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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

A recent interview in which Baloch National Movement chairman Khalil Baloch legitimized recent militant attacks on Iranian, Chinese and Pakistani targets is remarkable less for what he said and more for the fact that his remarks were published by a Saudi newspaper.

Speaking to Riyadh Daily, the English language sister of one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost newspapers, Al Riyadh, Mr. Baloch’s legitimization in the kingdom’s tightly controlled media constituted one more suggestion that Saudi Arabia may be tacitly supporting militants in Balochistan, a troubled Pakistani province that borders on Iran and is a crown jewel of China’s infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative.

Riyadh Daily interviewed Mr. Baloch against the backdrop of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran that many fear could escalate into military conflict, past indications of Saudi support for religious militants in Balochistan, and suggestions that countries like the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are united in their opposition to Iran but differ on what outcome they want maximum pressure on the Islamic republic to produce.

The interview followed publication in 2017 by a Riyadh-based think tank with ties to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of a call by a Baloch nationalist for support for an insurgency in the Baloch-populated Iranian province that borders Pakistan and is home to the crucial Indian-backed port of Chabahar on the Arabian Sea.

It also juxtaposes with Pakistani anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian militants who operate madrassahs along the Iranian-Pakistani border reporting stepped up Saudi funding. The monies are believed to come in part from Saudi nationals of Baloch descent, but the militants suggest the funding has at least tacit government approval.

Balochistan has witnessed multiple attacks on its Hazara Shiite minority as well as in May on a highly secured luxury hotel frequented by Chinese nationals in the Chinese-backed Baloch port city of Gwadar and a convoy of Chinese engineers as well as the Chinese consulate in Karachi. Militants killed 14 people in April in an  assault on an Iranian revolutionary guards convoy and exploded in December a car bomb in Chabahar.

Saudi Arabia is also suspected of supporting the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a controversial Iranian exile group that seeks the fall of the Iranian regime and enjoys support of senior Western politicians and former officials as well as US national security advisor John Bolton prior to his appointment and ex-Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal.

For now, tacit Saudi support for Baloch militants is likely to be more about putting potential building blocks in place rather than the result of a firm decision to wage a low-intensity proxy war.

“The recent escalation in militant attacks is a direct reaction to Pakistan army’s growing atrocities in Balochistan and China’s relentless plunder of Baloch resources,” Mr. Baloch said.

Asserting that the Pakistani part of Balochistan has been occupied by Pakistan since 1948, Mr. Baloch insisted that the “Baloch nation is resisting against this forced accession. This insurgency is the continuation of that.”

The alleged Saudi support coupled with plans for a US$10 billion Saudi investment in a refinery in Gwadar and a Baloch mine has sparked discussion in Beijing about the viability of China’s US$45 billion plus stake in the region’s security and stability.

Iranian officials see a pattern of foreign support for insurgents not only in Balochistan but also among Iran’s Kurdish, Arab and Azeri minorities. Their suspicions are fuelled by statements by Mr. Bolton prior to his appointment calling for support of insurgencies and Prince Mohammed’s vow that any battle between the Middle East’s two major rivals would be fought in Iran rather than Saudi Arabia.

Complicating the situation along Iran’s borders is the fact that like in the waters of the Gulf where naval assets are eyeing one another, it doesn’t take much for the situation to escalate out of control. That is particularly the case with Iran having shifted tactics from strategic patience to responding to perceived escalation with an escalation of its own.

Iran moreover has been preparing for a potential covert war waged by Saudi Arabia and possibly US-backed ethnic insurgent groups as well as the possibility of a direct military confrontation with the United States by building a network of underground military facilities along its borders with Pakistan and Iraq, according to Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian academic who frequently argues the Tehran government’s position in international media.

Iran recently released a video showcasing an underground bunker that houses its missile arsenal.

In a further heightening of tension, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards attacked on Friday Iranian armed opposition groups in the Kurdistan region of Iraqwith drones and missiles. Iranian artillery separately shelled villages in a region populated not only by armed anti-Iranian and anti-Turkish Kurdish groups but also smugglers.

The strikes followed the killing of three Iranian revolutionary guards. A spokesman for the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) denied responsibility for their deaths.

The risk of escalation is enhanced by the fact that while the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel agree on the principle of maximum pressure, they do not necessarily see eye to eye on what the end goal is.

While US President Donald J. Trump appears to want to force Iran back to the negotiating table, Israel and Mr. Bolton are believed to advocate gunning for regime change ignoring the risk that the effort could produce a government that is even less palatable to them.

That outcome would suit Saudi Arabia that does not want to see a regime emerge that would be embraced by Western nations and allowed to return to the international fold unfettered by sanctions.

A palatable government would turn Iran into a Middle Eastern powerhouse with a competitive edge vis a vis Saudi Arabia and complicate the kingdom’s ambition to become a major natural gas player and sustain its regional leadership role.

Writing in the Pakistan Security Report 2018, journalist Muhammad Akbar Notezai warned: “The more Pakistan slips into the Saudi orbit, the more its relations with Iran will worsen… If their borders remain troubled, anyone can fish in the troubled water.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Former coach and player Farouk Gaafar put his finger on Egyptian soccer’s fundamental problem even if his call for the military to take over and run the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) with an “iron fist” amounted to inviting the fox into the chicken pen.

Mr. Gaafar issued his call after Egypt, once the undisputed king of African soccer, was knocked out of the African Cup of Nations that it is hosting in a bid to bolster its international image tarnished by systematic violations of human rights. Egypt’s government is headed by general-turned-president 

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who initially came to power in a military coup.
Egypt’s bid has been marred by multiple events besides its poor performance in the tournament. 

Fans exploited matches to honour legendary but controversial retired player Mohamed Aboutreika as well as the deaths of 94 fans in two separate politically charged incidents in 2012 and 2015.


As if all of this were not enough, Egyptian midfielder Amr Warda was initially banned early in the tournament from further participation amid mounting allegations of online sexual harassment, but then under pressure from his team mates reinstated.

Like many fans and some executives, Mr. Gaafar, who managed the military’s Talaee el Geish (Army’s Vanguards) Sports Club for seven years, blamed Egypt’s poor performance in the African tournament as well as last year’s World Cup in Russia on the EFA’s lack of accountability.

EFA president Hany Abo Rida sacked Mexican national team coach Javier Aguirre and resigned together with the majority of the group’s board members hours after the Egyptian national team’s crucial defeat at the hands of South Africa.

“The state has done everything, but the football federation and the players have done nothing. There is nothing better than the discipline of the armed forces… football needs to be run with an iron fist,” Mr. Gaafar said on a pro-government television show.

There is no doubt that Egyptian soccer desperately needs deep structural reform. The problem is that the state of the sport reflects Egypt’s broader structural problems. The country’s military is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution.

Add to this the fact that a military takeover of soccer would deepen problems because it would violate FIFA’s insistence on a fictional separation of sports and politics and likely lead to a suspension of the EFA’s membership of the world soccer body.

Alaa Sadek, a Qatar-based Egyptian critic of Mr. Al-Sisi, moreover, noted that Egypt had failed to qualify for the World Cup in the 31 years between 1936 and 1967 that it was headed by a military officer.

Mr. Sadek charged that Egyptian soccer had recently failed domestically and internationally  because Mr. Al-Sisi since coming to office in 2013 had turned the EFA into an “army camp.”

Newspaper editor Gamal Sultan noted that the government and the military’s recent assault on the EFA ocurred only after Egypt lost its decisive match against South Africa.

“Only last week, the EFA was clean, acceptable and patriotic. They were received by Sisi and the minister of defence and celebrated only when their victories served the image of the regime. One week later, the EFA has become corrupt and wanted for investigations. These are the standards of justice in today’s Egypt,” Mr. Sultan said.

In a rare broad-based lifting of an eight-year old ban on unfettered attendance of soccer matches by fans, Egypt’s defeat in the African Cup was witnessed by 75,000 mostly Egyptian spectators, many of whom have long accused the EFA of mismanagement and corruption.

Egypt has with brief exceptions banned fans from stadia since the first day of the January 2011 popular revolt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in a bid to stop soccer from being a venue for the release of pent-up popular anger and frustration as well as anti-government protest.

The government has made exemptions for international matches so that it could not be blamed for weak national team performance and to avoid putting the ban on international display.

More recently, small groups of fans have been admitted to domestic matches but only after identifying themselves with their IDs and with approval of their club.

Fans, nonetheless, defied bans on political slogans and jerseys during the African tournament by chanting Mr. Aboutreika’s name in the stadium and in online videos that went viral.

A legendary player, Mr. Aboutreika, who was consistently public about his politics, retired in 2013 after helping Egypt clinch three African Cups.

He has since been forced into exile in Qatar after being accused of having been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a political group that Mr. Al-Sisi has brutally tried to crush.

Mr. Aboutreika was sentenced to a jail in absentia last November for tax evasion in what many view as trumped-up charges.

Fans also ignored rules imposed to prevent political expression by lighting up the stadium with their mobile phone flashlights during the South Africa match in commemoration of the 72 supporters that died in 2012 in a stampede and 22 others in another stampede three years later.

Many fans believe the incidents were instigated in an effort to intimidate fans and cut the most militant among them down to size.

Militant soccer fans played a key role in the 2011 uprising as well as subsequent protests, including against Mr. Al-Sisi’s coup that overthrew Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and the country’s first and only democratically elected leader.

