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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Tackling Pakistani madrassas An uphill struggle


By James M. Dorsey

This is an edited version of remarks by James M. Dorsey at the launch in Islamabad on 30 January 2018 of ‘The Role of Madrassas: Assessing Parental Choice, Financial Pipelines and Recent Developments in Religious Education in Pakistan and Afghanistan,’ an extensive study by three Pakistani think tanks backed by the Danish Defense College.

In many ways, the question whether madrassas or religious seminaries contribute to instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan goes far beyond an evaluation of the content of what students are taught and how they are being taught. In fact, it could be argued that the train has left the station and that there are no magic wands or simple administrative and regulatory fixes to address problems associated with madrassas. To make things worse, those problems are not restricted to madrassas; they also are prevalent in the public education system.

Irrespective of which of the spectrum of estimates of the number of madrassas in Pakistan one accepts, fact of the matter is that many, if not the majority, of madrassas do not produce graduates who have learnt to think critically. Rote education produces the opposite in a 21st century world in which critical thinking is ever more important.

Moreover, generations of graduates coupled with successive governments willing to play politics with religion and debilitating conflict have helped create a significant segment of Pakistani society that is ultra-conservative, intolerant, anti-pluralistic, and often supremacist.

It is a segment that easily can be whipped up to adopt militant causes as recent protests as well as the popularity of militant groups among both Barelvis and Deobandis have demonstrated. Which raises the question of whether madrassas alleged links to militancy is the core issue, or only part of a far more fundamental issue: the fact that madrassas more often than not teach an ultra-conservative worldview that with a solid grounding and resonance in society is being reinforced and reproduced.

What that means is that the problem is far greater than ensuring registration of madrassas or simply ensuring that include modern science alongside religious subjects in their syllabi. The magnitude of the problem is illustrated in a madrassa in the city of Jang that has a state-of-the-art computer lab. 

Access to the lab and computer lessons are voluntary, yet only a mere 16 percent of the school’s 300 students are interested or avail themselves of the opportunity in a world in which a baby’s first demand is an iPhone. Visits to other madrassas elsewhere in the country show that at times English lessons that are on the curriculum are just that. They exist on paper rather than in practice. The language classes that do exist often produce anything but English speakers or children with even a rudimentary knowledge of the language.

The question of the context in which madrassas operate is also illustrated by the fact that foreign funding is not what keeps the bulk of the madrassas afloat. Foreign funding is no longer crucial. That is not surprising. Four decades after Gulf states, and to a lesser degree Iraq in the past, and Iran on the other side of the equation, poured huge amounts into ultra-conservative religious education, a world has been created that leads it own life, develops its own resources, and is no longer dependent on external funding and support. It’s the nature of the beast.

Former Federal Secretary Tanseem Noorani asserted as much as recently as last year when he noted that the number of madrassas was increasing faster in rural areas of Pakistan than regular public schools. There is indeed little doubt that madrassas fill a gap in a country with a broken education system as well cater to a demand for a religious education. And there is no doubt that there are inside and outside of government valiant efforts to fix the system. Hundreds of madrassas have been closed because of links to militancy or other irregularities. But there is equally no doubt that inroads made by ultra-conservatism not only in segments of the public but also significant elements of the bureaucracy cast doubt on the degree to which fixing the system can succeed.

There has been much debate and speculation about Saudi funding. The issue of Saudi funding has much to do with the broader issue of ultra-conservatism as a factor that pervades the discussion of madrassas and more broader trends in Pakistani society. Popular perception is that Saudi funding was focused on Wahhabism, the specific strand of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism prevalent in the kingdom.

In fact, it was not, despite Saudi links and support to Wahhabi groups like Ahl-e-Hadith in Pakistan. Saudi funding and support focused on ultra-conservatism irrespective of what specific strand of Islam as long as it was anti-Shiite, anti-Ahmadi and anti-Iran. It was that broader focus that allowed the Saudis to, for example, support Deobandis, something that a singular focus on Wahhabism would have precluded.

Not only was Saudi funding broader focused, it also was in a majority of cases hands off. In other words, a majority of Saudi-supported in Pakistan as elsewhere across the globe, were more often than not, not Saudi-managed nor was a Saudi anywhere in sight, even if textbooks, Qur’ans and other materials were Saudi-supplied.

Moreover, official sources will never be comprehensive in documenting funding particularly from foreign sources. That is all the truer in countries where financial controls and their implementation is lax. In the case of Saudi funding of madrassas, this means that money flows are often not transparent and not necessarily recorded and when recorded not made available for scrutiny. As a result, tracking Saudi funding may never produce a comprehensive picture and will often rely on anecdotal evidence or unofficial documentation provided either by the donor or the recipient.

No doubt, far less Saudi funding is available today, but that there is, yet, no indication that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vague notion of a more moderate Islam means a restructuring of the kingdom’s funding targets.

The effort to rewrite Saudi textbooks that are used in the kingdom itself could indicate that change is coming although the extent of that revision remains to be seen. Recent statements by the World Muslim League, a major vehicle of Saudi funding, about the need for inter-faith dialogue and recognition of the Holocaust point in that direction.

Yet, the record of the first three years of the era of the Salmans, King Salman and his powerful son, Prince Mohammed, also has markers that would suggest the opposite. It may be that funding abroad will be more focused on what serves Saudi efforts to confront Iran, which would put Pakistan, with its borders with Iran and the Islamic world’s largest Shia minority, in the bull’s eye. It would also mean that moderation may be less evident in what the Saudis choose to support.

Over the past two decades, repeated efforts have been made to regulate and reform madrassas even if implementation and impact has been lagging. That lag cannot simply be attributed to a lack of resources and/or capabilities.

Reform depends on political will and is obstructed by resistance from powerful and entrenched ultra-conservative circles whose tentacles reach beyond the ulema and the administrators of madrassas. 

With other words, it is the fallout not only of Saudi and Gulf funding but of government and state policies that allowed ultra-conservatism along a broad spectrum to flourish in Pakistan. The issue here is not simply militancy, it is ultra-conservatism that is not by definition or necessarily politically militant.

This is nowhere more evident than in the fact that the problem is not restricted to madrassas but is far more universal. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported as recently as two years ago that Pakistani public school textbooks contained derogatory references to religious minorities.

The report asserted that “in public school classrooms, Hindu children are forced to read lessons about the conspiracies of Hindus toward Muslims’, and Christian children are taught that ‘Christians learned tolerance and kind-heartedness from Muslims.”

It went on to say that “this represents a public shaming of religious minority children that begins at a very young age, focusing on their religious and cultural identity and their communities’ past history.”

The report noted that a review of the curriculum demonstrated that public school students were being taught that “religious minorities, especially Christians and Hindus, are nefarious, violent, and tyrannical by nature.”

Addressing the issues at the core of Pakistan’s religious and public education system is going to take out-of-the-box thinking that devises ways of drawing in important segments of the ultra-conservative community rather than alienating them. A turn-around will only truly work if it has buy-in rather than projects a sense of imposition.

For that to happen, government policy and the implementing bureaucracy will have to have a broad vision: one that initiates and manages a broad range of policies and processes that seek to foster values that are at odds with ultra-conservatism such as tolerance, pluralism, and freedom of expression rather than just pay lip service to them. It’s not clear that Pakistan has the political will for this, let alone that the building blocks for such policies are in place.


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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Moderating Saudi Islam: Government proposes tightening fundraising rules


By James M. Dorsey

A Saudi draft law could constitute a first indication that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vow to return the kingdom to a moderate form of Islam will some reshaping of the kingdom’s global funding for Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative educational and cultural facilities as well as militants.

The law, if adopted, would at the very least tighten rules governing the raising of funds in the kingdom that often flowed to militants in campaigns of which it was not always clear whether the government had tacitly approved them. Tighter rules would make it more difficult for the government to put a distance between itself and militant fundraising.

To be sure, analysts have long assumed that fundraising, particularly with the help of members of Saudi Arabia’s government-aligned, ultra-conservative religious establishment, could not occur without the knowledge of a regime that maintains tight political control.

It remains unclear how tighter fundraising rules would affect Saudi Arabia’s ideological war with Iran. The kingdom has for decades invested billions of dollars in globally propagating Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to the Islamic republic’s revolutionary zeal.

The bulk of the funds flowed to non-violent groups, but in some cases also to ones that attacked Shiites and/or Iranian targets. That has largely not changed since the rise in 2015 of King Salman and his powerful son, Prince Mohammed.

Saudi Arabia, in the latest suggestion that tightened fundraising may target militancy rather than supremacist, sectarian and intolerant strands of ultra-conservatism, plans to open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom.

The plan harks back to the creation of an anti-Shiite Salafi mission near the Houthi stronghold of Saada that sparked a military confrontation in 2011 with the Yemeni government, one of several wars in the region. The centre was closed in 2014 as part of an agreement to end the fighting.

Prince Mohammed’s use of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam in his controversial war with the Houthis was also evident in the appointment as governor of Saada of Hadi Tirshan al-Wa’ili, a member of a tribe hostile to the Shiite sect, and a follower of Saudi-backed Islamic scholar Uthman Mujalli. Mr. Mujalli reportedly serves as an advisor to Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled, kingdom-backed Yemeni president.

Writing in Al-Monitor, Brookings fellow and former CIA official Bruce Riedel argued that continued government support of ultra-conservatism served not only Saudi Arabia’s regional ambitions but also as a pacifier for a religious establishment that, despite public endorsement of Prince Mohammed’s social reforms, is deeply uncomfortable with changes like a loosening of restrictions on women and greater entertainment opportunities.

“After three years on the throne, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are pursuing the most aggressively sectarian and anti-Iran policy in modern Saudi history. The Wahhabi clerical establishment is an enthusiastic partner, which is good internal politics for the royals… t’s a way to keep the mainstream Wahhabi establishment and the Al Sheikhs content that their core interests are safe,” Mr. Riedel said, referring to the descendants of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, who constitute the ruling Al Sauds’ religious counterpart.

If adopted, fundraisers would have to be authorized before launching a campaign. Failure to obtain authorization would result in a jail sentence of up to two years and, in the case of foreigners, deportation. Fundraisers would only be allowed to accept donations from Saudi nationals and institutions.

The stipulation that the fundraisers themselves too would have to be Saudi nationals would effectively block foreign individuals and groups from Pakistan and elsewhere that have been supported for decades by Saudi Arabia from independently seeking financial support in the kingdom.

A litmus test of the impact of the law, once adopted, will be how Saudi Arabia deals with people like Pakistani cleric Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab. Mr. Abu Turab was identified last May as a specially designated terrorist by the US Treasury at the very moment that he was in the kingdom to raise funds for his militant madrassas or religious seminaries that dot the border between the Pakistani province of Balochistan and Afghanistan.

A member of Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology that oversees whether legislation is in line with Islamic law, Mr. Abu Turab is a leader of Ahl-i-Hadith, a Pakistani Wahhabi group supported by the kingdom for decades, and a board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV.

He also heads the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities (Tehrike Tahafaz Haramain Sharifain) whose secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil has also been designated by the Treasury.

Similarly, Pakistani militants reported over the last 18 months that funds from Saudi Arabia were pouring into militant madrassas in Balochistan against the backdrop of indications that the kingdom may want to try to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among the Islamic republic’s ethnic minorities, including the Baloch.

Saudi efforts to more tightly control fundraising may also serve Prince Mohammed’s unconventional effort to fill depleted government coffers at a time of economic recession. Prince Mohammed launched in November what amounted to a power and asset grab packaged as an anti-corruption campaign after the kingdom’s elite had failed to respond to a request to make patriotic contributions to help shore up government finances.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan said last week that authorities had received a total of roughly $100 billion in out-of-court settlements from around 350 people accused in the purge.
As a result, tougher fundraising rules could potentially mean that donations would increasingly favour domestic rather than foreign causes.

It is, however, with no indication that Saudi Arabia is willing to reduce tension with Iran, unlikely that the kingdom would halt funding of its ideological war with the Islamic republic. Nor is there an apparent Islamically-packaged alternative to the propagation of ultra-conservatism as its primary soft power tool.

In short, tighter fundraising rules are certain to enhance control of the causes for which money is solicited and who will be allowed to raise funds. It may well also result in support for advocacy of interfaith dialogue and greater tolerance as recently propagated by the World Muslim League, a government-controlled non-governmental vehicle that for decades funded the global spread of ultra-conservatism. The rules, however, are unlikely to mean an end to funding of ultra-conservatism and sectarianism that serves Saudi Arabia’s existential battle with Iran.


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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Sunday, January 28, 2018

How regional rivalries threaten to fuel the fire in Syria and Iran

Credit: Wikimdia

By James M. Dorsey

Turkish allegations of Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian support for the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) threaten to turn Turkey’s military offensive against Syrian Kurds aligned with the PKK into a regional imbroglio.

The threat is magnified by Iranian assertions that low intensity warfare is heating up in areas of the Islamic republic populated by ethnic minorities, including the Kurds in the northwest and the Baloch on the border with Pakistan.

Taken together, the two developments raise the spectre of a potentially debilitating escalation of the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as an aggravation of the eight-month-old Gulf crisis that has pitted Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar, which has forged close ties to Turkey.

The United Arab Emirates and Egypt rather than Saudi Arabia have taken the lead in criticizing Turkey’s incursion into Syria designed to remove US-backed Kurds from the countries’ border and create a 30-kilometre deep buffer zone.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said the incursion by a non-Arab state signalled that Arab states would be marginalized if they failed to develop a national security strategy.
Egypt, for its part, condemned the incursion as a "fresh violation of Syrian sovereignty" that was intended to "undermine the existing efforts for political solutions and counter-terrorism efforts in Syria,"

Despite Saudi silence, Yeni Safak, a newspaper closely aligned with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), charged that a $1 billion Saudi contribution to the reconstruction of Raqqa, the now Syrian Kurdish-controlled former capital of the Islamic State, was evidence of the kingdom’s involvement in what it termed a “dirty game.”

Analysts suggest that Saudi Arabia may have opted to refrain from comment in the hope that it could exploit the fact that Iran, a main backer of Syrian president Bash al-Assad, has refused to support the incursion.

Nevertheless, Saudi, UAE and Egyptian support for the Syrian Kurds would stroke with suggestions that the Gulf states are looking at ways of undermining regimes in Tehran and Damascus by stirring unrest among their ethnic minorities.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said it had recently seized two large caches of weapons and explosives in separate operations in Kurdish areas in the west of the country and a Baloch region on the eastern border with Pakistan. It said the Kurdish cache seized in the town of Marivan included bomb-making material, electronic detonators, and rocket propelled grenades while the one in the east contained two dozen remote-controlled bombs.

The ministry accused Saudi Arabia of providing the weapons but offered no evidence to back up its claim. The ministry has blamed the kingdom for a number of weapons seizures in the past year.

The Revolutionary Guards said earlier this month that it had captured explosives and suicide vests in the south-eastern province of Sistan and Baluchistan that had been smuggled in by a jihadist group that operates out of the neighbouring Pakistan region of Balochistan.

Separately, a Guard commander said that three Guards and three Islamic State militants had been killed in a clash in western Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman vowed last year that the battle between his kingdom and the Islamic republic would be fought "inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia." Former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Britain and the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, told a rally of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Iranian opposition group that “I, too, want the fall of the regime.”

A Saudi think tank, the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies (AGCIS), believed to be backed by Prince Mohammed, called in a study published last year for Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran.

In the study, published by the Riyadh-based the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies, Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, a Washington-based Baloch lawyer, researcher and activist, argued that the “Saudis could persuade Pakistan to soften its opposition to any potential Saudi support for the Iranian Baluch... The Arab-Baluch alliance is deeply rooted in the history of the Gulf region and their opposition to Persian domination,” Mr. Husseinbor said.

Pointing to the vast expanses of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Mr. Husseinbor went on to say that “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances…in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers.”

Washington’s conservative Hudson Institute that prides itself on the Trump administration having adopted many of its policy recommendations, last year organized a seminar with as speakers Baloch, Iranian Arab, Iranian Kurdish and Iranian Azerbaijani nationalists.

Pakistani militants have claimed that Saudi Arabia had in the last year stepped up funding of militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that allegedly serve as havens for anti-Iranian fighters.

The spectre of ethnic proxy wars in Iran, Pakistan, and Syria threatens to further destabilize the greater Middle East and complicate Chinese plans to develop the Pakistani deep-sea port of Gwadar, a crown jewel of China’s Belt and Road initiative.

Fuelling ethnic tensions further risks Iran responding in kind. Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran of instigating low-level violence and protests in its predominantly Shiite oil-rich Eastern Province as well as in Bahrain.  It also risks aggravating war in Yemen, regionalizing the Turkish-Kurdish confrontation in Syria, and pushing the Middle East ever closer to the brink.


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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Friday, January 26, 2018

Kidnapping and ant-Shiite rhetoric stirs Malaysian debate about Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism


By James M. Dorsey

Allegedly kidnapped, forty-three-year old Malaysian activist Amri Che Mat, a foreign exchange trader and mountain climber, has not been heard of since he went missing in November 2016.

An inquiry into his disappearance coupled with an assertion by Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, the mufti of the state of Perlis, that Malaysia’s miniscule Shiite Muslim community constitutes a national security threat are but the latest incidents that have raised concerns about the impact of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative strands of Islam.

Shiites in Malaysia, a country of 31 million, are believed to number 40,000. Shiism was banned in 1996, but Shiites are allowed to worship privately.

Mr. Amri’s black four-wheel-drive was found the night of his disappearance near a construction site with its windows smashed, a 55-minute drive from his home in Kangar, Perlis’ capital. Witnesses said his car was blocked by five vehicles when he was snatched close to his house.

Accused of adhering to Shiism, Perlis’ Islamic Religious Department, advised the state’s schools two months prior to Mr. Amri’s disappearance not to participate in programs managed by Perlis Hope, the charity co-founded by the activist. Perlis Hope was donating school bags and uniforms.

The charity, in testimony this month to Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission that is investigating the vanishing of Mr. Amri and three other activists, denied that it was associated with any one religious grouping.

Mr. Asri, the mufti, fuelled debate about creeping influence in Malaysia of ultra-conservatism with assertions earlier this week that Mr. Amri was a Shia, who practised mut’ah, a temporary marriage contract under Shiite religious law.

The mufti accompanied police who came to their house in 2015, according to Mr. Amri’s wife, Norhayati Ariffin, to question the activist about his Shiism, a strand of Islam that Mr. Asri denounces as deviant.

Speaking this week, Mr. Asri said Mr. Amri’s home was decorated with pictures of Shia imams. “The surroundings were similar to a Shia mosque in Iran,” he said.

The mufti denied assertions by Ms. Ariffin in testimony to the commission that his department may have been involved in Mr. Amri’s disappearance. “Maybe her husband has gone off somewhere. Maybe he has gone to Iran. Maybe he has gone to practise mut’ah in Thailand. How should I know?” Mr. Asri said.

The mufti asserted that the spread of Shiism in Perlis and neighbouring Thailand “could threaten national security.” He asserted that Perlis Hope was possibly seeking to establish a theocracy.

The disappearance and Mr. Asri’s remarks follow a string of events and government measures that have sparked renewed debate about what critics have dubbed the country’s Arabization. Malaysia has long been a target of a long-standing, well-funded Saudi public diplomacy campaign that propagates Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian revolutionary zeal and Shiite ideology.

Saudi influence was further spotlighted by a scandal surrounding Malaysia's state development fund 1MDB sparked by revelations that $700 million had wound up in Prime Minister Najib Razak's bank account in 2013. Mr. Najib said it was a donation from the Saudi ruling family, rebutting allegations it was money siphoned from the fund he had founded and overseen. Malaysia's attorney-general cleared him of any wrongdoing.

On a visit to Malaysia a year ago, Saudi King Salman inked agreements involving $10 billion of investment in Malaysia and the building of a King Salman Centre for International Peace to bring together Islamic scholars and intelligence agencies in an effort to counter extremist interpretations of Islam.

The centre would work as resource partners with the Saudi-financed Islamic Science University of Malaysia, and the Muslim World League, a Saudi-funded non-governmental organization that for decades served as a vehicle for global propagation of ultra-conservatism.

Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Malaysia has also been thrust into the limelight by Mr. Najib’s increased emphasis on Islam and close ties to the kingdom.

Malaysian defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this week that Malaysian forces would remain in Saudi Arabia ” for the sole purpose of providing humanitarian assistance and possibly contribute to rebuilding efforts in Yemen if required.” Malaysia had earlier refused to send troops to fight in the kingdom’s ill-fated military effort to counter Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The government recently backed a parliamentary bill that would allow the shariah courts wider criminal jurisdiction over Muslims in the state of Kelantan. Malaysian authorities last year banned two beer festivals against a backdrop of mounting hostility towards Shiites, atheist and gays.

Malaysia has also given refuge to Zakir Naik, a militant Indian Islamic scholar who has been banned from entering Singapore and Britain because of his advocacy of the death penalty for homosexuals and those who abandon Islam.

Malaysia’s sultans, in a rare warning cautioned last October that Malaysia’s stability was at risk from political Islam after attempts by two laundromats to service Muslims only were blocked by local authorities.

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the sovereign of the Malaysian state of Johor, in perhaps Malaysia’s starkest confrontation of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism last year denounced practices of Wahhabism and Salafism by calling on Malaysians to uphold their country’s culture and not imitate Arabs. The sultan decried what he described as creeping Arabization of the Malay language by insisting on using Malay language references to religious practices and Muslim holidays rather than Arabic ones.

“If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right, but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the sultan 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 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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Testing Prince Mohammed’s pledge to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam


By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vow to return his kingdom to a moderate interpretation of Islam could be put to the test by a draft bill in the US Congress that would require the secretary of State to submit yearly reports about whether Saudi Arabia is living up to its promise to remove intolerant content from its educational materials.

The bill would also increase pressure on Saudi Arabia to introduce freedom of religion in a country that bans all worship except for those that adhere to its long-standing strand of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam.

The bi-partisan bill submitted by Republican House of Representatives member Ted Poe and Democrat Bill Keating reflects long-standing criticism of Saudi textbooks that use hateful and incendiary language; foster supremacism, intolerance, and anti-pluralism; and, according to many critics, incite violence.

The texts describe alternative strands of Islam such as Shiism and Sufism in derogatory terms and advise Muslims not to associate with Jews and Christians who are labelled kaffirs or unbelievers. They also justify the execution of ‘sorcerers.’ Saudi Arabia, moreover, has legally defined atheism as terrorism. The textbooks are used not only in Saudi schools but also in many educational and cultural institutions funded by the kingdom across the globe.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia has for more than a decade pledged to revise its educational materials and has made significant progress in doing so. The progress falls, however, short of a 2006 US-Saudi understanding that the kingdom would “within one to two years… ‘remove remaining intolerant references that disparage Muslims or non-Muslims or that promote hatred toward other religions or religious groups.’”

A Human Rights Watch survey of religion textbooks produced by the Saudi education ministry for the 2016-2017 school year, while acknowledging Saudi efforts, concluded that “as early as first grade, students in Saudi schools are being taught hatred toward all those perceived to be of a different faith or school of thought.” The survey was part of a larger study of hate speech adopted by Saudi officials and Islamic scholars.

Saudi revision of textbooks has taken on added significance with Prince Mohammed’s pledge last October to return Saudi Arabia to a vaguely defined form of “moderate” Islam. The pledge heightened expectations created by social reforms introduced by the crown prince that include lifting a ban on women’s driving, a residual of Bedouin rather than Muslim tradition; granting women access to male sporting events; allowing various forms of entertainment, including cinema, theatre and music; and stripping the religious police of its right to carry out arrests.

In outlining his vision, Prince Mohammed said Saudi ultra-conservatism had been an uninformed response to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Even though Saudi association with ultra-conservatism harks back more than two centuries to the teachings of 18th century Islamic scholar Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhabi, Prince Mohammed asserted that “we are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.”

Among objectionable texts in schoolbooks, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle, are markers by which one can recognize the approach of the Day of Resurrection, that include the assertion that “the Hour will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews, and Muslims will kill the Jews.”

The assertion is not dissimilar from evangelist belief that Christ’s second coming is linked to the conversion of Jews to Christianity prior to the Day of Judgement and the prediction of a Holocaust for all those who refuse. Evangelist support for Israel and US President Donald J. Trump’s pro-Israel policy is rooted in that belief. Moreover, influential Premillennial Dispensationalists argue that Israel’s creation signalled the nearing of the end of days and that thousands of Jews will die on the Day of Armageddon.

Mr. Coogle noted that Prince Mohammed has remained conspicuously silent about hate speech in textbooks as well as its use by officials and Islamic scholars connected to the government.

The bill introduced by Messrs. Poe and Keating, dubbed The Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act, would increase pressure on Prince Mohammed to act more forcefully in a bid to halt mounting criticism in Congress of Saud Arabia that is driven by perceptions of linkages between Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and political violence and the kingdom’s ill-fated invasion of Yemen. The bill could also persuade the crown prince to act in an effort to prevent further tarnishing of the kingdom’s image.

The bill further puts Saudi Arabia’s continued violations of freedom of religion in the spotlight. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has identified Saudi Arabia since 2004 as a “country of particular concern.” The designation constitutes the Commission’s harshest condemnation of violators of freedom of religion.

A 1998 law calls for the sanctioning of violators but allows the president to waive penalties if he decides that it would enhance the chances of achieving adherence or be in America’s interest. US presidents have issued a waiver for the past 12 years. Messrs. Poe and Keating’s bill would step up the pressure by requiring the secretary of State to regularly justify a waiver.

The bill, if passed, could push Prince Mohammed to clarify whether his call for a moderate form of Islam means a clean break with the teachings of Ibn Abdul Wahhab or whether he simply has a polishing of the rough edges of the scholar’s ultra-conservatism in mind.

Ironically, the model for an upgraded, more friendly form of Wahhabism, is Prince Mohammed’s nemesis, Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state. Saudi Arabia leads an alliance that last June imposed a diplomatic and economic boycott on Qatar to force it adopt policies aligned with those of the kingdom.

The contrast between Qatar and Saudi Arabia could, however, not be starker. Prince Mohammed’s reforms such as women’s’ driving, entertainment, and freedom of religion have long been standard practice in Qatar.

That is not to say that Qatar does not have its share of supporters of ultra-conservatism and controversial clerics, including Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, one of the world’s most prominent living Islamic scholars, who spew hate speech and issue religious edicts that have justified suicide bombings.

Said former Qatari justice minister and prominent lawyer Najeeb al Nauimi, speaking some 16 years ago: "Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina. We have Qaradawi -- and all his daughters drive cars and work.”

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Iran: Protests and threat of renewed sanctions focus economic thinking

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps logo

By James M. Dorsey

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appears in the wake of recent anti-government protests to have put his weight behind President Hasan Rouhani’s repeated calls for reduced military and Revolutionary Guards involvement in the economy.

Mr. Khamenei signalled his support by ordering the military and the Guards to start divesting from commercial holdings and businesses not related to their core tasks except for construction projects considered essential by the government.

The order serves not only to address protesters’ grievances that were sparked in part by losses suffered by millions of Iranians a result of the collapse of fraudulent financial institutions with links to the Guards and other public institutions. The financial entities lured investors with high interest rates that they could not pay.

Mr. Khamenei’s order could also sweeten Iranian efforts to persuade Europe to put in place legal measures that would allow it to invest in the Islamic republic even if the United States imposes new sanctions and withdraws from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Europe shares many of the United States’ concern about the role of the Guards in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and the fact that it runs Iran’s ballistic missile program but has insisted that the agreement should be maintained.

A target of US sanctions, the Guards reportedly are not opposed to a reduced stake that analysts say accounts for as much as 30 percent of the Iranian economy. The Guards operate, among others, Khatam al Anbia, a huge construction company with tens of thousands of employees that is involved in civil development, the oil industry and defense businesses. The Guards build roads, operate ports, manage telecommunication networks, and own business in sectors as far flung as finance and medical.

The “top brass have realized that running companies is actually not their competency. The poor management has been a drag on the economy and--as seen in the recent #IranProtests--a risk to internal security and to the prestige of the armed forces,” said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, an Iran analyst, commentator and business consultant.

In a world in which everything is interlinked, disinvestment by the Guards and military as well as other public institutions like the Social Security Organization, Iran’s largest pension fund, would involve privatization in a country that has found it difficult to attract foreign investment because of the threat of a re-imposition of US sanctions conditionally lifted as part of the nuclear agreement.

US President has threatened not to renew US sanctions relief in May if Europe and the US Congress failed to work towards an agreement with Iran on an addition to the nuclear accord that would restrict Iranian missile testing and development, provide for expanded inspections of Iranian facilities, and extend prohibitions on nuclear-weapons work. Iran insists that the accord cannot be renegotiated.

Europe has been pressing the Trump administration not to walk away from the accord. Iranian officials have suggested that Tehran would adhere to the nuclear deal in case of a US walkout provided that it served its interests.

For Iran to see continued merit in the deal, it would have to believe that European companies would remain interested in investing in the Islamic republic. That would require the European Union adopting legislation that would shield European companies from US secondary sanctions that would target non-American entities invested in Iran.

Privatization of military and Guards-owned companies, given Iran’s undercapitalized financial markets and its small pool of viable domestic investors, would depend on foreign investors, who in turn are unlikely to risk being penalized by potential renewed secondary US sanctions.

“Europe should put in place a viable contingency plan if the United States continues backtracking on the deal and let Washington know it’s ready to use it… Europe will need to present a package (together with China and Russia) that can entice Iran to continue abiding by the core elements of the current nuclear agreement,” said Iran expert Ellie Geranmayeh.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Ms. Geranmayeh argued that Europe should initially attempt to secure from the United States exceptions to the potential sanctions modelled on the US penalties imposed on Russia that provide relief from enforcement for European companies.

“If Washington refuses this approach, European governments should publicly warn that in any instance where the U.S. Treasury actively enforces secondary sanctions targeting European companies dealing with Iran, the European Union will revive measures similar to its ‘blocking regulation’,” Ms. Geranmayeh argued.

The blocking regulation adopted by the European Union in 1996 thwarted then US President Bill Clinton’s attempt to force Europe and others to abide by US sanctions on Libya, Iran and Cuba. The regulation made it illegal for European companies to abide by US sanctions, gave them legal cover to refuse payment of US fines, and opened the door to the EU penalizing US companies in retaliation.

In practice, European companies, if forced to choose between doing business with the United States or Iran, would likely opt to steer clear of the Islamic republic. The EU would be banking on the expectation that the Trump administration would ultimately opt to compromise in a bid to avoid a deterioration of trans-Atlantic relations.

In announcing Mr. Khamenei’s support for reducing the stake in the economy of the military and the Guards, Iranian defense minister Amir Hatami cautioned that “the degree of our success depends on market conditions and the possibility of divestment.”

Said Mr. Batmanghelidj: “If success in privatization is to be achieved…Iran's equity market investors will need foreign investors to help carry the burden and unlock the opportunity.”

With little insight into what entities will be put up for sale, European investors, even if the EU puts legal protections in place or cuts a deal with the United States, like their Russian and Chinese counterparts, are likely to take a wait-and-see attitude. That could put efforts to reduce the military and Guards’ economic stake in jeopardy, catching it between the rock of lack of Iranian transparency and the hard place of weak domestic financial markets and a limited pool of investors.

If that were not enough, Saudi efforts to counter Iran could further dampen foreign investor appetite. In a sign of the times, South Korean construction company POSCO Engineering & Construction in which Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund has a 38 percent stake cancelled a $1.6 billion contract to build a steel mill in Iran because of objections by the company’s two Saudi board members.


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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Whither Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘moderate’ Islam?

Credit: algeriepatriotique

By James M. Dorsey

Recent Algerian media reports detailing Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism raises questions about the scope of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s commitment to what he has termed ‘moderate’ Islam. So does Saudi missionary activity in Yemen.

The missionary activities suggest that Saudi Arabia continues to see ultra-conservatism as the primary ideological antidote to Iranian revolutionary zeal. Saudi Arabia has invested an estimated $100 billion over the last four decades in globally promoting ultra-conservatism in a bid to counter the Islamic republic. The campaign has contributed to greater conservatism and intolerance in Muslim communities and countries and in some cases fuelled sectarianism.

Saudi support for ultra-conservatism does not by definition call into question the kingdom’s determination to fight violent radicalism and extremism, and counter non-violent political expressions of Islam.

More recently, the kingdom has been willing to surrender control of major religious institutions that it funds and controls when that proves to be beneficial to improving its image, tarnished by negative perceptions of its support for ultra-conservatism.

The grand mosque and Islamic centre in Brussels, Europe’s largest, is a case in point. Saudi Arabia, responding to Belgian criticism of the mosque’s ultra-conservative Saudi management, last year appointed as its imam, Tamer Abou el Saod, a 57-year polyglot Luxemburg-based, Swedish consultant with a career in the food industry.

The appointment followed complaints in parliament about Saudi and other ultra-conservatives who managed the mosque. Senior Saudi officials have responded positively to a Belgian government initiative to prematurely terminate the kingdom’s 99-year lease of the mosque so that it can take control of it.

Prince Mohammed has created expectations of greater social liberalism by vowing to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined form of “moderate” Islam; lifting a ban on women’s driving, a residual of Bedouin rather than Muslim tradition; granting women access to male sporting events; allowing various forms of entertainment, including cinema, theatre and music; and stripping the religious police of its right to carry out arrests.

The reforms notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia has yet to indicate whether it has reduced its long-standing funding for ultra-conservative educational and cultural facilities even though Saudi financing vehicles like the World Muslim League have re-positioned themselves as promoters of tolerance and humanitarianism. The league operates the Brussels mosque.

The League’s secretary general, Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, has in the last year argued that his organization was “a global umbrella for Islamic people that promotes the principles and values of peace, forgiveness, co-existence, and humanitarian cooperation” that organizes inter-faith conferences.

Algerian media reported however that the kingdom’s assertion that it promotes moderate and more tolerant strands of Islam may not be universal. “While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

El Watan and other media reproduced a letter written by Saudi Sheikh Hadi Ben Ali Al-Madkhali, a scion of Sheikh Rabia Al-Madkhali, the intellectual father of a quietist strand of Salafism that projected the kingdom prior to Prince Mohammed’s reforms as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism. The letter appoints three prominent Algerian scholars, including Mohamed Ali Ferkous, widely viewed as the spiritual guide of Algerian Madkhalists, as Salafism’s representatives in Algeria.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia has said it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s.

Question marks about what Prince Mohammed defines as moderate Islam are fuelled by a widespread assumption that the ruling Al Saud family cannot afford a clean break with ultra-conservatism in general and Wahhabism, its specific Saudi strand, in particular, because it derives its legitimacy from the kingdom’s religious establishment.

Prince Mohammed’s grip on power by virtue of his position as heir to the throne, defense minister, and economic czar that was cemented with last year’s purge of prominent family members, businessmen and officials in what amounted to a power and asset grab may, however, persuade him that the family no longer needs religious legitimacy.

Prince Mohammed’s moves have put an end to rule based on consultation within the Al Saud family and more than ever forced the ultra-conservative religious establishment to endorse his moves in a bid to survive and retain some degree of influence rather than out of conviction. In effect, Prince Mohammed has assumed the kind of power associated with one-man-rule, possibly convincing him that his legitimacy is rooted in his power and image as a reformer rather than ultra-conservatism.

Like with many of his reforms, Prince Mohammed is treading on fragile ground as long as his popularity is based on expectations rather than delivery. There has so far been little in his social reforms at home or declarations about Islam that suggests that he intends to go beyond curbing the rough edges of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and creating the building blocks for an autocratic monarchy capable of performing economically and technologically in a 21st century world.

Prince Mohammed’s social and ideological reforms no doubt seek to fight political violence. The crown prince has yet to demonstrate that this involves in practice rather than words the countering of an ultra-conservative ideology that breeds intolerance, fosters anti-pluralism, and potentially creates breeding grounds for radicalism.


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, January 21, 2018

Gulf crisis turns Qatar into the ‘region’s Israel’

Qatar airbrushed from map in UAE / Credit: Simon Henderson

By James M. Dorsey

Prominent US constitutional lawyer and scholar Alan M. Dershowitz raised eyebrows when he described Qatar as “the Israel of the Gulf states.”

Known for his hard-line pro-Israel views, Mr. Dershowitz drew his conclusion following an all-expenses paid trip to the Gulf state. Mr. Dershowitz argued that Qatar like Israel was “surrounded by enemies, subject to boycotts and unrealistic demands, and struggling for its survival.”

He noted that while he was in Qatar an Israeli tennis player had been granted entry to compete in an international tournament in which the Israeli flag was allowed to fly alongside of those of other participants.

In response, Saudi Arabia took Qatar to task for accommodating the tennis player and almost at the same time refused Israelis visas to take part in an international chess tournament. To be fair, with US President Donald J, Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it may have been difficult for the kingdom to have done otherwise.

“This episode made clear to me that the Saudis were not necessarily the good guys in their dispute with Qatar. The Saudis have led a campaign to blockade, boycott and isolate their tiny neighbouring state. They have gotten other states to join them in this illegal activity,” Mr. Dershowitz said.

His remarks were likely to have surprised Arabs and Jews as well as pro-Israeli circles. Israel, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sees Qatar as a state that supports militants like Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, and Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been designated a terrorist organization by Qatar’s detractors.

Mr. Dershowitz’s similarities notwithstanding, the differences between Qatar and Israel are multiple. Most importantly, Qatar does not occupy foreign territory, nor does it deny the rights of others or employ its military to achieve geopolitical objectives. It is Qatar’s soft power approach and idiosyncratic policies that provoked the ire of its Gulf brethren and accusations that it supports violent and non-violent militants.

Nonetheless, the trappings of the eight-month-old Gulf crisis, sparked by the imposition last June of a UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott, would seemingly to some degree bear out Mr. Dershowitz’s view.

Much like Arab maps of the Middle East that for the longest period of time, and often still do, failed to identify Israel, a map of the southern Gulf in the children's section of Abu Dhabi's recently inaugurated flagship Louvre Museum omits Qatar. The map would seemingly turn the Gulf dispute into an existential one in which the perceived basic principle of recognition, existence, and right to stake out one’s own course is at stake.

Yet, protagonists in the Gulf crisis, much like those on the pro-Palestinians side of the Arab-Israeli divide, ensure that some degree of crucial business can be conducted, albeit often surreptitiously, and that common or crucial national interests are not jeopardized.

Money exchangers in the UAE still buy and sell Qatari riyals. Natural gas continues to flow. Neither Qatar nor the UAE have tinkered with the sale of Qatari gas that is supplied through a partially Abu Dhabi-owned pipeline that accounts for up to 40 percent of Dubai’s needs.

A similar picture emerges with aviation. Like Israel, which does not bar Arab nationals entry, Qatar has not closed its airspace to Bahraini, Emirati and Saudi aircraft even though the three states force it to bypass their airspace by overflying Iran. This has nevertheless not stopped aviation from becoming the latest flashpoint in the Gulf, signalling that the region’s new normal is fragile at best.

Tension rose this month with when Qatar twice charged that military aircraft jet had violated its airspace. Qatar used the alleged violations to file a complaint with the international aviation authority. The UAE, beyond denying the allegations, asserted that Qatari fighters had twice intercepted an Emirati airliner as it was landing in Bahrain.

In what may be a significant difference, Israel, unlike Qatar is not in the business of fostering opposition, if not regime change, in the region. Israel largely feels that autocratic rulers are more reliable partners and less susceptible to the whims of public opinion.

By contrast, regime change figures prominently in the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s toolkit, at least in the public diplomacy part of it, albeit with mixed results. Emirati and Saudi efforts to foster opposition from within the ruling family to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. appeared to have backfired.

Projected by Saudi and UAE leaders and media they control as a leader of opposition to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani, a little-known member of the ruling family, appears to have pulled a Saad Hariri, on his Emirati and Saudi sponsors.

Like what happened to Mr. Hariri, who last year resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister while on a visit to the Saudi Arabia, only to withdraw his resignation and adopt policies that contradict those of the kingdom once he was allowed to leave, Sheikh Abdullah has accused his hosts of pressuring him to the point that he wanted to commit suicide.

In two video clips, Sheikh Abdullah, the son of Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah al-Thani, a former emir who was deposed in 1972, initially charged that he was being held against his will in the UAE. Once he was allowed to leave for Kuwait, Sheikh Abdullah accused the crown princes of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, of having sparked the Gulf crisis “to usurp the wealth and riches of Qatar," a likely reference to Qatar’s gas and financial reserves.

The UAE appears to have been successful in a third case of seeking to influence the shape of government elsewhere by pressuring real and potential players. Former Egyptian prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. who went into exile in the UAE in 2012 after losing a presidential election, asserted in November that he was being held against his will in the country. He was expelled to Egypt within hours, where he declared that he would not run in forthcoming elections in March.

Mr. Dershowitz no doubt did Qatar a favour by visiting the country and by coming out in its defense. Comparing Qatar to Israel, however, may not go down well with significant segments of Arab and Qatari public opinion as well as pro-Israel groups. In doing so, he may have dampened the impact of his comments.


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.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Chinese engineer’s disappearance takes on geopolitical significance


By James M. Dorsey

Thirty-six-year-old Chinese engineer Pingzhi Liu went missing almost a month ago. It took Pakistani authorities three weeks to classify Mr. Liu’s disappearance as a likely kidnapping that could have significant political and economic consequences.

Identifying the mysterious disappearance as a kidnapping is not only embarrassing because Mr. Liu was one of thousands of Chinese nationals working in Pakistan that are guarded by a specially created 15,000-man Pakistani military unit.

It is also awkward because it coincides with apparent Chinese questioning of aspects of the $56-billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of China’s Belt and Road initiative, and increasingly strained relations between Pakistan and the United States.

Mr. Liu was accorded military protection even though his project, the Karot Hydropower Plant, located near the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, is not part of CPEC. Karot was the first project financed by China’s state-owned $40 billion Silk Road Fund, established in 2014 by President Xi Jinping to foster increased investment in Eurasia.

Mr. Liu went missing on December 20 while on night duty. He was last seen walking out of a tunnel at around 3.30am while talking on his phone. No claim for his potential kidnapping or ransom has been made.

The fact that Mr. Liu was working on a project in Punjab rather than Balochistan, a troubled region with a history of attacks on Chinese personnel, has set alarm bells off.

China last month warned its nationals in Pakistan, a country plagued by religious and ethnic militancy, of plans for a series of imminent terrorist attacks on Chinese targets

"It is understood that terrorists plan in the near term to launch a series of attacks against Chinese organisations and personnel in Pakistan," the Chinese embassy in Pakistan said in a statement on its website.

The embassy warned all "Chinese-invested organisations and Chinese citizens to increase security awareness, strengthen internal precautions, reduce trips outside as much as possible, and avoid crowded public spaces".

Police have twice detained for interrogation Chinese and Pakistani workers associated with the Karot project. They are also introducing security and vetting measures for Pakistani nationals working with Chinese personnel.

If proven to be a kidnapping, Mr. Liu’s disappearance could not have come at a more awkward moment. China has signalled that it is considering freezing further CPEC-related investment until the country’s domestic situation stabilizes. China is believed to have so far invested $29 billion of the $56 billion committed.

“Political events in Pakistan have sent China in a watchful mood… I am concerned if we continue to throw surprises to the outside world, then anyone can be forced to rethink their economic investments,” Pakistan’s chief CPEC negotiator, Ahsan Iqbal, told Pakistani daily The News.

China had earlier decided to redevelop criteria for the funding of CPEC-related infrastructure projects in an apparent 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 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 – suggested that Beijing was not averse to exploiting its massive investment in the Belt and Road to shape the political environment in key countries in its authoritarian mould.

The possible investment freeze threw into doubt China’s reliability as Pakistan’s all-weather friend at the very moment that the Trump administration announced that it was cutting almost all security aid to Pakistan, believed to total more than $1 billion, until it deals with militant networks operating on its soil.

Pakistan, in response and in advance of a visit by a United Nations Security Council team to evaluate Pakistani compliance with its resolutions, has sought to crack down on the fundraising and political activities of Muhammad Hafez Saeed, an internationally designated terrorist accused of having masterminded the 2008 attacks in Mumbai.

Pakistan’s predicament could worsen if Mr. Trump, who has targeted Pakistan in blunt tweets in the past month, decides to tighten the screws beyond cutting aid by taking further punitive action such as sanctioning Pakistani military officials, revoking Pakistan’s non-NATO ally status; increasing drone strikes beyond Pakistan’s tribal areas; designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror, and/or pressuring international financial institutions to blacklist Pakistan.

The sensitivity of the timing of Mr. Liu’s disappearance was heightened by the fact that some in Pakistan appear to doubt whether CPEC will be the magic wand for Pakistan’s economy and regional geopolitical position that Pakistani and Chinese leaders make it out to be.

Criticism of CPEC has focused on doubts about the financial viability of various projects, Pakistan's ability to repay related debts, a lack of transparency, and assertions that Chinese nationals were usurping Pakistani jobs.

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.”

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.

The vanishing of Mr. Liu, if proven to be a criminally or politically motivated kidnapping, threatens in the current environment to put Pakistan between a rock and a hard place. Its relationship with its traditional ally, the United States, is on the rocks while its ties to China are proving to be more complex than Pakistani leaders had envisioned.

Amid domestic political instability, anti-government protests, and pressure to come clean in its getting a grip on militancy, Pakistani democracy may be saddled with the bill.

While neither the United States nor China can afford a complete rupture, neither has a clear strategy to help Pakistan stabilize. China’s solution appears to be tacitly supporting a greater role of the military in Pakistani politics – a formula that has in the past failed to produce results and is more part of the problem than part of the solution.


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.