palestinian divisions to claim that there is no Palestinian
partner, thus implementing its plan to liquidate the
Palestinian cause.

Nathan Brown | Non-resident senior fellow in the
Carnegie Middle East program, professor of political science
and international affairs at George Washington University,
and co-author of the recent Carnegie report 

It is very old news—dating back to 1948 if not earlier—that Arab
states fight their rivals on the turf of internal Palestinian politics.
However, since the 1960s Palestinian national leaders have built
a set of institutions (the different political factions, the Palestine
National Congress, the Palestinian National Authority) or seized
control of others (the Palestine Liberation Organization) to cope
with such meddling and preserve some ability for the Palestinians
to act for themselves.

The current round of intervention in Palestinian affairs by the
United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, and others is a return to an
era when those institutions were weak or did not exist. It is a
product not only of the new Arab proxy wars but also of 
the decay of Palestinian institutions that now facilitate rather
than resist such meddling. Hamas and the Palestinian National
Authority, the newest elements in the Palestinian institutional
makeup, actively allow others to write Palestine’s future.

However, the current round of intervention is worse for
Palestinians than its counterpart a half-century ago, when outside
actors at least evinced a pretense of commitment to the Palestinian
cause. Today’s meddlers benefit no identifiable Palestinian interest.

James Dorsey | Senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological
University, syndicated columnist, and author of the blog, 

The short answer is that the jury is still out. What is clear is that
Hamas has been left out from the list of organizations drafted by
the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance opposed to Qatar.
This was done as an incentive to push the Islamist group to accept
a power-sharing agreement in the Gaza Strip that would allow the
return of Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of the Preventive
Security Force there. Dahlan is an Abu Dhabi-based arch-rival of
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who has close ties to Abu
Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Egyptian President
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor
Lieberman. Dahlan’s ambition is to succeed Abbas.
Lower salaries for public-sector employees in Gaza paid by Abbas’
Palestinian Authority (PA) and reduced Israeli energy supplies to
the strip at the PA’s behest have caught Hamas in a pincer
movement imposed by Abbas, Israel, Egypt, and the UAE. As a
result, it has been forced to turn for help to Egypt, a UAE and Saudi
ally, and to enter into talks with Dahlan about a power-sharing
agreement. Hamas is caught between a rock and a hard place.
Continued economic pressure undermines its ability to rule.
Surrendering any degree of control over Gaza undermines its
power base. In short, whichever way the Gulf crisis is resolved,
Hamas’ position and standing are likely to be impacted.

The Gulf crisis: A battle of megalomaniacs

Source: The World Bank

By James M. Dorsey

There are fundamental problems in trying to learn lessons or draw conclusions from the Gulf crisis for the role of small states in international relations.

For one, the Gulf crisis is an epic battle between small states rather than simply one small state being targeted by its larger regional detractors. Indeed, it is the United Arab Emirates against Qatar with the UAE rather than Saudi Arabia as the driver in the crisis.

The problem, moreover, in making comparisons is not primarily that both the UAE and Qatar, whose leaders viscerally dislike each other, have massive war chests on the back of their energy exports and therefore are able to wage and sustain the kind of battle that is being fought.

It is that we are dealing with states that are megalomaniac in their ambition and the length to which they are willing to go to ensure the survival of their regimes. Megalomaniac means that their survival strategies go far beyond the normal strategies adopted by small states. Buried in their megalomania is also a measure of naivete, a naïve belief that the consequences of their actions will not come to haunt them.

The UAE and Qatar have adopted strategies that go far beyond the palette of options most small states believe are available to them in the sense that, despite their differing visions of what they think the political lay of the land in the Middle East and North Africa should be, both strive to shape their region in their mould.

In effect, to achieve their goals the UAE and Qatar act not as small states but as big powers, using the kind of tools big powers use: financial muscle, support of opposition forces to stimulate or engineer regime change, military coups, covert wars, and more recently cyberwar.

In fact, the UAE, or what US secretary of defense James Mattis likes to call Little Sparta, is in the mould of a big state establishing foreign military bases and using its commercial strength to control ports across the broader region.

The parameters of the debate about small states in Singapore, sparked by the Gulf crisis, irrespective of what the different positions advocate, are far more reflective of the behaviour of small states. They accept by definition, whether they argue for a more submissive or more activist policy, in word and deed that Singapore is a small state. That shapes discussion of what Singapore can and should do and within what parameters it can and should stand up for its interests; a public discussion that one would not be having were one in either Qatar or the UAE.

Singapore also has, beyond the ability to have a public debate, another advantage. However, one wants to describe the Singapore system of government, it is a system grounded in institutions, the rule of law, and checks and balances.

Singapore like Qatar and the UAE is consumed by a degree of fear. It is a fear about national security, it is a fear grounded in race riots surrounding Singapore’s birth, the perception of living in a volatile neighbourhood, and the fear resulting from the fallout of convoluted transitions that have wracked the Middle East and North Africa as well as Islam. It is not a fear about the survival of the Lee family as Singapore’s foremost political family.

Neither Qatar nor the UAE has Singapore’s degree of institutionalization. Their fears are grounded in the equation of the survival of autocratic ruling families with national security.

Ironically, a silver lining of the Gulf crisis could be over time that this could change with the wave of unprecedented nationalism that the crisis has unleashed in Qatar as Qataris rally around the Al Thani family that accounts for 20 percent of the citizenry in a nation of 300,000 nationals.

Both Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies in which education, in contrast to Singapore, is designed to ensure that citizens have marketable skills and can interact globally rather than develop the skills of critical thinking that could result in criticism.

Both Qatar and the UAE have glimmering and bold skylines that rival that of Singapore. But beyond the trappings of modernity, neither are states that empower their citizens. The limitations of modernity are evident. Criticism of Qatar’s labour regime after it won the 2022 World Cup hosting rights did not resonate among Qataris.

Similarly, Qataris protested when in 2009, some households in the Gulf state hired Saudis as maids, yet never raised their voice about the widespread abuse of Asian maids. Saudi maids were too close to home. If Saudis could be reduced to the status of a maid, so could Qataris one day.

Nonetheless, despite their different attitudes towards political Islam, Qatar and the UAE have both developed societies in which religious scholars have relatively little say and Islamic mores and norms are relatively liberally interpreted.

This, however, is where in terms of survival strategies the communalities between Qatar and the UAE stop. To be sure, Qatar and the UAE share building blocks of soft power creation and the manufacturing of national identity some of which are also employed by Singapore that include foreign military bases; world class airlines that service global hubs; museums that both attract tourism and manufacture a national heritage; high profile investments in blue chips, real estate and the arts, sports and the ambition of becoming centres of excellence in multiple fields.

This is also where the comparison with Singapore or any other small state ends, Qatar and the UAE diverge, and where conflict between the two became inevitable. The UAE views autocracy as the key to regional security and the survival of its autocratic regime, no more so than since 2011 when popular revolts toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

As a result, the UAE has backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt and reportedly Turkey; supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of the boycott of Qatar.

In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a scala of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the popular Arab revolts and supported Islamist forces, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings. 

Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood amounted to aligning itself with forces that were challenging Gulf regimes and that the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia was seeking to suppress. Qatar did so in the naive belief that it could encourage transition everywhere else without the waves of change washing up on its own shores.

Underlying the crisis in the Gulf are issues that go far beyond the place of small states in the international pecking order. The crisis shines a spotlight on key issues that governments have long sought to keep in the dark even though they complicate efforts to combat political violence, advance greater accountability and transparency, and ensure protection of basic human rights.

The crisis makes more difficult the perpetuation of the fact that the international community is unable to agree on a definition of what constitutes terrorism and basic human rights; and it also lays bare the long-muddled distinction between national security and the interests of parties in government - whether autocratic or democratically elected.

There can be little doubt that the diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar was intended to put the idiosyncratic Gulf state on a dog leash. To do so, the two states need to ensure adherence by others to their definitions of national security and terrorism that includes non-violent groups advocating alternative systems of government they view as a threat to the survival of their regimes, as well as those calling for the respect of basic rights including freedom of the press and freedom of expression. In the case of Saudi Arabia, atheists too are defined as terrorists.

The issue of a definition of terrorism is of course a national prerogative but it became acute in the Gulf with the visit of US President Donald J. Trump in May and his focus on combatting political 
violence. The crisis is in part a result of a long-standing failure of the US to get its allies in the region to agree on what constitutes terrorism and what does not.

The irony of the power struggle in the Gulf is that it involves, in more than one way, the pot blaming the kettle. The battle pits autocracies against one another. None of the protagonists advocates a more liberal system of government for its own people.

The crisis in the Gulf, beyond different strategies to build soft power as part of foreign and defense policy, is rooted in the histories of the independence of the region’s states and concepts of national security that are defined by geography.

The focus on the Muslim Brotherhood is crucial to understanding the Gulf crisis because it goes to the core of the region’s power dynamics. For starters, the role the Brotherhood plays in the make-up of Qatar differs fundamentally from that in other Gulf states.

To understand Qatar, one has to take into account that it is a country sandwiched between two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which it views as potential threats. It also is the only country besides the kingdom that adheres to Wahhabism even, if Qataris distinguish between its Wahhabism of the sea as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism of the land.

The Qataris looked at Saudi Arabia from the outset of independence and decided that their state would be everything that the kingdom was not. There would be no power-sharing agreement with religious scholars. In fact, Qatar until today boasts no prominent religious scholars beyond Yusuf Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born naturalized Qatari citizen.

The absence of prominent scholars was in part a reflection of ambivalence among Qatari rulers towards Wahhabism which they viewed as both an opportunity and a threat: on the one hand, it served as a tool to legitimise domestic rule, on the other it was a potential monkey wrench Saudi Arabia could employ to assert control.

Opting to generate a clerical class of its own would have enhanced the threat because Qatar would have been dependent on Saudi clergymen to develop its own. That would have produced a clergy steeped in the kingdom’s Wahhabism and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have advocated a Saudi-style, state-defined form of Islam.

Qatari religious authority is not institutionally vested. Qatar has, for example, no Grand Mufti as does Saudi Arabia and various other Arab nations; it only created a ministry of Islamic Affairs and Endowments 22 years after achieving independence. "Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi -- and all his daughters drive cars and work,” said former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi.

It is against that backdrop that the Brotherhood was woven into the fabric of Qatari society from day one when by design or default Qataris contacted a bookseller in Cairo, a member of the Brotherhood, who helped them import the staffing of their bureaucracy and education system.

Despite Saudi Arabia being the Gulf’s behemoth, the UAE, and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed’s finger prints are all over the Saudi-UAE-led alliance’s demands, particularly with regard to the insistence that Qatar adhere to the designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and the reform if not shuttering, of the controversial Al Jazeera television network.

In effect, the UAE’s efforts to counter Qatar pre-date the first time-round withdrawal of the Saudi, UAE and Bahraini ambassadors in 2014. The UAE and Qatar have been involved in a covert war since 2011 that involved massive investments in public relations and lobbying firms and the establishment of a United Nations accredited network of fake NGOS and human rights groups.

Two factors drive Bin Zayd’s obsession with the Brotherhood and Jazeera: the fact that the Brotherhood had built a substantial power base within the UAE military, and the results of private surveys conducted among Emirati nationals some years ago that showed that the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, that also controls the UAE’s federal government, had low approval ratings.

Distrust of the Brotherhood in Saudi Arabia dates to the emergence of the opposition Sahwa movement in the kingdom and the Brotherhood’s backing of Saddam Hussein in the wake of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The two events prompted then Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud to declare after 9/11 that the group was at the root of all the kingdom’s problems.

The move, however, to outlaw the Brotherhood was Bin Zayed’s initiative. Bin Zayed took advantage of the fact that by 2014 Saudi King Abdullah’s concentration span was approximately two hours. It was at the end of a meeting with Mohammed, who was backed by the head of the Saudi court Khaled al Tuwaijri, that Abdullah agreed to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

It was a decision that was at stake in the power struggle that occurred as Abdullah lay on his death bed and that in the initial phase Mohammed lost. Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, not only replaced all of Bin Zayed’s allies in the Saudi court, but also made overtures to the Brotherhood. Ultimately, Mohammed’s back door into influencing the Saudi court and stiffening Saudi resolve was Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, who in a palace coup recently became crown prince.

One major difference and advantage that Singapore has in its positioning of itself is that Indonesia is not Saudi Arabia even if it may be flexing its muscles somewhat, and Malaysia is not the UAE. Qatar has benefitted in the current crisis from the fact that Saudi Arabia despite its financial muscle and moral authority as the custodian of the two holy cities cannot bank on a lot of empathy in the international community. Qatar also exploits the notion that even though big states bullying small states is a fixture of international relations, the Saudi-UAE campaign has taken that to new heights.

The demands tabled by the anti-Qatar alliance involve the kind of reshaping of policies and curtailing of sovereignty normally imposed by an occupying force. If successful, the diplomatic and economic vanquishing of Qatar would serve as a precedent for more global powers like China and Russia, not to mention the Trump Administration. It would legitimize tendencies already displayed by Russia, which, in effect, continues to adhere to the Soviet-era Brezhnev doctrine of “limited sovereignty” within its sphere of influence, as well as by China in the South China Sea.

Singapore’s conclusions from the Gulf crisis in terms of ensuring that it has the capacity to defend itself and stand up for its national interests are lessons that Qatar too is drawing with the boycott forcing it to diversify its suppliers of essential goods and services, expand the network of ports its vessels can call on, and enhance its ability to produce at least some basic items like dairy products.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to have learnt little from their failure to marshal widespread support for their boycott campaign among Muslim and non-Muslim countries alike.If anything, Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s articulate ambassador to Russia, suggested that the two states may risk weakening their position if a potential effort to force the kingdom and the Emirates’ trading partners to choose between doing business with them and dealing with Qatar, fails. It would be a choice many cannot afford to make, and would likely reject as a matter of principle.

Nonetheless, Muslim nations in Asia would be most vulnerable to a more forceful UAE-Saudi campaign that would be designed to force them to align themselves with the two Gulf states. 
Countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, two of the world’s most populous Muslim states, as well as India, home to the world’s fourth largest Muslim population, fear that Saudi Arabia could threaten to lower their annual quota for the number of pilgrims allowed to perform the hajj and expel millions of migrant workers and expatriates in a bid to force them to join the boycott of Qatar.

The continued inability of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to generate a groundswell of support for their campaign against Qatar suggests that Abu Dhabi and Riyadh need to change their approach. Three options currently present themselves: negotiate a face-saving way out of the crisis, tighten the economic noose around Qatar’s neck, or seek to engineer regime change in Doha.

Despite the jury being out on what the Gulf will look like once the crisis is resolved, what is certain is that the resolution of the crisis will have far-reaching consequences for future norms underlying international relations. No one will be watching the crisis with bigger Argus eyes than small states in the Gulf and beyond, looking for lessons learnt for their own positioning in disputes in geographies near and far—the South China Sea, to name the most obvious example.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Gulf crisis: Fake news shines spotlight on psychological warfare

By James M. Dorsey

Revelations about two incidents of Gulf-related fake news shine a spotlight on a long-standing psychological war between the UAE and Qatar that preceded the Gulf crisis, as well as the two states’ seemingly repeated and competing interventionist efforts to shape the Middle East and North Africa in their mould.

In the latest incident, US intelligence officials asserted that the UAE had orchestrated the hacking in May of Qatari government news and social media sites in order to post incendiary false quotes that were attributed to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia declared their six-week-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar on the basis of the hack despite Qatari denials of the quotes and an investigation involving the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). US intelligence reported that senior UAE officials had approved the hack on May 23, a day before it occurred. The UAE has denied the allegations.

The US allegations came less than 24 hours after Reuters was forced to withdraw a report that six members of the Saudi-UAE-led alliance had asked world soccer body FIFA to deprive Qatar of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights after it turned out to be fake. The story was widely carried by international media and news websites and constituted the basis of an analysis by this author. It was not immediately evident who was responsible for the false report.

The two incidents nevertheless highlight different strategies of the Gulf’s small states, buffeted by huge war chests garnered from energy exports, to project power and shape the world around them, including the current Gulf crisis.

At the core of the differences lie diametrically opposed visions of the future of a region wracked by debilitating power struggles; a convoluted, bloody and painful quest for political change; and a determined and ruthless counterrevolutionary effort to salvage the fundaments of the status quo ante.

The UAE together with Saudi Arabia views autocracy as the key to regional security and the survival of its autocratic regimes and has systematically sought to roll back achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that removed from power the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen who had been in office for decades.

As a result, the UAE has allegedly backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt and reportedly Turkey; supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of the boycott of Qatar.

In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a scala of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the 2011 revolts and supported Islamist forces, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead, that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings. 

Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood amounted to aligning itself with forces who were challenging autocratic Gulf regimes and that the UAE was seeking to suppress, prompting allegations that Qatar was supporting terrorism defined as anything opposed to autocratic rule.

The hacking of the Qatari websites in May and the fake soccer story were but the latest instalment in the psychological war between the two Gulf states. The UAE and Qatar have been waging a covert war in the media and through fake NGOs even before Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain first withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in 2014 in a failed bid to get Qatar to change its policies.

The UAE, the world’s largest spender on lobbying in the United States in 2013, sought to plant anti-Qatar stories in American media. To do so, it employed California-based Camstoll Group LLC that was operated by former high-ranking US Treasury officials who had been responsible for relations with Gulf state and Israel as well as countering funding of terrorism. 

Under the contract, Camstoll would consult on “issues pertaining to illicit financial networks, and developing and implementing strategies to combat illicit financial activity.”  In its registration as a foreign agent, Camstoll reported that it “has conducted outreach to think tanks, business interests, government officials, media, and other leaders in the United States regarding issues related to illicit financial activity.” 

Camstoll’s “public disclosure forms showed a pattern of conversations with journalists who subsequently wrote articles critical of Qatar’s role in terrorist fund-raising,” The New York Times reported.  Camstoll reported multiple conversations with reporters of The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Dow Jones News Wires, Financial Times, Bloomberg News, CNN and the Washington Free Beacon.

In disclosing the UAE’s efforts to influence US media reporting on Qatar, Glenn Greenwald, a reporter for The Intercept, argued that “the point here is not that Qatar is innocent of supporting extremists… The point is that this coordinated media attack on Qatar – using highly paid former U.S. officials and their media allies – is simply a weapon used by the Emirates, Israel, the Saudis and others to advance their agendas… What’s misleading isn’t the claim that Qatar funds extremists but that they do so more than other U.S. allies in the region (a narrative implanted at exactly the time Qatar has become a key target of Israel and the Emirates). Indeed, some of Qatar’s accusers here do the same to at least the same extent, and in the case of the Saudis, far more so.”

Qatar’s response to the media campaign against it was illustrative of its ineptitude prior to the current Gulf crisis in fighting its public relations and public diplomacy battles, clumsiness in developing communication strategies, meek denials of various accusations, and failure to convincingly defend its controversial policies. In a bid to counter its World Cup critics, Qatar contracted Portland Communications founded by Tony Allen, a former adviser to Tony Blair when he was prime minister, according to Britain’s Channel 4 News

The television channel linked Portland to the creation by Alistair Campbell, Blair’s chief communications advisor at Downing Street Number Ten and a former member of Portland’s strategic council, of a soccer blog that attacked Qatar’s detractors. Britain’s Channel 4 reported that the blog projected itself as “truly independent” and claimed to represent “a random bunch of football fans, determined to spark debate.” The broadcaster said the blog amounted to “astro-turfing,” the creation of fake sites that project themselves as grassroots but in effect are operated by corporate interests. The blog stopped publishing after the television report.

Qatar also thought to undermine UAE efforts to tarnish its image with the arrest in 2014 of two British human rights investigators of Nepalese origin who were looking into the conditions of migrant labour. The investigators worked for a Norway-based NGO, the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), that was funded to the tune of €4.2 million a year by anonymous donors believed to be connected to the UAE.

Founded in 2008, GNRD was headed by Loai Mohammed Deeb, a Palestinian-born international lawyer who owned a UAE-based consultancy, and reportedly operated a fake university in Scandinavia, according to veteran Middle East author and journalist Brian Whitaker who took a lead in investigating the group.  GNRD said it aimed to “to enhance and support both human rights and development by adopting new strategies and policies for real change.”

In 2014, GNRD published a human rights index that ranked the UAE at number 14 in the world and Qatar at 97. Heavy criticism of the index persuaded the group to delete the index from its website. GNRD, moreover, consistently praised the UAE’s controversial human rights records with articles on its website on the role of women, the UAE’s “achievements in promoting and protecting the family, environmental efforts, care for the disabled and its protection of the rights of children.

GNRD was closed following police raids in 2015, the confiscation of $13 million in assets, and charges of money laundering that have yet to be heard in court.  Norwegian investigators said that UAE diplomats had fought hard to prevent the case going to court.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

CORRECTION: Calls for Stripping Qatar of World Cup suggests Gulf crisis at a stalemate

My story, Calls for Stripping Qatar of World Cup suggests Gulf crisis at a stalemate, was based on a Reuters story, that ran Sunday morning at 03:59 London time. I sent an email to the author of the Reuters story early Sunday morning asking for confirmation, but never received a reply. I decided to go with my analysis after the Reuters story had been picked up by major news organizations and websites across the globe. Reuters withdrew the story 16 hours later saying “the website on which the story was based said it did not publish the information attributed to it.” While the assertion based on the Reuters story that the Saudi-UAE-led alliance had written a letter to world soccer body FIFA appears to be false, my analysis of where the Gulf crisis and how FIFA is handling it stands. Nonetheless, I apologize for the mistake and any inconvenience.

By James M. Dorsey

A Saudi-UAE-led alliance has tabled a long-expected demand that world soccer body FIFA strip Qatar of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights.

With little chance of FIFA acting on the demand any time soon, the move suggests that the alliance, struggling to figure a way forward amid mounting international pressure for a face-saving way out of the six-week-old Gulf crisis, needs to be seen to be acting on its hitherto unfulfilled promise to tighten the screws on Qatar.

Amid mounting international pressure for a negotiated solution to the crisis and calls for the lifting of the alliance’s diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and its allies have so far shied away from promises to tighten the noose around Qatar’s neck if it failed to cave in to their demands centred on accusations of Qatari funding of terrorism.

Six weeks into the boycott, Qatar has been able to absorb the boycott, which involves a cut-off of almost all land, sea and air links with the Gulf state. It also has succeeded in standing its ground in a struggle for the moral high ground with its detractors, whose demands have failed to garner a groundswell of international support.

While few in the international community give Qatar a clean bill of health on funding of militancy and political violence, many suggest that its detractors are tainted by the same brush. The alliance has moreover struggled to come up with a set of demands that many in the international community have said need to be reasonable and actionable.

The Saudi-UAE-led alliance initially put forward a set of 13 non-negotiable demands that included cutting ties to a host of Islamist and militant groups and individuals, closing a Turkish military base in Qatar, lowering its relations with Iran, shuttering Qatar-sponsored media such as the controversial Al Jazeera television network, and putting Qatar under guardianship.

Qatar’s rejection of the demands and the alliance’s realization that its quest was being perceived by many in the international community as an attempt to undermine Qatari sovereignty and curb freedom of the media, prompted the alliance to adopt six principles that repackaged the demands and removed some of the sharp edges.

Much like the original demands, those principles also failed to garner the kind of international support the alliance needs to push forward with a tightening of the screws on Qatar.

The alliance also appears to have backed down on at least one of its demands, the shuttering of Al Jazeera. In an interview with The Times, UAE minister for the federal national council Noura al-Kaabi said the Emirates sought "fundamental change and restructuring" rather than closure of Al Jazeera. The Saudi-UAE-led alliance accuses the network of being a platform for militant groups.

"We need a diplomatic solution. We are not looking for an escalation," Ms. Al-Kaabi said, suggesting that the Saudi-UAE led alliance was looking for a face-saving end to a crisis in which parties have dug in their heels, reducing margins for a way out that would allow all to declare victory.

At the heart of the Gulf crisis, lies a fundamental divide in how Qatar and its main detractors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, envision the future of the Middle East and North Africa. Central to the dispute is the international community’s inability to define what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist.

It is a difference that is likely to weaken the demand to deprive Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights. It is also a difference that has given the Gulf crisis a-pot-blaming-the-kettle character.

While Qatar sees the survival of its autocratic regime in the support of political change everywhere but at home in a naïve belief that it can exempt itself, Saudi Arabia and the UAE opted for maintenance of the status quo ante by rolling back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A sub-text to the struggle is the existential battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The epic struggle has led to a military coup in Egypt that removed from office the country’s first and only democratically elected president, sparked devastating civil wars in Libya and Syria, aggravated conflict in Iraq, and prompted an ill-fated Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen that brought the country to the edge of the abyss.

With efforts to mediate a way out of the crisis in full swing, FIFA has little incentive to act on a letter by six of its members – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Mauritania – demanding that Qatar be deprived of its hosting rights because it is a “base of terrorism.”

Speaking to a European news website, The Local, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said that “the countries warned FIFA of the risks threatening fan and player security in a country that is ‘the base and the castle of terrorism’.”

Mr. Infantino said the six countries had threatened to boycott the tournament should their request not be acted upon.

While the six countries are unlikely to be under the illusion that FIFA will simply accept their demand, tabling it allows the Saudi-UAE-led alliance to assert that it is not backing down in the Gulf crisis and is increasing pressure on Qatar. The alliance also hopes to exploit widespread criticism within the global soccer community of FIFA’s 2010 decision to award Qatar hosting rights.

Nevertheless, FIFA is unlikely to want to take sides in the crisis or weigh in on the debate on definitions of terrorism. Struggling to shake off multiple scandals that have severely tarnished the world soccer body’s image, FIFA is also unlikely to take a decision in a dispute in which all parties are tainted.

Moreover, FIFA is under no real pressure to act. The Qatar World Cup is more than five years away. The Gulf crisis is certain to be resolved long before that, one way or the other. In the meantime, the boycott does not stop Qatar from moving ahead with construction of World Cup-related infrastructure, albeit at a higher cost of construction materials.

Ultimately, FIFA will want to take a decision on the merits of Qatar’s ability to deliver a safe, secure and well managed World Cup rather than based on political arguments, many of which have yet to be substantiated.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.