The role of the fans highlighted the threats and opportunities posed to autocrats by soccer, the only thing that evokes the kind of deep-seated passion associated with religion.

As a result, stadiums as a public space that were contested and difficult to control threatened autocratic leaders’ grip on power. Yet, soccer’s popularity offered autocrats an opportunity to shore up their tarnished image by associating themselves with something that had immense public acceptance.

If anything, Egypt’s African Cup of Nations demonstrates that exploiting soccer for political purposes is a tricky business.

Tweeted journalist Karim Zidan under the trending hashtag ‘Team of sexual harassers:’ "Egypt's national team is…its national embarrassment ... Plenty of Egyptians are basking in the team's loss today."

Much like in the latter part of toppled Mr. Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Mr. Zidan was inferring that fans see the national team as Mr. Al-Sisi’s squad rather than Egypt’s.

In a country in which all expressions of dissent are brutally repressed, that is as clear a rejection of Mr. Al-Sisi’s effort to polish his and Egypt’s severely tarnished image as it gets.

A version of this article first ran on Africa is a Country

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

An official Turkish visit to the troubled north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang to assess reports of a brutal crackdown on the region’s Turkic Muslims could shape Turkey’s challenge to conservative Gulf states’ leadership of the Islamic world and complicate Muslim silence about the most frontal assault on their faith in recent history.

The visit to assess the situation in Xinjiang was agreed in talks with Chinese leaders when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the issue during a recent visit to Beijing.

Mr. Erdogan appeared to set the tone for the visit by declaring that it was possible to "find a solution to this issue that takes into consideration the sensitivities on both sides."

Walking a fine line, Mr. Erdogan went on to say that "those who exploit the issue…by acting emotionally without thinking of the relationship that Turkey has with another country, unfortunately end up costing both the Turkish republic and their kinsman."

For its part, China seemingly sought to frame the Turkish visit with state-run China Daily newspaper quoting Mr. Erdogan as telling Chinese leaders that "it is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China's development and prosperity."

Turkey has in the past sought unsuccessfully to mediate tensions in Xinjiang in part by agreeing with Beijing on an investment program in the Chinese region.

For Turkey, the visit amounts to a risky gamble.

A Turkish confirmation of the extent of the crackdown would position Mr. Erdogan as a leader willing to defend Muslim causes that other leaders have chosen to ignore much like he attempted last year to take the lead on denouncing US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Turkey earlier this year briefly appeared to be willing to take on the Xinjiang issue when its foreign ministry harshly condemned Chinese policy, but has largely remained silent since.

In response to the criticism, China temporarily closed its consulate in the Mediterranean port city of Izmir, warned Chinese residents and travellers to Turkey to “be wary and pay attention to their personal safety,” and threatened further economic retaliation.

If Turkey, on the basis of the visit, were to endorse China’s assertion that it is countering extremism by offering voluntary vocational training to Turkic Muslims, it would be granting a significant victory to China given Turkey’s ethnic and cultural ties to the Xinjiang Muslim community.

It would project Mr. Erdogan as just one more Muslim leader who for economic and commercial reasons was willing to cold-shoulder co-religionists in a time of need.

An endorsement would group Mr. Erdogan with men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who earlier this year during a visit to Beijing recognized China’s right to undertake "anti-terrorism" and "de-extremism" measures and Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and Indonesian president Joko Widodo who professed to be unaware of the situation in Xinjiang.

Trying to balance Turkey’s position as a safe haven for Turkic Muslims while maintaining close ties to China, Turkey last month said it had granted 146,000 residence permits to members of various Turkic communities, including an estimated 35,000 Uyghurs.

“You don’t need to worry. I want you to know that we will use every chance in favour of you to provide that you will reach tomorrow as citizens of the Republic of Turkey, brotherly and sisterly,” interior minister Suleyman Soylu told a breaking of the Ramadan fast dinner.

China’s past attempts to convince foreign diplomats even if they remained publicly silent and journalists of its version of events by taking them on guided tours of Xinjiang have largely produced moderate results at best.

How Turkey handles the visit to Xinjiang is likely to resonate in major parts of the Islamic world.

The delegation’s conclusion is likely to come as pressure plays out on the Sudanese military by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emiratesto revisit several Turkish contracts concluded with ousted president Omar al-Bashir, including the development of Khartoum airport and a port on Suakin Island.

The port project would put Turkey too close for comfort to the Saudi Red Sea coast and challenge the UAE’s effort to dominate East African ports.

Turkish criticism of China could also complicate efforts by Central Asian governments to ignore Xinjiang even if ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and other Central Asians are among the detainees in the Chinese region, sparking anti-Chinese sentiment in former Soviet republics.

Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping a day before leaders of the eight Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries gathered in Bishkek last month, described the situation in Xinjiang as an “internal (Chinese) matter.”

The SCO groups Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan.

A critical Turkish stance could further aggravate problems, at least in Kyrgyzstan, stemming from China’s promotion of a non-competitive Xinjiang-based company competing for a major infrastructure project.

China’s insistence that TBEA, a little-known contractor with at best modest experience in building and repairing power stations, be granted a US$386 million contract to refurbish Bishkek’s aging plant has landed former Kyrgyz prime minister Sapar Isakov in court on corruption charges.

TBEA was awarded the contract despite lower bids by a competing Chinese company and a Russian company with an established track record.

It was not clear to what degree the push for TBEA was driven by an effort to line the pockets of corrupt officials and/or geopolitical objectives. China sees Central Asia and Pakistan as key drivers of economic development in Xinjiang.

Said Yang Shu, head of the Institute for Central Asia Studies at Lanzhou University in north-western China, commenting on Chinese strategy: “For countries that have good relations with China and have similar problems, it is easy for both to reach consensus on the Xinjiang issue. For other countries, explanations will not have much effect… But overall, it’s better to do it than not to do it.”

After vacillating between silence and criticism, the Turkish visit is likely to determine where Turkey really stands.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud,Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon,Podbean and Castbox.

A political crisis in the former Soviet republic of Georgia challenges the fundament of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s civilizationalist effort to project Russia as a major power whose defense of the Russian Diaspora allows it to redefine the country’s borders.

The challenge emerged as protesters demanded the resignation of interior minister Giorgi Gakharia  for violently breaking up demonstrations against the Georgian parliament’s invitation to Russian communist lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov and Russia’s de facto occupation of two Georgian regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

More than 240 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets and water cannons to turn back crowds trying to enter parliament on June 20.

Georgia fought a five-day war in 2008 against Russia that resulted in Russian forces leaving behind large contingents of troops in the two Georgian breakaway regions.

A 2018 survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research concluded that 85 percent of Georgians consider Russia a “political threat.”

Mr. Putin’s spokesman Dimitry Peskov and state-run media described the protests that have entered their third week as “Russophobic hysteria.”

In response, the government sought to disrupt tourism and trade and squeeze Georgia economically by stopping Russian airlines from flying to Georgia as of July 8 citing their debts and safety issues and advising tour operators to drop the country as a destination.

Mr. Peskov said the flight ban was to protect the safety of Russian tourists.

An estimated 1.4 million Russians visited Georgia in 2018. Tourism last year accounted for almost eight percent of Georgia’s GDP.

Russian trading standards body Rospotrebnadzo warned about a “decline in quality” of Georgian wine in a signal that the government could increase pressure by banning one of Georgia’s major exports. Georgia exports 70 percent of its wine to Russia.

“The issue is simply for Georgia to return to a non-Russophobic path. As soon as we see that, then we can think about re-examining the decisions that have been taken,” Mr. Peskov said.

Members of Georgia’s ethnic Russian community and Russian journalists, however, rejected Moscow’s assertions that they were threatened by the protests or widespread anti-Russian sentiment.

“Nothing near the horrors that Russian television has been broadcasting…is happening here. I’m walking around with my perfectly Russian physiognomy, asking questions in Russian and do not encounter a shred of anything even remotely reminiscent of hostility.” said Russian journalist Aleksey Romanov on YouTube.

Russians are not being chased down with “torches and pitchforks,” Anna Trofimenko, a 31-year old Russian web designed in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi told Eurasianet. Ms. Trofimenko added that Georgians had good reason to be critical of Russia.

Some Russian analysts suggested that Mr. Putin was turning a mouse into an elephant to demonstrate Russian power and the government’s commitment to a state that defines its borders in civilizational rather than national terms.

Mr. Putin alluded to his civilizationalist aspirations in an interview with the Financial Times as he was leaving for last month’s Group of 20 summit in Japan.

Mr. Putin bemoaned the fact that “25m ethnic Russians found themselves living outside the Russian Federation. Listen, is this not a tragedy? A huge one! And family relations? Jobs? Travel? It was nothing but a disaster.” Mr. Putin was referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Putin’s remarks loom larger than a moan against the backdrop of his endorsement in 2013 of a civilizationalist foreign policy whose objectives included “ensuring comprehensive protection of rights and legitimate interests of Russian citizens and compatriots residing abroad.”

That year, Mr. Putin illustrated the flexibility of his notion of compatriots when he noted that Russia and Ukraine had “common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture. We have very similar languages. In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.”

Unmarked Russian forces entered Crimea a year later. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea following a referendum in which Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation.

Russia also intervened in support of pro-Russian groups in the Donbass area of Ukraine as well as the self-declared regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

At the core of Mr. Putin’s philosophy is Eurasia’s 21st century Great Game that aims to shape a new world order in an environment in which a critical mass of world leaders, including US President Donald J. Trump, