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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Arab anger: Governments and protesters walk a fine line

Credit: The Black Iris

By James M. Dorsey

A little noticed subtext to furious protests across the Middle East and North Africa against US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is simmering anger at Arab governments.

The subtext demarcates a delicate balance between Arab youth frustrated with governments that are seemingly unwilling and unable to stand up for Arab rights and Arab leaders whose survival instincts persuade them to maintain failed policies

The anger is driven by a continued display of Arab inability to reverse Israeli occupation of territories occupied during the 1967 Middle East war, a readiness to overtly or covertly cooperate with Israel in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and, even worse, reports that Gulf states were willing to support a US peace plan that failed to meet minimal Palestinian demands for an independent state.

Underlying the anger is frustration that Arab regimes, six years after the 2011 popular Arab revolts and amid years of a brutal and violent United Arab Emirates and Saudi-led counterrevolution that has rolled back the achievements of the uprisings everywhere except for in Tunisia, still fail to deliver public services and goods.

The potentially explosive mix is highlighted by the Arab and Muslim world’s response to Mr. Trump’s move that amounts to little more than toothless statements and a glaring lack of diplomatic action.

Virtually no Arab government has summoned a US ambassador or charge d’affaires to protest the decision. Nor have Arab leaders sought to pin Mr. Trump down on what his statement. that is riddled with apparent internal contradictions and vague assertions, means. Only Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas drew a line by announcing that he would not meet with US Vice President Mike Pence when he visits the Middle East later this month.

The strategy of Arab leaders appears one designed to verbally condemn Mr. Trump’s move and hope that pro-longed protests will prove unsustainable. Arab leaders have good reason to believe that maintaining the degree of mobilization on the streets of Jerusalem, Palestinian cities and Arab capitals will prove difficult.

Their repressive policies and the Middle East’s dissent into chaos and violence as a result of the counterrevolution has dampened appetite for renewed mass anti-government protest despite calls for a third intifada or anti-Israeli uprising by groups like Hamas, the Islamist group in Gaza, and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon.

That may be a risky calculation in the medium rather than the short term. If the Arab revolts and the escalation of extremism proved anything, it is that Arab leaders ignore frustration and anger at their peril. Explosions of public anger are more often spontaneous than planned.

Gulf leaders are not wholly oblivious to the threat. Forced by lower oil prices, they have announced reform plans that aim to diversify and rationalize their rentier state economies, loosen social restrictions, and unilaterally rewrite social contracts while tightening political control. Yet, leaders like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have yet to deliver jobs and greater economic opportunity.

The question also is to what degree Gulf leaders have their ear to the ground. Bahrain, a Saudi ally that seldom moves without consulting Riyadh, allowed a 25-member interfaith group to make a rare visit to Israel despite Mr. Trump’s move.

The timing of Bahrain’s decision to violate a 2002 Saudi-driven Arab peace plan adopted by the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that calls for normalization of relations with Israel only when the Jewish state withdraws from territories conquered during the 1967 Middle East war, could not have been worse.

It reinforced a belief among protesters that Arab leaders attributed greater importance to strengthening informal ties with Israel, whom they view as an ally in their efforts to counter Iran, than to protecting Arab and Muslim rights.

While unwilling to risk their relationship with Washington despite deep-seated passions evoked by the controversy over Islam’s third most holy city, Arab leaders, paradoxically, have so far failed to exploit the wiggle room offered by Mr. Trump’s statement.

A careful reading of Mr. Trump’s statement leaves room for interpretation even if there is little doubt that the president intended to bolster Israel’s position. US officials, including United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, have struggled to explain how the statement furthers the peace process without alienating Mr. Trump’s domestic base that endorses the Israeli claim to all of Jerusalem.

Mr. Trump catered to his base by refraining from qualifying his recognition of Jerusalem with a reference to Palestinian claims. Yet, he asserted that he was not prejudging the outcome of peace negotiations.

The president insisted that the United States “continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders.”

Arab leaders could project themselves as getting in front of the cart by seeking clarification from Mr. Trump on whether and what limitations he may put on recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem in terms of what that means for the status of the city’s Palestinian population and Israeli settlement activity in East Jerusalem.

Former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to London and Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal appeared to allude to that when he warned in an open letter to Mr. Trump that “"your action has emboldened the most extreme elements in the Israeli society ... because they take your action as a license to evict the Palestinians from their lands and subject them to an apartheid state."

Amid the raw emotions, Arab leaders and protesters are both walking a fine line. Protesters’ anger is about more than fury with Mr. Trump. It is about their leaders’ multiple policy failures. Arab leaders need to be seen as being on the right side of public opinion while not rocking the boat.

If there is a silver lining in Mr. Trump’s move, it may be Arab leaders’ need to bridge the gap between public perception and their survival instinct. Leading the charge in pressuring the president to clarify his statement is an opportunity, Arab leaders have so far failed to capitalize on.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

China leverages Belt and Road investment to shape Pakistan’s political environment


By James M. Dorsey

A Chinese decision to redevelop criteria for the funding of infrastructure projects that are part of the $50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key pillar of the People’s Republic’s Belt and Road Initiative, seemingly amounts to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time that the armed forces are flexing their political muscle.

The Chinese decision that has reportedly led to the suspension of funding for three major road projects valued at a total of $850 million – the upgrading of the Dera Ismail Khan-Zhob motorway and the Karakorum highway as well as construction of a 110-kilometre road linking Khuzdar and Basima – suggests that Beijing is not averse to exploiting its massive investment in the Belt and Road, an effort to link Eurasian infrastructure to China, to shape the political environment in key countries in its authoritarian mould.

Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves Chinese interest in keeping Asia’s other giant, India, off balance. Chinese personnel and assets have nonetheless been targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan.

The suspension of funding coincided with apparent efforts by the military to increase its political sway by supporting militant and hard-line Sunni Muslim groups opposed to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) headed by disgraced former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Former Pakistani strongman General Pervez Musharraf, in the latest manifestation of links between the circles close to the military and hardliners, announced earlier this month that he was discussing an alliance with Milli Muslim League (MML).

MML was recently established by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who was designated a terrorist by the United Nations and the US Justice Department that put a $10 million bounty on his head and stands accused of having masterminded the 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which 164 people were killed.

Mr. Saeed, the leader of Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), widely seen as a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), one of the largest and most violent groups in South Asia, was last month freed by a court in Lahore from ten months of house arrest.

Speaking on Pakistani television, Mr. Musharraf pronounced himself “the greatest supporter of LeT.” Acknowledging that he had met with Mr. Saeed, Mr. Musharraf appeared to confirm long-standing suspicions that the military supported LeT as a proxy in Pakistan’s dispute with India over Kashmir.

"Because I have always been in favour of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir. This is the biggest force and they have been declared terrorists by India and the US jointly," Mr. Musharraf said.

Parallel to Mr. Musharraf’s endorsement of LeT, the military displayed its political influence by mediating an end to a weeks-long blockade of a main artery leading into Islamabad to protest a perceived softening of the government’s adherence to Islam in a proposed piece of legislation.

Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TPL), the organizer of the protest, is a political front for Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLR), which glorifies Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law,

The TPL is a political expression of the Barelvi strand of Sunni Islam that throughout the decades was long viewed as more moderate than the other dominant strand in Pakistan, the Saudi-supported Deobandis, whose militancy dates to the US-Saudi-backed Islamist insurgency in the 1980s that forced Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Suggestions that the protesters were supported by the military  were reinforced by video circulating on social media and the negotiation of an end to the blockade that involved the forced resignation of law minister Zahid Hamid and the dropping of all charges against protesters.

Chinese support for the military’s role has long been evident with its repeated veto in the UN Security Council of US, European and Indian efforts to get Masood Azhar, a prominent Pakistani militant designated as a global terrorist. Mr. Azhar is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military. Prior to the Mumbai attacks, China also blocked Mr. Saeed’s designation.

Mr. Azhar, a fighter in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and an Islamic scholar who graduated from a Deobandi madrassah, Darul Uloom Islamia Binori Town in Karachi, the alma mater of numerous Pakistani militants, is believed to have been responsible for an attack last year on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station. The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Criteria for the funding of the road projects, once redrafted, are expected to benefit the military’s engineering and construction company, Frontier Works Organization.

The suspension was projected as an effort to avoid corruption in CPEC in the wake of Mr. Sharif’s ousting as prime minister after documents leaked from a Panama law firm linked his children to offshore companies and assets. Long viewed as a nemesis of the military, Mr. Sharif demise served the interests of the armed forces.

The suggestion failed to stand up to scrutiny given that some Chinese companies have been granted CPEC contracts despite allegations of corruption. In one instance, the China Gezhouba Corporation (CGGC), was awarded the development of Pakistan’s $4.5 billion, 969 MW Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project, despite having been blacklisted by the World Bank.

Chinese backing for a more prominent role of the military in economic and political life comes amid increased Pakistani scrutiny of CPEC.

In a rare challenging of Chinese commercial terms Pakistan recently withdrew from a Chinese-funded dam-building project.

Pakistani Water and Power Development Authority chairman Muzammil Hussain charged that “Chinese conditions for financing the Diamer-Bhasha Dam were not doable and against our interests.” China and Pakistan were also at odds over ownership of the $14 billion, 4,500 megawatts (MW)-hydropower project on the Indus River in the country’s problematic region of Gilgit-Baltistan near disputed Kashmir.

Earlier, a State Bank of Pakistan study concluded that exports of marble to China, Pakistan’s foremost rough-hewn, freshly-excavated marble export market, and the re-export to Pakistan of Pakistani semi-processed marble was “hurting Pakistan’s marble industry to a significant extent.”

A report by the Pakistani Senate, that has repeatedly criticized CPEC’s lack of transparency and Chinese commercial policies, concluded that China would for the next four decades get 91 percent of the revenues generated by the port of Gwadar.

Greater military involvement in CPEC would weaken China’s critics and enhance Chinese confidence in Pakistan’s ability to tackle security concerns. The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned last week that militants were targeting the embassy and Chinese nationals.

“Beijing is keen to give the Pakistani Army the lead role in the CPEC projects as Pakistani ministries charged with carrying out the projects have incurred delays because of infighting. Concerns that the project bypasses Pakistan’s poorer regions and will mainly benefit the financially-strong province of Punjab has made politicians argue with regards to the benefits of CPEC… The Chinese are not used to such harsh disagreements,” the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) said in a commentary.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Tackling Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism: A Pakistani-US collision in the making


By James M. Dorsey

A recent government surrender to militant demands for stricter adherence to Islam mediated by the military coupled with the release from house arrest of a militant leader designated by the United Nations and the United States as a terrorist sets the stage for a confrontation between Pakistan and the Trump administration.

The two incidents also point to the fact that decades of Saudi backing and Pakistani indulgence has embedded Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in key branches of the state and among significant segments of society, including ones long considered to be less conservative. They raise the question whether further punitive cutbacks in US aid and other potential retaliatory measures will exacerbate the problem rather than persuade authorities to tackle it.

Finally, the incidents suggest that the fallout of decades of Saudi support globally for ultra-conservatism to the tune of $100 billion is unlikely to be reversed overnight by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent pledge to return the kingdom to an undefined form of moderate Islam.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis became last week the latest in a succession of US officials representing a succession of US administrations to unsuccessfully complain on a visit to Islamabad about aspects of the fallout in Pakistan such as the country’s half-hearted crackdown on militants and continued support for radical groups that serve its geopolitical purposes vis a vis Afghanistan and India.

Days before Mr. Mattis winged his way to the Pakistani capital, CIA director Michael Pompeo warned that if Pakistan failed to act decisively against groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, the United States would. That would likely involve an expanded drone war against militants in the troubled provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as possible sanctions that go beyond existing cutbacks in aid.

Mr. Mattis visited Islamabad at a moment that ultra-conservatism’s sway was manifesting itself with the emergence of hard-line political parties that look set to do well in elections expected next year.
Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, who was designated a terrorist by the United Nations and the US Justice Department that put a $10 million bounty on his head, announced that his recently formed party, Milli Muslim League (MML), would contest the election.

Running as an independent in September in a Punjabi by-election, MML candidate Yaqoob Sheikh came in fourth. Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi, a candidate for Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TPL), a political front for Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLR), which glorifies Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s draconic blasphemy law, came in third. Together, the two garnered 11 percent of the vote.

Mr. Saeed, the leader of Jamaat ud-Dawa, widely seen as a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe, one of the largest and most violent groups in South Asia, which he founded, has longstanding ties to Saudi Arabia as well as to Ahl-e-Hadith, an ultra-conservative, Saudi-backed religious group.

Mr. Saeed stands accused of having masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks during which 164 people were killed. He was last month released from ten months of house arrest by a Pakistani court. Graffiti on the walls in the corridors of the court building demand that blasphemers be beheaded.

The TPL’s electoral success; its recent, weeks-long blockade of a main artery leading into Islamabad to protest a perceived softening of the government’s adherence to Islam in a proposed piece of legislation that forced the justice minister to resign; and the military’s intervention to resolve the crisis, indicate not only the popular appeal of ultra-conservatism but also the state’s use of it as a political tool.

The TPL is a political expression of the Barelvi strand of Sunni Islam that throughout the decades was long viewed as more moderate than the other dominant strand in Pakistan, the Saudi-supported Deobandis, whose militancy dates to the US-Saudi-backed Islamist insurgency in the 1980s that forced Soviet troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Suggestions that the protesters were supported by the military for ideological reasons as well to undermine the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) of disgraced former prime minister Nawaz Sharif were reinforced by a video circulating on social media. The origin of the video was unclear.

The director-general of the Punjab Rangers, Major-General Azhar Navid Hayat, is seen in the video passing out envelopes containing 1,000-rupee ($9.50) notes to protesters.

"This is a gift from us to you," the general tells a bearded man. "Aren't we with you too?" Patting another protester on the cheek, Major-General Hayat says: "God willing, we'll get all of them released," in a seeming reference to arrested protesters. "This is all we had in one bag. There's some more (money) in the other," the officer added.

Pakistani Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa recently expressed support for religious seminaries or madrassas, many of which are run by militants, but insisted that they expand their curriculum to ensure that graduates become more productive.


With millions attending seminaries General Bajwa asked: “So what will they become: will they become Maulvis (clerics) or they will become terrorists?” He noted that Pakistan could not build enough mosques to employ the huge number of madrassas students.

General Bajwa went on to say that more religious seminaries than mainstream schools had been established in Balochistan in the past four decades. “Only religious education is being imparted to the students at all these seminaries and thus the students are left behind in the race for development,” the general cautioned.

Saudi-funded ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate Balochistan’s educational landscape, according to Pakistani militants.

“A majority of Baloch schoolchildren go to madrassas. They are in better condition than other schools in Balochistan. Most madrassas are operated by Deobandis and Ahl-i-Hadith,” said the co-founder of a virulently anti-Shiite group that is believed to enjoy Saudi and Pakistani support.

Saudi-backed Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab, a militant Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan origin, who was earlier this year named a named a specially designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was on a fund-raising tour of the Gulf, illustrates the degree to which ultra-conservatism permeates Pakistan and is linked to the state.

Mr. Abu Turab is a leader of Ahl-e-Hadith that operates a string of religious seminaries in Balochistan along the Pakistan-Afghan border, a region heavily controlled by the military. He is also 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 too has been designated by the Treasury. Mr. Abu Turab 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.

Against this backdrop, a probable US-Pakistani collision at best would lead to temporarily reduced Pakistani support for geopolitically convenient militants. Tackling Pakistan’s far more fundamental problem, resulting from a build-up of ultra-conservatism over decades, would require long-term engagement rather than confrontation – a policy prescription that likely runs counter to the Trump administration’s worldview.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Trump's recognition of Jerusalem: Letting a genie out of the bottle


By James M. Dorsey

US President Donald J. Trump has let a genie out of the bottle with his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and intent to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In taking his decision, Mr. Trump was implementing long standing US policy dating back to the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barak Obama even if none of them were willing to put it into practice.

The key to judging Mr. Trump’s move is the politics behind it and the black swan embedded in it. Recognizing Jerusalem formally as the capital of Israel may well kill two birds at the same time: boost the president’s standing among evangelists and conservatives at home and give him leverage to negotiate what he has dubbed the ultimate deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

There is no doubt that the move will boost Mr. Trump’s popularity among his supporters and financial backers like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and allow him to assert that he has fulfilled a campaign promise.

Far less certain is whether, Mr. Trump will be willing or able to constructively leverage his move to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. His move moreover risks sparking an uncontrollable sequence of events.

US officials have been tight-lipped about peace plans being developed by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and chief Israeli-Palestinian negotiator.

Almost the only confirmed fact about Mr. Kushner’s strategy is that, based on his close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he is advocating what he describes as an outside-in approach. In this scenario, Saudi Arabia would ensure Arab backing for a peace plan put forward by Mr. Kushner.

Prince Mohammed’s United Arab Emirates counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, working through Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has helped put a key building block in place by facilitating reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Al Fatah movement and Hamas, the Islamist movement that controlled the Gaza Strip.

The problem with that scenario is that implicit in US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a rejection of the notion that any Israeli Palestinian peace deal would have to involve either West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital or shared control of Jerusalem as a whole that would serve as the capital of both states.

The rejection of that notion would stroke with readouts of a visit to Riyadh last month by Mr. Abbas in which the Saudi crown prince reportedly laid out the peace plan he had discussed with Mr. Kushner. According to that readout by Palestinian officials as well as European and Arab diplomats, East Jerusalem would not be the Palestinian capital.

Moreover, the future Palestinian state would consist of non-contiguous parts of the West Bank to ensure that Israeli settlements in the area remain under Israeli control. Finally, Palestinians would have to surrender their demand for recognition of the right of return for Palestinians who fled Israel/Palestine during the 1948 and 1967 wars.

Beyond the fact that it is hard to see how any Palestinian leader could sign up for the plan, it threatens, coupled with Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, to inflame passions that Prince Mohammed and other Arab autocrats may find difficult to control.

In a region that increasingly and brutally suppresses any form of dissent or protest, Prince Mohammed and other Arab leaders could risk fuelling the fire by seeking to suppress demonstrations against Mr. Trump’s decision and what Arab and Muslim public opinion would perceive as a sell-out of Palestinian rights.

The situation would become even more tricky if protests, as is likely, would first erupt in Palestine and be countered with force by the Israeli military. It is a scenario in which anti-US, anti-Israel protests in Arab capitals could quickly turn into ant-government manifestations.

Palestinian groups have already called for three days of rage. Protests would likely not be restricted to Middle Eastern capitals but would probably also erupt in Asian nations like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.

In some ways, protests may well be the purpose of the exercise. There is no way of confirming whether the readout provided to officials and diplomats by Mr. Abbas of his meeting with Prince Mohammed is accurate.

In what amounts to a dangerous game of poker, that readout could well serve multiple purposes, including an effort by Mr. Abbas to boost his position at home by projecting himself as resisting US and Saudi pressure.

Against a history of less than accurate media reporting and official statements often designed to maintain a façade rather than reality, Saudi media reported that King Salman warned Mr. Trump that any decision to move the US Embassy before a permanent peace settlement had been achieved would inflame the Muslim world.

While Prince Mohammed and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu see eye to eye in viewing Iran rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the region’s core issue, it’s hard to imagine that the crown prince, a man who has proven that he is not averse to unwarranted risks and gambles, would surrender demands for Muslim control of at least part of Islam’s third most holy city. It’s equally unfathomable that he would allow for a situation in which the kingdom’s position as the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina could be called into question.

Public Saudi backing for Mr. Trump’s recognition and any plan to grant Israel full control of Jerusalem would see the genie turning on the kingdom and its ruling family. Not only with public protests but also with demands by Iran that Saudi Arabia be stripped of its custodianship and that Mecca and Medina be put under some kind of pan-Islamic administration.

In other words, Mr. Trump and potentially Prince Mohammed, are playing a game that could lead to a second phase of this decade’s popular revolts and a serious escalation of an already dangerous Saudi-Iranian rivalry that is wreaking havoc across the Middle East.

With his recognition of Jerusalem, Mr. Trump has likely closed the door on any public or Arab support for a peace plan that falls short of what is minimally acceptable to the Palestinians. Moreover, by allowing speculation to flourish over what he has in mind with his ultimate Israeli-Palestinian deal, Mr. Trump has potentially set a ball rolling that neither he nor Arab autocrats may be able to control.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Qatari Wahhabism vs. Saudi Wahhabism and the perils of top-down change

Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad inaugurates the Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab Mosque

By James M. Dorsey

A multi-domed, sand-coloured, architectural marvel, Doha’s biggest and national mosque, symbolizes Qatar’s complex and troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia. Its naming six years ago after an eighteenth century Islamic scholar, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, the founder of one of Islam’s most puritan strands, raised eyebrows, sparked controversy, and has since become an episode in the latest Gulf crisis.

The naming of the mosque that overlooks the Qatar Sports Club in Doha’s Jubailat district was intended to pacify more traditional segments of Qatari society as well as Saudi Arabia, which sees the tiny Gulf state, the only other country whose native population is Wahhabi, as a troublesome and dangerous gadfly on its doorstep. Qatar long challenged the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam, but now together with its other nemesis, the United Arab Emirates, offers an unacknowledged model for Saudi reforms envisioned by the kingdom’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

That doesn’t mean that Qatar no longer poses a challenge. If anything, it poses a greater challenge with its opposition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s counterrevolutionary strategy in the Middle East and North Africa even if its vision of a Gulf ruled by more forward-looking, socially less conservative autocrats is one it shares with Prince Mohammed and the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The challenge prompted the two princes to impose a six-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar. The crisis is likely to figure prominently in the first meeting of Gulf leaders since the imposition of the boycott at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Kuwait on Tuesday.

By naming the mosque after Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Qatar reaffirmed its adherence to the Wahhabi creed that goes back to nineteenth century Saudi support for the rise to dominance of the Al Thani clan, the country’s hereditary ruling family, even if its social norms and foreign policy differed sharply from practices in the kingdom.

In fact, social change in Qatar in the last two decades contrasted starkly with efforts by King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah to maintain as much as possible of the status quo prior to the popular revolts that swept the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 in demand of greater freedom, transparency and accountability. They also diverged radically from King Khalid and King Fahd’s earlier empowerment of the ultra-conservatives in response to the 1979 Iranian revolution and attack by Saudi militants on the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

A traditional Gulf state and a Wahhabi state to boot, Qatari conservatism was everything but a mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s long-standing puritan way of life. Qatar did not have a powerful religious establishment that could enforce ultra-conservative social norms, nor did it implement absolute gender segregation. Non-Muslims could practice their faith in their own houses of worship and were exempted from bans on alcohol and port. Qatar became a sponsor of the arts including a Doha version of the Tribeca Film Festival and host the state-owned Al Jazeera television network that revolutionized the region’s controlled media landscape and became one of the world’s foremost global broadcasters. The UAE boasts many of the same traits minus the history of an ultra-conservative strand of Islam having dominated its history.

Qatar’s projection of a different approach to Wahhabism is rooted in the DNA of the Qatari state that from its founding was a determined not to emulate the kingdom and reforms that were initiated two decades before Prince Mohammed appeared on the scene. Privately, Qataris distinguish between their “Wahhabism of the sea” as opposed to Saudi Arabia’s “Wahhabism of the land.”

Political scientists Birol Baskan and Steven Wright argue that on a political level, Qatar has a secular character similar to Turkey and in sharp contrast to Saudi Arabia, which they attribute to Qatar’s lack of a class of Muslim legal scholars. The absence of scholars was in part a reflection of Qatari ambivalence towards Wahhabism that it 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 scholars to develop its own. That would have produced a religious establishment steeped in the kingdom’s austere theology and inspired by its history of political power-sharing that would have demanded a similar arrangement.

As a result, Qatar lacks the institutions that often held the kingdom back. Similarly, Qatar does not have families known for producing religious scholars. Qatari religious schools are run by the ministry of education not as in the Saudi kingdom by the religious affairs authority. They are staffed by expatriates rather than Qataris and attended by less than one per cent of the total student body and only ten per cent of those are Qatari nationals. By the same token, 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.

All of this should make Prince Mohammed and Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, both men in their thirties, natural allies were it not for their fundamentally different views of geopolitics and place in the world. Underlying the UAE-Saudi-led boycott was a shift in Saudi perceptions of the challenge posed by Qatar since 2011 revolts from one that was to a significant degree religious and social in nature to one that was exclusively political and geopolitical. That was  evident in the conditions Saudi Arabia and the UAE set for ending the crisis. The two Gulf states’ demands amounted to Qatar putting itself under Saudi and UAE tutelage.

Nonetheless, Prince Mohammed’s efforts to reform Saudi Arabia with his so far limited roll-back of puritan restrictions amounted in fact to a first step in adopting a more Qatari version of Wahhabism even if that is something he is unlikely to acknowledge. His initial measures – lifting the ban on women’s driving and attending male sporting events; rolling back the powers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice or Mutaween, the religious police; and his introduction of long forbidden forms of modern entertainment – are as much in line with Qatar’s as well as the UAE’s social norms that are more liberal than those of the kingdom but not liberal by any stretch of the imagination as they were inspired by his Western-educated Saudi associates and army of Western consultants.

Qatar in particular, but in many ways the UAE as well, is what Mohammed would like Saudi Arabia to be. Qatar had the advantage that it projected to young Saudis and others the ability to change without completely dumping ultra-conservative religious precepts that have shaped culture and belief systems. It projected a vision of a less restrictive and less choking conservative Wahhabi society that grants individuals irrespective of gender greater opportunities.

Qatar today is a long way from the mid-1990s when Qatari women, like in Saudi Arabia until recently, were banned from driving, voting or holding government jobs. Qatari women occupy prominent positions in multiple sectors of society. With women accounting for 53 percent of the work force, Qatar outranks Middle Eastern and North African states by a large margin. Only Kuwait with 48 and the UAE with 42 percent come close. It’s a picture that long juxtaposed starkly with that of its Wahhabi big brother. In doing so, Qatar threw down a gauntlet for the kingdom’s interpretation of nominally shared religious and cultural beliefs – a challenge Prince Mohammed appears to have embraced.

"I consider myself a good Wahhabi and can still be modern, understanding Islam in an open way. We take into account the changes in the world and do not have the closed-minded mentality as they do in Saudi Arabia,” Abdelhameed Al Ansari, the dean of Qatar University's College of Sharia, a leader of the paradigm shift, told The Wall Street Journal in 2002. Twenty years earlier, Mr. Al Ansari was denounced as an "apostate" by Qatar's Saudi-trained chief religious judge for advocating women’s rights. "All those people who attacked me, most of them have died, and the rest keep quiet," Mr. Al Ansari said.

Qatar’s long-standing projection of an alternative was particularly sensitive as long as Saudi Arabia refused to openly embrace notions of social change even if things like allowing women to drive were long debated quietly. It was also potentially dangerous with the kingdom’s religious establishment worried that key members of the ruling family were toying with radical ideas like a separation of state and religion.

The religious establishment voiced its concern in the spring of 2013 in a meeting with King Abdullah two days after his son Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, declared that “religion (should) not enter into politics.” Responding to Prince Mutaib in a tweet, Grand Mufti ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheikh warned that “whoever says there is no relationship between religion and politics worships two gods, one in the heavens and one on earth.”

Prince Mutaib, the commander of the National Guard, the only military unit that was not controlled by Prince Mohammed, was among those swept up in the crown prince’s recent purge. He was reportedly last week allowed to leave his gilded cage in Riyadh’s posh Ritz Carlton Hotel after paying $1 billion to the government to settle allegations of corruption.

In a similar vein, Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of intelligence and ambassador to the United States and Britain first hinted at a possible separation 11 years ago when he cited verse 4:59 of the Qur’an: “O you who have believed, obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you.” Turki suggested that the verse referred exclusively to temporal authority rather than both religious and political authority.

Prince Mohammed has brought the debate about whither Saudi Arabia into the open and signalled his intent to take the kingdom into the 21st century much along the lines of what Qatar and the UAE have done. He has left the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment no choice but to endorse his moves even if they likely reinforce the fears of an older generation of scholars resistant to change and over time may spark opposition from younger generations critical of his autocratic style of government, the bending over backwards of their elders to accommodate the prince, and the possibility that he will deprive religious figures of whatever political influence they have left.

Qatar’s model, like that of the UAE, strokes with Prince Mohammed’s vision in more than just the promotion of wider social margins. The Saudi crown prince. like Sheikh Tamim and the UAE’s Prince Mohammed, are engaged in an effort to upgrade autocracy and allow it to respond to 21st century social and economic demands while maintaining absolute political control and repressing all forms of dissent. With his arrests in September 2017 of Islamic scholars, judges, and activists and his purge of the ruling family, senior officials, and prominent businessmen in November of that year, Mohammed was following on a far grander scale in the footsteps of Qatar’s former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who silenced opposition to reforms.

In one instance, Sheikh Hamad arrested in 1998 Abdulrahman al Nuaimi, a religious scholar who criticized his advancement of women rights. Mr. Al Nuaimi was released three years later on condition that he no longer would speak out publicly. He has since been designated by the US Treasury as “a Qatar-based terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al-Qa'ida and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE included Mr. Al-Nuaimi on a list of 59 individuals Qatar would have to act against if it wanted to get the boycott lifted.

Qatari poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami was sentenced in November 2011 to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” His sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years in prison and he was finally pardoned in 2016.

Mr. Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine”. It celebrated the overthrow in 2011 by a popular revolt of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that was dubbed the Jasmine Revolution.

More recently, Qatari authorities reportedly raided the home of Sheikh Sultan Bin Suhaim Al-Thani, a 33-year old nephew of former emir Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Thani, who was deposed by Sheikh Hamad in 1995. Sheikh Sultan had aligned himself with the Saudi and UAE demands and positioned himself in opposition to Sheikh Tamim.

Prince Mohammed’s unacknowledged embrace of the Qatari model did not stop him from employing Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment to fire a shot in the prelude to the Gulf crisis by demanding in May 2017 that the Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab Mosque in Doha be renamed. The demand, put forward in a statement by 200 descendants of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, came days after what US intelligence officials described as a UAE-engineered hack of Qatari state media involving fake news reports that put inflammatory foreign policy statements in the mouth of Sheikh Tamim, which in turn prompted the Saudi-UAE-led boycott. “We…demand that the name of the mosque be changed for it does not carry its true Salafi path,” the statement said.

Simmering religious anger at being manipulated and opposition from within the Saudi ruling family may however not be Prince Mohammed’s foremost problem. Alongside his autocratic style, Prince Mohammed is likely to discover, according to political scientist Calvert W. Jones, that a fundamental flaw in the Qatari and UAE development model is the fact that social engineering is easier said than done and that flashy projects like the creation of new, cutting edge 21st century cities, luring or building world-class universities and museums, and the promotion of tolerance won’t do it.

“The problem is that authoritarian modernizers cannot simply command a new attitude among their citizens. Opening cinemas and relaxing gender segregation may impress Saudi youth, but a new economy requires far more. Reformers in the UAE eventually realized — as Saudi rulers will discover, too — that they needed to adapt both the mind-sets and the skill sets of the rising generation. In countries where people see a government job as a right, that means reshaping the very nature of citizenship,” Ms. Jones wrote in The Washington Post.

Qatari and Emirati promotion of knowledge, culture and innovation in a bid to create globalized citizens have succeeded in developing civic attitudes including notions of tolerance and volunteerism but failed to alter economic perceptions of the rentier state rather than the private sector as the creator of jobs. Based on a survey of 2,000 Emirati students, Jones concluded that the government’s effort had made them even more convinced of a citizen’s right to a government job and less interested in entrepreneurship. The saw a high-level government job as a deserved reward for the improved education they had received. “Social liberalization does not necessarily mean increased economic productivity,” Ms Jones concluded.

Perhaps, Ms. Jones’ most fundamental finding is a flaw common to the Qatari and UAE as well as the Saudi formula for reform and that is top-down, government engineered change and unilateral rewriting of social contracts produces results that fall short of what is required. The missing element in that formula is exactly what Qatari, Emirati and Saudi leaders eschew: political change.

“Social engineers may need to allow wider political participation if they want pro-globalization social engineering to succeed in the long term. The Emirati kids I studied had grown significantly more interested in contributing to public decision-making compared with their anachronistically educated peers. In other words, top-down social engineering can take authoritarian modernizers only so far,” Ms. Jones said.

“To build truly development-friendly mind-sets prepared to compete under conditions of globalization, Saudi rulers are likely to find that they must renegotiate the social contract in more transparent and inclusive ways, going well beyond what government planning alone can accomplish,” she added.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Egyptian President Al-Sisi steps up repression to cover policy failure


By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi would likely be the first to admit that an iron fist is no guarantee for retaining power. Not because of the fate of the country’s longest ruling autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011 by a popular revolt. But because Mr. Al-Sisi’s iron fist has not squashed resistance, nor has it enabled him to properly deliver badly needed public goods and services.

Mr. Al-Sisi has, however, not concluded in advance of elections expected next year that he should perhaps loosen the reigns, reduce the role of the military in the economy that is drowning out much of the private sector, and opt for economic policies that are not centred on huge, white elephant infrastructure projects but instead target job creation and lifting millions out of poverty.

Instead, backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Al-Sisi is tightening his grip on youth groups and sports clubs that were at the core of the 2011 revolt. He is also believed to be attempting to ensure that credible presidential candidates are prevented from running in the election for which he has yet to declare himself a candidate.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s failed policies, insistence on repressive state-centred control of public life, and electoral processes that are everything but free and fair, raises questions about the sustainability of UAE-Saudi-led counterrevolution that aimed to roll back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab uprisings in which the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were overthrown. Mr. Al-Sisi came to office in 2013 in a UAE-Saudi backed military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratically elected leader.

Egypt has proven resistant to the policy formula adopted by the UAE and Saudi Arabia at home and advocated elsewhere in the region. The two Gulf states have embraced economic reform and greater social freedom while employing repression to retain ever tighter political control. Repression and absolute political control appears to be the only aspect of the UAE-Saudi formula that Egypt has wholeheartedly adopted.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s policies forced US president Donald J. Trump, who has deemphasized human rights in his administration’s policy and is a fan of the Egyptian leader, to cut off some military aid earlier this year in compliance with US law.

The Washington Post, commenting in an editorial on last month’s jihadist attack on a Sufi mosque in the Sinai that killed more than 300 people, effectively described Mr. Al-Sisi as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. “The regime has used terrorism as a pretext for the most severe repression in Egypt’s modern history,” the Post said.

Former Egyptian prime minister and senior air force commander Ahmed Shafiq, potentially Mr. Al-Sisi’s most serious challenger, charged this week that the UAE had barred him from travelling to his home country. UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash denied the charge but acknowledged that his country had “severe reservations about some of his (Mr. Shafiq’s) positions.”

Mr. Shafiq moved to the UAE in 2012 after he was charged with corruption and acquitted in the wake of his defeat in presidential elections that were won by Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi, whom Mr. Al-Sisi forced out of office a year later.

Despite being financially dependent for support from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Al-Sisi has differed with them on policies towards Iran and Syria, but joined the two states’ six-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In a move that is likely to provoke ire in the United States, Egypt and Russia this week agreed on a draft agreement that would allow the Russian air force to operate from Egyptian bases. The agreement would permit the UAE and Saudi Arabia to enhance arm’s length military cooperation with Russia, particularly in Libya where they support controversial military commander Khalifa Haftar.

Mr. Al-Sisi, following years of failed efforts to forge a politically controlled dialogue with Egyptian youth, has launched a two-pronged effort to control youth and sports organizations, potentially alongside Mr. Shafiq, the greatest threat to his continued rule.

Militant soccer fans, who played a key role in toppling Mr. Mubarak and student protests against Mr. Al-Sisi that were brutally repressed in 2013 and 2014, rejected several overtures by the president and have in recent months again witnessed the blunt side of his rule.

Hundreds of ultras -- battle-hardened, anti-authoritarian fans opposed to the commercialization of soccer -- were arrested in recent months for wearing jerseys with the number 74 on them in commemoration of supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli killed in 2012 in a politically loaded soccer brawl in the Suez Canal city Port Said. The incident, the worst in Egyptian sporting history, was widely seen as an effort by security forces that got out of hand to teach fans a lesson.

Another 500 members of Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of Al Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek SC, were arrested in July as they tried to attend their team’s match against Libya’s Al Ahli Tripoli. Many have since been released.

Egypt’s parliament last month approved in principle a new law governing youth and sports organizations that although portrayed as a gift to Egyptian youth bans clubs from engaging “in any political or partisan activity or promoting any political or partisan activity” or even “promoting any ideas or political objectives.”

Many Egyptian clubs, including Al Ahli and Zamalek were founded in the early years of the 20th century as politically motivated groups and have retained their aura despite having long moved on. Al Ahli was established as an anti-monarchical, anti-colonial, and pro-republican club while Zamalek identified itself as pro-monarchy and pro-British.

Parliament’s gift was in advance of a World Youth Forum in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, one of several such gatherings intended to give Egyptian youth a sense of participation, however limited, by connecting them to policymakers. While the law banned discussions where youth gather, the forum was held under the motto of “we need to talk.”

Saudi Arabia signalled the significance it attributes to control of sports clubs by having its ambassador in Cairo attend this week’s election of soccer icon Mahmoud Al-Khatib as Al Ahli’s president.

The absence of senior Egyptian government officials was likely intended to avoid attracting intention to the fact that the government, in violation of world soccer body FIFA rules, owns a majority of the country’s premier league clubs, and to its increased political control of the sport. FIFA has long looked the other way in countries like Egypt and Iran.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s tightening of the reins comes in advance of Egypt’s participation for the first time in 28 years in World Cup finals in Russia in 2018. Football success in the Middle East often equals heightened emotions in a soccer-crazy part of the world and amounts to a double-edged sword for autocrats.

Identification with successful teams offers autocrats an opportunity to polish their tarnished images, certainly if success sparks nationalist fervour. Yet, heightened soccer-driven emotion can also result in anti-government protest, one reason Egyptian stadiums have largely been closed to the public for the last six years. The new law governing youth and sports organizations is unlikely to reduce the risk of stadiums again becoming platforms of protest if, and when, the ban is lifted.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Saudi Arabia’s Lebanon gamble may pay off

Source: MyBeirut@hronicles

By James M. Dorsey

Time will tell, but Saudi Arabia’s gamble to pressure Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanese Shiite militia, by forcing Saad Hariri, the country’s prime minister, to resign, may be paying off despite widespread perceptions that the manoeuvre backfired.

Broad international support for Mr. Hariri following his announcement from Riyadh in a speech in which he denounced Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy that was wreaking havoc in the Middle East and the prime minister’s decision to put his resignation on hold once he returned to Beirut to a rock star’s welcome reinforced the belief that Saudi Arabia had overplayed his hand.

Mr. Hariri’s decision has, however, opened the door to backroom negotiations in which Hezbollah, a major Lebanese political force, is finding that it may have to compromise to avoid a political breakdown in Lebanon and secure achievement of its most immediate goals.

Mr. Hariri is believed to be demanding that Hezbollah halt its support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and withdraw from Syria where its fighters supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in line with Lebanese government policy not to become involved in conflicts raging elsewhere in the region.

Hezbollah signalled a willingness to compromise by urging Mr. Hariri to withdraw his resignation, calling for calm, advising its supporters not to take to the streets, and announcing that it was withdrawing some of its units from Syria and Iraq, where they supported Shiite militias in their fight against the Islamic State.

Mr. Hariri, who signalled this week that he may withdraw his resignation, put it earlier on hold at the request of Lebanese President of Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, who allowed the militia in recent years to outmanoeuvre the prime minister. At the same time, Hezbollah charged that Mr. Hariri had not announced his resignation of his own free will but had been forced to do so by Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Hariri, who blames Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, his father and prime minister at the time of his death, agreed to Mr. Aoun’s election as president and to become head of a government that was dominated by Hezbollah in the false belief that Mr. Aoun would ensure that the militia would not endanger Lebanon’s effort to avoid being sucked into the civil war raging in neighbouring Syria.

Bruised by his inability to force Hezbollah’s hand, Mr. Hariri appears to have reversed his slide in popularity with his threat to resign and enhanced his prospects in forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Mr. Hariri’s newly found popularity and leverage, despite Saudi Arabia’s zero-sum-game approach to its proxy wars with Iran in Lebanon and elsewhere, may enable him to cut a deal that would allow Hezbollah to focus on its all-important goal of securing Lebanese-Syrian relations at the expense of the Houthis in Yemen.

To be fair, Hezbollah and Iran view the Houthis as an opportunity to complicate life for Saudi Arabia in the kingdom’s backyard rather than as a strategic priority. Far more crucial is ensuring that Lebanon maintains close ties to the government of Mr. Al-Assad. Curbing the Houthis, who recently fired a ballistic missile at the international airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh, is at the top of the kingdom’s agenda.

Hezbollah, Syria and Iran need Lebanon to have normal, if not close ties to an-Al Assad government once the guns fall silent given that international and US sanctions against Syria as well as Mr, Al-Assad and his associates are likely to remain in place. Lebanon has long been Syria’s vehicle to circumvent the sanctions.

That becomes even more important against the backdrop of China suggesting that it would contribute to post-war Syrian reconstruction and could see Syria becoming an important node in its Belt and Road initiative that intends to enmesh Eurasia in a web of infrastructure, transportation and telecommunication links that would link Europe and much of Asia to China.

Like so often in recent years, Saudi Arabia could prove to be its own worst enemy in its effort to curb Iranian influence and win tactical victories in what amounts to a dangerous regional chess games in which Saudi players have not always thought their moves through.

A wild card in Mr. Hariri’s efforts to cut a deal that would weaken Iranian influence in Yemen and force Hezbollah to act more as a Lebanese rather than a regional player while at the same time allowing it to protect Syrian interests is staunchly anti-Iranian Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan, a major influence on Crown Prince Mohammed’s regional strategy.

A former military attaché in Lebanon and the kingdom’s first ambassador to Iraq since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Iraq, who was asked by the Iraqi government to leave after only nine months in Baghdad, Mr. Al-Sabhan has successfully advised Prince Mohammed to adopt an uncompromising approach towards Hezbollah.

US officials, according to Associated Press, accused Mr. Al-Sabhan when he visited Washington earlier this month of undermining US policy in Lebanon that involves strengthening the Lebanese armed forces to enable it to match Hezbollah’s military power and supporting Lebanon’s hosting of more than a million Syrian refugees.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged Mr. Al-Sabhan’s influence by denouncing him in a recent speech as a “hairy monkey” and “man acting like a child.”

In response, Mr. Al-Sabhan tweeted that “if an incompetent man criticizes me, this is proof that I am a whole man.”

A deal between Mr. Hariri and Hezbollah is unlikely to make the likes of Mr. A-Sabhan happy because it would continue to legitimize the Iranian ally. Nonetheless, it could help the kingdom with its ill-fated intervention in Yemen that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and cost Saudi Arabia enormous reputational capital.


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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.