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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Reducing Middle East tensions? Saudi-UAE moves hint at willingness to engage with Iran

Source: Shahriyar Gourgi / LinkedIn

By James M. Dorsey

Recent moves by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates suggest that the two Gulf states may be looking for ways to reduce tensions with Iran that permeate multiple conflicts wracking the Middle East and North Africa.

The moves, including a rapprochement with Iraq and a powerful Iraqi Shiite religious and political leader as well as prosecution of a militant Saudi cleric on charges of hate speech, and leaked emails, point towards a possible willingness to engage with Iran more constructively. A dialling down of Saudi-Iranian tensions could contribute to a reduction of tensions across the Middle East and North Africa.

At the same time, however, a series of statements and developments call into question how serious Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be about a potential rapprochement with Iran. Further complicating matters, is the fact it is unclear who is driving a potential overture to Iran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his UAE counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

The UAE, although much smaller in size and population than Saudi Arabia, has been a, if not the driver, of recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, including the ill-fated two-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar and developments in the war in Yemen.

Leaked email traffic between the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, and three former US officials, Martin Indyk, who served in the Clinton and Obama administrations, Stephen Hadley, former President George W. Bush’s national security advisor, and Elliott Abrams who advised Presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan, as well as with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius lay bare the UAE strategy of working through Saudi Arabia to achieve its regional goals.

Mr. Abrams quipped about the UAE’s newly-found assertiveness in a mail to Mr. Al-Otaiba: "Jeez, the new hegemon! Emirati imperialism! Well if the US won't do it, someone has to hold things together for a while.” Mr. Al-Otaiba responded: "Yes, how dare we! In all honesty, there was not much of a choice. We stepped up only after your country chose to step down," a reference to perceptions that President Barak Obama had been disengaging from the Middle East.

Discussing the UAE’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, Mr. Al-Otaiba went on to tell Mr. Abrams that "I think in the long term we might be a good influence on KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), at least with certain people there. Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around." 

In his exchange with Mr. Indyk as well as Mr. Ignatius, Mr. Al-Otaiba, who had been promoting the Saudi prince in Washington for the past two years, was unequivocal about UAE backing of the likely future king as an agent of change who would adopt policies advocated by the UAE.

“I think MBS is far more pragmatic than what we hear is Saudi public positions,” Mr. Al-Otaiba said in one of the mails, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.  I don’t think we’ll ever see a more pragmatic leader in that country. Which is why engaging with them is so important and will yield the most results we can ever get out of Saudi,” the ambassador said. “Change in attitude, change in style, change in approach,” Mr. Al-Otaiba wrote to Mr. Ignatius.

The exchanges gave credence to suggestions that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be seeking a reduction of tension with Iran. Yet, they occurred before the Gulf crisis erupted in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE demanded, among other things, that Qatar reduce its relations with Iran.

Describing a meeting with Saudi Prince Mohammed in an email to Mr. Al-Otaiba dated April 20, Mr. Indyk recounted that the prince “was quite clear with Steve Hadley and me that he wants out of Yemen and that he’s ok with the US engaging Iran as long as it’s coordinated in advance and the objectives are clear.”

At first glance, Prince Mohammed’s position, expressed prior to US President Donald J. Trump’s landmark visit to the kingdom in May and the Gulf crisis, clashes with Mr. Trump’s efforts to find a reason not to certify Iranian compliance with the two-year old nuclear agreement that led to the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Under the agreement, Mr. Trump must certify to the US Congress Iranian compliance every three months and is next due to do so in October.

The devil being in the details, the key phrase in Prince Mohammed’s remarks is the demand that “the objectives are clear.” The emails did not spell out what the prince met. Senior Saudi officials have repeatedly demanded that Iran halt its intervention in Syria and Iraq as well as its support for groups such as Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Yemen – demands Iran is unlikely to accept. 

Mr. Indyk’s description of Prince Mohammed’s endorsement of US engagement with Iran also contrasted with the Saudi official’s framing of his country's rivalry with Iran in sectarian terms in an interview on Saudi television in May. Prince Mohammed asserted in the interview that there could be no dialogue with Iran because it was promoting messianic Shiite doctrine.

Alghadeer, an Iraqi Shiite satellite television station broadcasting from the holy city of Najaf, earlier this month added to the confusion about Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s intentions with a report that the kingdom had asked Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to mediate between Iran and the kingdom. Alghadeer quoted Iraqi interior minister Qasim al-Araji as saying that Iran had responded positively.

Saudi Arabia’s official Saudi Press Agency denied the Alghadeer report and reiterated the kingdom’s hard line position that there could be no rapprochement with an Iran that propagates terrorism and extremism.

With the Islamic State on the ropes, Saudi Arabia’s reaching out to Iraqi and Iraqi Shiites amounted to a bid to counter Iranian influence and help Mr. Al-Abadi give the Sunni minority confidence that it has a place in a new Iraq.

The Saudi overtures also appeared designed to strengthen Shiite forces that seek to limit Iran’s influence. They also aimed to exploit the fact that a growing number of Shiite politicians and religious figures in Iraq were distancing themselves from Iran and could emerge strengthened from elections scheduled for next year.

The Saudi moves that also include the creation of a joint trade council and the opening of a border crossing that was closed for 27 years, could prove to be either a blessing or a curse for Iraq. They could turn Iraq into an area where Saudi Arabia and Iran find grounds for accommodation or they could exacerbate the situation with the rivalry between the two Middle Eastern powers spilling more forcefully into Iraqi politics.

Jamal Jaafar Ibrahimi, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a Shiite paramilitary commander and one of Iran’s closest Iraqi allies who has been designated by the US Treasury as a terrorist, suggested recently that Iran intended to stand its ground in Iraq. Mr. Ibrahimi warned that Iranian-backed Shite militias would not simply vanish once the fight against the Islamic State was over, even if the government ordered them to disband.

In a further move that could cut both ways, Saudi Arabia has asked Iraq for permission to open a consulate in Najaf. The Saudi request as well as visits to the kingdom and the UAE by controversial Iraqi Shiite scholar and politician Muqtada al-Sadr for talks with the two countries crown princes signalled not only a willingness to forge relations with Iraqi Shiites but also a desire to play a role in Shiite politics.

Saudi Arabia would be opening its consulate at a time that Najaf’s foremost resident, Sayyed Ali Hosseini Sistani, one of Shiite Islam’s most prominent leaders and a proponent of an Iraqi civil rather than a religious state, is, like his counterpart in the Islamic republic, Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, growing in age. Najaf and Iran’s holy city of Qom compete as Shiite Islam’s two most important seats of learning.

Mr. Al-Sadr, long a critic of Saudi Arabia’s hard line towards its own Shiite minority, has also sought to counter the rise of sectarianism and criticized the Iranian-sponsored militias fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army as well as Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Mr. Al-Sadr’s insistence that his discussions in Saudi Arabia and the UAE focused on Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Syria rather than the plight of Saudi Shiites was validated by the fact that his visit coincided with a three months-long, brutal crackdown on Shiite insurgents in the town of Awamiyah in the kingdom’s Eastern Province and the razing of its 400-year old Musawara neighbourhood, a hotbed of anti-government protest. The visit also came as Saudi Arabia planned to execute 14 Shiites accused of attacking security forces in 2011 and 2012.

Saudi Arabia, in a further gesture to Shiites, referred a popular cleric, Ali Al Rabieei, to the copyright infractions committee for “violating the press and publications law” as part of a crackdown on hate speech. Mr. Al-Rabieei was summoned for describing Shiites as “rejectionists” because they allegedly reject the first three successors to the Prophet Mohammed, and denying that Shiites were Muslims – concepts that enjoy currency among Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives.

Amid the fog of contradictory moves, Iraq is emerging as a bell weather of the next phase in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry that has complicated, if not exacerbated, the Middle East’s multiple conflicts. It could prove to be the chink in a covert and overt proxy war that has so far offered few, if any, openings for a reduction of tensions. By the same token, Iraq could emerge yet another battlefield that perpetuates debilitating sectarianism and seemingly endless bloodshed across the Middle East and North Africa.


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 four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

China contributes to doubts about Pakistani crackdown on militants


By James M. Dorsey

China, at the behest of Pakistan, has for the second time this year prevented the United Nations from listing a prominent Pakistani militant as a globally designated terrorist. China’s protection of Masood Azhar, who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military, comes days after another militant group, whose leader is under house arrest in Pakistan, announced the formation of a political party.

The two developments cast doubt on the sincerity of Pakistan’s crackdown on militants a day after a suicide bomber killed 15 people when he rammed a motorcycle into a military truck in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. Balochistan, a troubled province in which the military has supported religious militants an anti-dote to nationalist insurgents, has suffered a series of devastating attacks in the last year.

Taken together, the developments are unlikely to help Pakistan as the Trump administration weighs a tougher approach towards the South Asian country as part of deliberations about how to proceed in Afghanistan where US troops are fighting the Pakistani-backed Taliban.

US National Security Adviser Gen H.R. McMaster warned a week before the Chinese veto and the announcement of the new party, Milli Muslim League (MML), by Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), a charity that is widely viewed as a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), a group designated as terrorist by the UN, that President Donald Trump wanted Pakistan to change its ‘paradoxical’ policy of supporting the militants.

“The president has also made clear that we need to see a change in behaviour of those in the region, which includes those who are providing safe haven and support bases for the Taliban, Haqqani Network and others,” Mr McMaster said.

Mr. McMaster said that the US wanted “to really see a change in and a reduction of their support for these groups…. They have fought very hard against these groups, but they’ve done so really only selectively,” he added.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence have used militant groups to maintain influence in Afghanistan and to support protests as well as an insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir. China’s repeated veto of a UN designation of Mr. Azhar, whose group, Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been proscribed by the international body as well as Pakistan, is not only bowing to Pakistani wishes but also a way of keeping India on its toes at a time of heightened Chinese-Indian tension.

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, a portly bespectacled son of a Bahawalpur religious studies teacher and author of a four-volume treatise on jihad as well as books with titles like Forty Diseases of the Jews, was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Freed from Indian prison in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight, Mr. Azhar is also believed to be responsible for an attack in 2001 on the Indian parliament in New Delhi that brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war. JeM despite being banned continues to publicly raise funds and recruit fighters in mosques.

JuD sources said the charity’s transition to a political party was in part designed to stop cadres from joining the Islamic State (IS). They said some 500 JuD activists had left the group to join more militant organizations, including IS. They said the defections often occurred after the Pakistani military launched operations against militants in areas like South Waziristan.

Pakistan listed LeT as a terrorist organization in 2002, but has only put JuD "under observation." Pakistan's media regulator in 2015 banned all coverage of the group's humanitarian activities by the country's news media.

JuD’s head, Muhammad Hafez Saeed, a UN and US-designated terrorist and one of the world’s most wanted men, has been under house arrest in Pakistan since early this year. Mr. Saeed is believed to be among others responsible for the 2008 attacks on 12 targets in Mumbai, including the Taj Mahal Hotel, a train station, a café and a Jewish centre. Some 164 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. The US government has a bounty of $10 million on Mr. Saeed who was once a LeT leader. He has since disassociated himself from the group and denied any link between JuD and LeT.

"What role (Saeed) will play in the Milli Muslim League or in Pakistan's ongoing politics will be seen after Allah ensures his release. (Once he is released) we will meet him and ask him what role he would like to play. He is the leader of Pakistan," MML leader Saifullah Khalid told a news conference. Mr. Khalid added that Mr. Saeed’s release was high on the MML's agenda.

Mr. Saeed was not present at the conference, which was attended by Yahya Mujahid, a close aide of his, who is also subject to UN terrorism sanctions.

Treating men like Mr. Azhar and Mr. Saeed with kid gloves is unlikely to earn Pakistan any goodwill in Mr. Trump’s Washington. China’s protection of Mr. Azhar, moreover, undermines its sincerity in claiming that it is cracking down on militancy despite its harsh policy in the restive province of Xinjiang. If anything, it could put Beijing in Mr. Trump’s crosshairs too.


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 four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Gulf crisis produces snail-pace social change and a dangerous arms race


By James M. Dorsey

A two-month old crisis pitting Qatar against an alliance led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia is proving to be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it has revived momentum for unprecedented, albeit snail-paced social reforms, initially sparked by Qatar’s winning bid for the 2022 soccer World Cup. Those reforms break with policies among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain – that until now where wholly designed to protect the region’s autocratic rulers rather than enhance rights.

Ironically, the revived reform momentum constitutes an unintended consequence and an indication of ways in which the UAE-Saudi led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar has backfired. It suggests that Qatar’s refusal to comply with the alliance’s demands that effectively would have put Qatar under Saudi and UAE custodianship is likely to impact long-standing social, economic and political relationships in the Gulf in ways that the Gulf states had not envisioned.

On the other hand, the crisis threatens to escalate a Middle Eastern arms race that tiptoes around developing nuclear capabilities and has laid bare military ties between North Korea and a key Qatar detractor, the UAE. Ironically, the social change aspect permeates even the military dimension of the crisis.

It also positions Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE as both bigger brothers of smaller Gulf states and potential threats. “Smaller Gulf rulers now have increasing reason…to fear the Kingdom’s growing assertiveness under its new young Saudi king-to-be,” said former CIA official and Middle East expert Graham E. Fuller, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The boycott of Qatar, Mr. Fuller added, constitutes a “new display of Saudi aggressiveness and vengefulness against Qatar (from which) we gain flashes of insight into what the shape of things to come in Peninsula geopolitics might be.”

The crisis and the wave of nationalism and support for Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, it has sparked, has convinced the Gulf state that its past strategy of emphasizing soft as opposed to hard power is insufficient to guarantee security.

As a result, Qatar has radically increased its arms purchases with a recent $12 billion deal to buy US F-15 fighter jets and a $7 billion naval vessel acquisition from Italy. Britain’s Department for International Trade reported that Qatar since 2015 had moved from the world’s sixth largest to the third largest buyer of military equipment. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said Qatari arms purchases had increased a whopping 282 percent since 2012.

Qatar signalled changes in its defense and security policy in 2014, the year the UAE and Saudi Arabia first unsuccessfully tried to subject Qatar to their will by withdrawing their ambassadors from Doha, with $24 billion worth of arms purchases.

The flurry of deals contrasts starkly with Qatar’s earlier reputation as a state that eyed major defense acquisitions, but to the frustration of the US defense industry, often did not follow through. They put a spotlight on an arms race that potentially could have far-reaching consequences as well as the willingness of Gulf states to keep a door open to the development of missile and nuclear options.

A leaked US State Department memo attached to an email from the hacked email account of the UAE ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, expressed concern about a $100 million Emirati purchase of North Korean small and light arms in 2015, facilitated by an Emirati company allegedly owned by a close associate of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. The memo warned that North Korea “relies on overseas arms sales like this to sustain and advance its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.”

Given that the UAE would have had no problem acquiring the weapons elsewhere, the purchase appears to have been a bid to ensure access to missile and nuclear technology and persuade North Korea to restrict any dealings with Iran as well as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Moreover, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) warned earlier this year that “there is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of (Iran’s) major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the (nuclear) deal or sooner if the deal fails... “The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term.”

Signalling changing attitudes and policies in the Gulf, Qatar, one of the first Gulf states to introduce compulsory military service, is focussing its national service program on strengthening its security forces in a bid to not only to enhance homeland defense but also national cohesion. The program is partnering with Qatar Foundation’s Education City to include research that would support the military effort.

Critics dismiss Qatar’s recent social policy changes as too little and primarily intended to garner international support in its dispute with the UAE-Saudi-led alliance. Indeed, reforms such as the recent introduction of permanent residency for a top layer of expatriates don’t benefit unskilled or semi-skilled workers.

Similarly, the lifting of visa requirements for nationals of 80 countries, that interestingly did not include Iran, fails to address the issue of exit visas, a major bone of contention in efforts by human rights groups and trade unions to get Qatar to radically reform, if not abolish, its contentious kafala or labour sponsorship system.

To be sure, Qatar has been slow to respond to both international calls for a change of its labour system and domestic complaints  about issues about economic and educational benefits as well as social issues such as the refusal to grant citizenship to children born in marriages of Qatari women to foreign men and restrictions on marrying a partner of one’s choice. Children of Qatari women were included among those eligible, but were not given the right to citizenship.

Nonetheless, they make Qatar the first Gulf state to accord to foreigners any sort of rights granted until now only to citizens beyond those associated with residency permits linked to a period of employment.

The changes also fit a pattern of carefully shattering taboos about public discussion of issues like gay rights, norms for women’s dress in public, and the right to marry a person of one’s choice, that emerged as a result of Qatar’s heavy investment in sports as a soft policy tool and the leveraging of Qatar’s successful World Cup by human rights groups and trade union to pressure Qatar.
A litmus test of how far Qatar is willing to push change is a crucial hearing in November by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that will evaluate whether the Gulf state has complied with promises to improve the living and working conditions of migrant workers.

The ILO warned that it would establish a Commission of Inquiry if Qatar had failed to act by November. Such commissions are among the ILO’s most powerful tools to ensure compliance with international treaties. The UN body has only established 13 such commissions in its century-long history. The last such commission was created in 2010 to force Zimbabwe to live up to its obligations.

“The eyes of the world are on Qatar. The opportunity for the government is obvious, if it wants to prove its critics wrong… If the government takes the other path, of continuing to promote hollow reforms, then migrant labour abuse will be the gift that keeps on giving for Qatar’s political opponents,” said James Lynch of Amnesty International.


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 four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Gulf media wars produce losers, no winners (Corrected version)

Source: YouGov

By James M. Dorsey

This report has been corrected to say that the ArabNews/YouGov  poll report is currently embedded in a Arab News story, and according to Arab News, will be published on Monday on the YouGov website.

Feuding Gulf states that have pumped millions of dollars into public diplomacy appear to have done better in damaging the reputations of their detractors than in polishing their own tarnished images.

Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, all appear to fare poorly in how they are perceived, judged by a recent survey of American public opinion. The international community’s response to the two-month-old Gulf crisis suggests, however, that Qatar so far has been more successful in garnering muted support for its call for direct talks to solve the crisis – a position rejected by its detractors.

In the only survey to date of public perceptions in the United States of the Gulf crisis by Britain’s YouGov on behalf of Saudi Arabia’s foremost English-language daily, Arab News, Qatar faired poorest in its approval rating, but Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the instigators of a diplomatic and economic boycott of the idiosyncratic Gulf state did not do much better.

Poll results showed that a mere 27 percent of the 2,263 people queried considered Qatar a friend or ally of the United States compared to Saudi Arabia with 37 and the UAE with 39 percent. Thirty-one percent identified Qatar as unfriendly or an enemy of the US. Only 16 percent of those polled associated Qatar with its hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup while 34 percent linked Qatar to being accused of supporting terrorism and 44 percent believed that Qatar’s state-owned, controversial Al Jazeera television network provided a platform for militant and jihadist groups. 

Arab News reported extensively on the poll and included the full report in one of those stories. The report was also scheduled to be accessible on Monday on YouGov’s website.  The Arab News reporting was the latest salvo in a public relations war waged by state-owned or privately-owned media on both sides of the Gulf divide that operate in an environment of highly restricted freedom of the press and often have close ties to government and/or ruling families.

The Financial Times quoted Saudi journalists as saying that they had been pressured by government to criticise Qatar. One Saudi editor described to the FT how officials have been using a mobile phone messaging group to instruct journalists on how to shape coverage and what stories to focus on. “These are orders, not suggestions,” the editor said.

Focusing exclusively on the poll’s Qatar-related results, Arab News editor-in-chief Faisal J. Abbas expressed “surprise” at “how quickly the diplomatic row has negatively affected ‘Brand Qatar,’ at least in the US… It was interesting to see that despite the billions spent by Qatar on various soft power initiatives — from education to charity to international sport — the study found that more Americans associate it with supporting terror than anything else, “ Mr. Abbas wrote.

Mr. Abbas made no reference to the fact that like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have deployed huge sums to hire a battery of US public relations and lobbying firms in a bid to garner support for their positions. Nor did he discuss what return on investment they have had.

Striking a slightly more cautionary note in one of several commentaries on the YouGov poll published by Arab News, Sir John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to the kingdom, noted that “Saudi Arabia has ground to make up here, which is an important policy point for decision-makers in Riyadh: Reputation matters in the modern world and you do not improve that without a smart, targeted and sustained communications strategy.”

Last month, a random online YouGov poll suggested that of those asked whose side they were on in the Gulf crisis, 23 percent opted for Qatar and only nine percent for Saudi Arabia. Two thirds of the respondents said they did not know enough to choose sides.

The results of the survey of US public opinion, notwithstanding, Qatar appeared to be faring better than the poll results suggested. A majority of Arab and Muslim states have refrained from joining the UAE-Saudi-led campaign, which is backed by less than a score of African and Asian nations, who are dependent on the oil-rich Gulf states in financial and/or political terms.

The international community almost unanimously has refused to endorse the UAE-Saudi-led alliance’s conditions for resolving the Gulf crisis. The United States, the European Union, China and Russia have effectively backed Qatar’s call for direct talks between the Gulf states and its detractors, a proposal rejected by the alliance.

The alliance’s “problem with (their) display of political bravado is that nobody else buys it, and they are awkwardly isolated in their tent woven of threads of bravado. This is mainly because their accusations are wildly exaggerated, and also hypocritical on core complaints like funding Islamist movements, having relations with Iran, or interfering in other states’ affairs. The Saudi-Emirati media propaganda pushing such accusations has been embarrassing in its ultra-thin doses of truth, and wildly counter-productive, serving only to further damage the credibility that some GCC media did enjoy in recent years,” noted prominent journalist and pundit Rami G. Khouri

Mr. Khouri argued further that “in the court of global public opinion, the Qataris appear to be much more sensible, consistent, focused, and precise, while the Saudi-Emirati-led states seem to express genuine anger and fear accompanied by unrealistic and unreasonable demands, but without convincing evidence for their accusations.”

The UAE-Saudi-led alliance has demanded that Qatar shutter Al Jazeera and other media outlets; reduce its relations with Iran with whom it shares the world’s largest gas field; expel Turkish troops from the emirate; and cut ties to militant and Islamist groups irrespective of whether they have been proscribed by the United Nations or the United States. Qatar has rejected the demands as an infringement on its sovereignty.

To many, the dispute in the Gulf amounts to the pot blaming the kettle and twisting the truth to serve rival narratives that fuel their public relations and media wars. Literally all parties to the dispute are suspected of having had, at least at some points in time, links to militant groups. All, apart from Saudi Arabia, maintain often flourishing economic relations with Iran and many have foreign military bases on their soil.

Said hard-hitting, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald in an article detailing the Gulf rivals’ investment in Washington public relations and lobby firms some four years prior to the current Gulf crisis: “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… 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.”


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 four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Gulf crisis: Qatar’s 2022 World Cup moves into the firing line


By James M. Dorsey

A French investigation into possible corruption in business deals related to Qatar’s winning of World Cup hosting rights moved the 2022 tournament a step closer to becoming enmeshed in the two- month-old Gulf crisis.

Taken together with the almost simultaneous announcement of the milestone transfer to Qatar-owned French club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) of Brazilian star Neymar, the two events highlight Qatar’s perennial difficulty in capitalizing on its massive investment in sports as part of its public diplomacy and soft power strategy.

The investigation casts a shadow on Mr. Neymar’s transfer from FC Barcelona at a record-breaking cost of $260 million as a demonstration of Qatar’s ability to resist the two-month old UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state; move ahead with its infrastructure plans, including World Cup-related projects; and continue to heavily invest in a multi-pronged soft power ploy of which sports is a key pillar.

The investigation links former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to millions of euros involved in business deals that were allegedly part of a three-way deal to ensure French support for Qatar’s World Cup bid as well as the vote of one-time French star Michel Platini, who headed European soccer body UEFA and was a member of FIFA’s executive committee before being banned from involvement in soccer on corruption charges.

Qatar’s successful World Cup bid has been mired in controversy from day one. Allegations of wrongdoing in the bid, enhanced by FIFA’s multiple corruption scandals that have rocked the world body for the past seven years, and criticism of the Gulf state’s controversial labour regime that have been revived by the Gulf crisis, meshed with Eurocentric assertions. Eurocentric critics charged that Qatar did not deserve to host the World Cup because it was too small, boasted temperatures not conducive to performance, and had no soccer legacy.

The criticism of Qatar, although never convincingly countered by the Gulf state, had largely faded into the background until June when a UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar raised questions of Qatar’s ability to move ahead with preparations for the tournament. The questions were fuelled by feeble attempts by Qatar’s detractors to revive the criticism and suggest that it should be deprived of its hosting rights.

Qatar, while denying any wrongdoing in its bid, has taken several steps to counter criticism of its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship regime, including becoming the only Gulf state to engage with its critics, and legal reforms that were welcomed by human rights groups and trade unions, but deemed not far-reaching enough.

Qatar faces a crucial hearing in November by the International Labour Organization (ILO) that will serve as barometer of the Gulf state’s response to the criticism of the living and working conditions of migrant workers, who constitute the majority of its population. The ILO’s conclusion is likely to take on added significance against the backdrop of the Gulf crisis. Human rights groups have argued that the crisis offers Qatar an opportunity to secure a moral high ground by abolishing rather than reforming the kafala system.

Qatar, in a move designed to reassure expatriates and project itself as being in the forefront of labour reform, said earlier this month that it would offer permanent residence to a select group of expatriates. The offer that does not apply to the vast majority of migrant workers is unlikely to deflect the criticism.

Alongside the looming revival of attention on labour, the French investigation revives the focus on the integrity of the Qatari World Cup bid that already is the subject of a Swiss enquiry and looms large on the background of the indictment on corruption charges in the United States of numerous FIFA officials.

France’s interference in the FIFA vote on the Qatari World Cup bid was documented in a lengthy expose in French soccer magazine France Football. The magazine detailed a meeting engineered by then president Sarkozy in 2010 between Mr. Platini, then Qatari crown prince and current emir Sheikh Tamim bin Haman Al-Thani, and a representative of PSG. The three-way deal cut at that meeting allegedly involved Mr. Platini agreeing to vote for the Qatari bid in exchange for Qatar acquiring the French club, creating a French sports television channel, and investing in France.

Britain’s The Daily Telegraph reported that French investigators were examining whether Mr. Sarkozy may have received funds from deals linked to the 2010 meeting, including the sale to Qatar of a five percent stake in French water management company Veolia as well as the purchase in 2010 of PSG by Oryx Qatar Sports Investments, believed to be a Qatari government investment vehicle.

The British paper, quoting French sources, reported that €182 million “may have been siphoned off the side lines” of the deals and also used for payments to World Cup officials. A spokeswoman for the National Financial Prosecutor’s Office in Paris said they were “carrying out two separate preliminary inquiries” into Veolia and the World Cup bid. She said there was no established link between the two inquiries and Mr. Sarkozy was not “formally and personally targeted at this stage.”

The investigation coupled with the revival of the labour issue and the looming ILO hearing moves Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup into the firing line in the Gulf crisis. Qatar was so far able to deflect concern that the crisis would affect its ability to host the tournament because it would take place 5.5 years from now by which time the crisis would have long been resolved, and that it was able to move ahead with preparations despite a rise in the cost of construction materials because of the UAE-Saudi-led boycott.

The French investigation and the labour issue, however, opens opportunity for a new line of attack. Perhaps, a silver lining for Qatar in the looming battle over its World Cup hosting rights is the fact that this line of attack, like much else in the Gulf crisis, would have a pot-blames-the-kettle character. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states have labour regimes like that of Qatar.
US intelligence officials have asserted that the UAE engineered the Gulf crisis by orchestrating the hacking of a Qatari government website that created the excuse of the boycott of the Gulf state.

Much of the sabre-rattling in the Gulf crisis focuses on influencing policymakers and international public opinion with efforts to resolve the crisis stalemated and the international community unwilling to support the anti-Qatar alliance’s demands that target the Gulf state’s sovereignty and ability to chart its own independent course. The emergence of the World Cup as a new battleground offers Qatar an opportunity to grab the bull by the horns. It’s an opportunity Qatar has so far availed itself only half-heartedly.


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 four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Playing with Fire: Trump’s Iran policy risks cloning North Korea

Source: Wikimedia

By James M. Dorsey

As US President Donald J. Trump gropes with a set of bad options for responding to North Korea’s rapidly expanding nuclear and ballistic missiles program, he risks creating a similar, potentially explosive dilemma in the Middle East with his efforts to tighten the screws on Iran, if not engineer an end to the two-year old nuclear agreement Iran concluded with world powers.

In fact, Mr. Trump’s apparent determination to either humiliate Iran with ever more invasive probes of universally certified Iranian compliance with the agreement or ensure its abrogation could produce an even more dangerous crisis than the one he is dealing with in East Asia. Putting an end to the nuclear agreement could persuade Iran, as did US policy under former president Barak Obama in the case of North Korea, that a nuclear military capability is central to its security.

The risk in East Asia is a devastating military confrontation in which in the words of US Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who warned, quoting Mr. Trump, that “If there’s going to be a war to stop (North Korea), it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die over here.”

The key difference between North Korea and Iran is not the spectre of massive casualties in case of military action. It is the fact that in contrast to East Asia where the pariah state’s nuclear proliferation has not prompted others in the region like South Korea and Japan to launch programs of their own, an Iranian return to an unsupervised nuclear program would likely accelerate an already dangerous arms race in the Middle East to include countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE seeking a nuclear capability of its own.

Even without the arms race, Israel, the Middle East’s only, albeit undeclared, nuclear power, threatened prior to the conclusion of the nuclear agreement, to militarily take out Iranian facilities.

A termination of the agreement could also accelerate thinking in Riyadh and Washington about the utility of fostering unrest among Iran’s ethnic minorities in an attempt to destabilize the Islamic republic and create an environment conducive to regime change. The strategy risks not only adding to conflict already wracking the Middle East, but further endangering stability in Pakistan.

Even without a covert effort to destabilize Iran, Iranian leaders would likely see an end to the nuclear agreement as part of an effort to ultimately topple them – a perception that would enhance the attractiveness of the North Korean model.

The risk is enhanced by another difference between the North Korean crisis and a potential one involving Iran. World powers agree that the North Korean program needs to be curbed but differ on how that can best be achieved.

When it comes to Iran, the United States is, however, likely to find itself out on a limb by itself. The US’s partners in the agreement with Iran – China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain – believe Iran is in full compliance and there is no justification for endangering an accord that prevents the Islamic republic from developing a nuclear military capability for at least a decade. Similarly, the US’s closest allies in the Gulf, dread the prospect of escalated tensions with Iran.

“Few countries have more to lose in such a scenario than Washington’s Gulf Arab allies, which is why they have urged the United States to rigorously enforce, but not scrap, the nuclear agreement…. As long as the JCPOA is in force and being implemented, Iran will not become a nuclear power and there is therefore no need for a dangerous and unpredictable military confrontation. Without it, such a conflict, or the equally alarming and unacceptable emergence of Iran as a nuclear power, could become inevitable,” said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Gulf-funded Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Mr. Ibish was referring to the nuclear agreement by its acronym.

A litmus test of which way Mr. Trump will go looms large when the president in three months’ time must decide whether to certify to Congress for a third time that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement. Indications suggest that the president is looking for a way to either unilaterally abrogate the agreement or provoke Iran to walk away from it.

Mr. Trump’s problem is that his unsupported view of the nuclear agreement is not an isolated issue but fits a pattern that has alarmed the United States’ European and Asian allies as well as China and Russia. The pattern was established by his unilateral termination of US adherence to the Paris climate change accord, cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), cutting of funding to UN agencies, sowing of doubts about the US’s commitment to the NATO principle that an attack on one is an attack on all, and an overall sense that he threatens security and stability by undermining the international order.

Mr. Trump last month instructed White House aides to give him the arguments for withholding certification in October. The Trump administration is also looking at pushing for more intrusive inspections of Iranian military sites that it deems suspicious, a move Iran has rejected and considers inflammatory. Mr. Trump would likely argue that an Iranian refusal would amount to a violation of the agreement.

On the plus side, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster fired two proponents of tougher action against Iran, Derek Harvey and Ezra Cohen-Watnick. Proteges of Mr. Trump’s strategic advisor and far-right ideologue Steve Bannon, Messrs. Harvey and Cohen-Watnick were the two remaining hires of Mr. Mc Master’s short-lived predecessor, General Michael Flynn, an anti-Iranian firebrand.

Concerned that new US sanctions imposed this month will scare off potential European investors, Iran, in a precursor of the kind of volatility that would be sparked by an end to the nuclear agreement, said that it would strengthen its Revolutionary Guards and its Al Quds Force. The targets of the US sanctions, the Guards are the spearhead of growing Iranian influence across the Middle East with their involvement in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

“Trump’s presidency could follow the same trajectory as the man he so often ridicules: George W. Bush – that of a president who manufactured a crisis, ignited an endless conflict, and eroded America’s standing around the globe,” warned businessman and scholar Amir Handjani in a commentary on the US effort to end the nuclear agreement.


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 four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Playing both sides against the middle: Saudi engages with Iraqi Shiites


By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia, with the Islamic State on the ropes in Iraq, is forging ties to Iraqi Shiite leaders and offering to help fund reconstruction of Mosul and other predominantly Sunni Muslim cities that were devastated in the military campaign against the jihadist group.

The Saudi outreach to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and controversial Shiite scholar, politician and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who last week held rare talks in Jeddah with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aims to contain significant Iranian influence in Iraq. Mr. Al-Sadr is widely seen as having balanced his strong sense of nationalism with his relations with Iran. It was his first visit to the kingdom in more than a decade.

Mr. Al-Sadr’s visit was a far cry from the days not so long ago when as a firebrand he railed against the kingdom, prompting an Iraqi poet to declare that “with Moqtada's help we will destroy Saudi Arabia.”

Mr. Al-Sadr, who has criticized powerful Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State alongside the Iraqi army as well as Iran’s backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was preceded by Mr. Al-Abadi who was received in the kingdom in June despite having voiced days before his visit opposition to the two-month old Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Rivalry with Iran is one of the core issues in the Gulf crisis. The Saudi-UAE alliance has demanded that Qatar curtail its relations with Iran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field.

The Saudi outreach also signals a rare Saudi recognition that Iranian influence is a fact in a vicious proxy war that so far has been largely fought by the kingdom as a zero-sum-game. The proxy war prompted Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen that has brought Yemen to the brink of the abyss as it battles famine and epidemics, aggravated Syria’s brutal civil war, and sparked sectarian tensions across the Muslim world.

Ibrahim al-Marie, a retired Saudi colonel and Riyadh-based security analyst, voiced Saudi expectations of its outreach when he noted that “the significant improvement in Saudi-Iraqi relations, official and non-official, doesn’t mean that Iran’s domination of Iraq has decreased or will decrease. Dealing with all political currents in the Arab world is expected from a country of the kingdom’s size and stature.”

The Saudi outreach, despite Saudi Arabia’s designation of Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, constitutes the second time in six months that the kingdom has opted for engagement rather than confrontation.

Saudi Arabia in February reversed its cancellation of $3 billion in military aid to Lebanon, where Hezbollah is one of the country’s foremost political forces and part of the government; appointed a new ambassador; rescinded its advice to Saudis not to visit Lebanon, a popular Saudi tourism destination; increased flights to Beirut by its national carrier; and welcomed Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, on a visit to the kingdom.

Prince Mohmmed reached out to Mr. Al-Sadr as the kingdom’s security forces were cracking down on activists in the predominantly Shiite, oil-rich Eastern Province. The Saudi interior ministry reported earlier this week that a police officer was killed and six others injured when their patrol was attacked in the town of Al Awamiyah. Al Awamiyah was home to Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia scholar whose execution in early 2016 sparked a rupture in Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations.

Canada, which sold $15 billion worth of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, last week launched an investigation into claims that they had been employed in crackdowns on Shiites. The investigation was based on videos released by Saudi human rights activists that purported to show the use of Canadian vehicles in past crackdowns in the Eastern Province rather than the current operation in Al Awamiyah.

Saudi engagement with Iraqi leaders comes in advance of Iraqi provincial and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year. Mr. Al-Sadr’s visit to Jeddah took on added significance because of his opposition to Mr. Al-Abadi’s rival, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is widely seen as a major Iranian asset. The visit raised questions of what role Mr. Al-Sadr may want to play in countering Iranian influence in cooperation with the kingdom.

Messrs. Al-Sadr and Al-Abadi hope that Saudi Arabia will not only help in funding reconstruction of predominantly Sunni Muslim cities that have been left in ruins by the campaign against the Islamic State, but also in building bridges to a community that feels that it has been marginalized since the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s minority Sunni regime. They believe that Saudi Arabia will be able to leverage not only its financial muscle but also the fact that many Iraqi Sunni tribes share a common lineage with Saudi clans.

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city prior to its takeover by the Islamic State in 2014, has been virtually destroyed. Its infrastructure will have to be rebuilt from scratch at an estimated cost of tens of billions of dollars. Rebuilding other cities ravaged by the anti-Islamic State campaign has been slow to get off the ground.

Some optimists suggest that there may be more to Saudi moves. They hold out the possibility that Prince Mohammed is looking for a back channel to Iran, a role Mr. Al-Sadr could fulfil as one of the few Iraqi Shiite politicians who has reasonable relations with both the Islamic republic and the kingdom. More likely, however, Prince Mohammed sees an opportunity to exploit differences within the Iraqi Shiite community towards Iran and the government’s need of help in forging bridges to its Sunni citizens.

“One thing is for sure. The Saudis did not invite a major Iraqi Shiite cleric to Jeddah just to inquire after his health,” quipped Middle East scholar Juan Cole.


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 30, 2017

Strife in Jerusalem: Fears of popular revolts bring Israel and Arabs together

Source: Maan News

By James M. Dorsey

A web of formal and informal Israeli-Arab relations and common fears of renewed popular uprisings that could threaten regimes and benefit Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood facilitated Israel’s backing down in the crisis over Jerusalem’s Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif, home to Islam’s third most holy shrine, the Al Aqsa mosque.

Protests in recent weeks that forced Israel to lift restrictions on access and dismantle security arrangements installed on a site that evokes deep-seated emotions among Muslims and Jews alike had all the makings of a popular revolt and could yet prove to be a catalyst in approaches to Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation of lands captured half a century ago during the 1967 Middle East war. The security equipment was initially installed after two Palestinians with Israeli nationality shot dead two Israeli policemen in the compound.

The spontaneous protests that erupted independent of established political forces such as the Palestinian Authority (PA) headed by President Mahmoud Abbas; Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls the Gaza Strip, and other Palestinian political factions, empowered Palestinian Jerusalemites who live in a part of the city that has been annexed by Israel but feel that they are routinely discriminated against. The dismantling of the security equipment and lifting of restrictions on access constituted a rare instance in which Israel bowed to Palestinian pressure.

"We Palestinians have proved, not only to Israel, but to the whole world, that we Palestinians have promising potential that can never be broken," said Palestinian activist Ali Jiddah.

“We are on the threshold of a big shift. What is going on today is not random or transient. It could be the beginning of a third intifada that is different from the others. What is unique about this is that it’s not individual actions, but a popular movement capable of attracting huge numbers of people. This popular momentum could recharge the Palestinian people. It may take time but we are on the way. It will override the PA. They don't even know it exists. This will bring about a change in leadership,” added former Palestinian information minister-turned activist Mustafa Barghouti.

The sense of empowerment was evident two days after the Israeli backdown when protests erupted in the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv after police shot dead a Palestinian during a shootout with suspected criminals. 'The policemen have no right to shoot at people. This time we will not keep quiet,' said a Jaffa resident.

The notion of an empowered and angry public raised not only the spectre of a possible Palestinian uprising, the third in three decades, but a potential return of street protests elsewhere in the Middle East like those that in 2011 toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

The Jerusalem protests erupted at a moment that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have gone to extremes to roll back the 2011 achievements and ensure that the Middle East and North Africa does not witness a repeat. Saudi King Salman, the custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities, Mecca and Medina, in a statement by his royal court, claimed credit for resolving the Al Aqsa crisis through his contacts with world leaders.

The Jerusalem protests came on the back of widespread anti-government demonstrations in northern Morocco that have mushroomed since May and more recently expressed an anti-monarchy sentiment. The Moroccan protests, much like the 2011 revolt in Tunisia that forced President out of office, were sparked by the death of a fish vendor in the Riffian city of al Hoceima, who was killed by a trash compactor as he attempted to recover fish confiscated by authorities.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, in a bid to end the unrest, this weekend pardoned more than a thousand people who were under arrest for taking part in the protests.

Two incidents, the sentencing of a scion of a key Jordanian tribe to life in prison for killing three Americans at a Jordanian air base and the extradition to Israel of an Israeli security officer who killed two Jordanians to fend off an attack, threaten to take Jordan to the brink. Outrage over the government’s handling of the incidents have called into question a social contract in which Jordanians in the wake of protests in 2011 dropped demands for political reform and accepted austerity in exchange for stability.

“This has become an issue of dignity. There is a complete lack of trust and resentment toward this government by the people. We are afraid of where we go from this point,” said Jordanian member of parliament Saddah Habashneh.

Much more than the Moroccan protests and Jordanian anger, resistance to Israeli actions surrounding the Al Aqsa Mosque had the potential of forcing the hand of Arab autocrats in a post-2011 era in which Arabic public opinion has begun to count. Deep-seated divisions in the Arab world coupled with draconian anti-protest laws may explain the absence of demonstrations in the Middle East and North Africa in support of the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, if Palestinians were to capitalize on their Al Aqsa success to confront Israeli occupation and discrimination, it could spark public dissent elsewhere in the region as well as the wider Muslim world that could turn against local leaders. Continued Palestinian protests, moreover, could complicate cooperation between Israel and conservative Arab states in countering Iranian influence in the Middle East as well as an attempt to return to Palestine a UAE-backed Palestinian leader, who has good relations with key figures in the United States and Israel.

Arab rulers have so far been helped not only by the absence of solidarity protests in Arab capitals, but also by indications that Arab public opinion may be divided because of the Gulf crisis over attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, both of which have close ties to Qatar. In one instance, a caller told the London-based Arabic-language Al-Hiwar television network: “I’m opposed to an Al-Aqsa victory, because an Al-Aqsa victory is a victory for Hamas and Qatar!”

Ahmed Samah al-Idarusi, a spokesman for the Popular Committee for the Defense of Sinai, a group formed by the Egyptian region’s tribal leaders, complained that “we now encounter Egyptian diplomatic and cultural silence such that even the elites are not capable of releasing a single joint statement of condemnation” of Israeli actions in the Al Aqsa compound.

Prominent Israeli commentator Zvi Bar’el noted that so far, the Al Aqsa protests have not sparked a third Palestinian intifada even though they had all the makings of an uprising. Mr. Bar’el argued that Palestinians were still traumatized by the political and human cost of the second intifada in the first years of the 21st century that ironically was dubbed the Al Aqsa intifada.

“The tragic results of the second intifada – from both the humanitarian and strategic perspectives – have been deeply engraved in the collective Palestinian memory. It’s hard to imagine what the expiry date of such trauma is… Perhaps…the trauma is still effective – but it’s best not to put it to the test,” Mr. Bar’el 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.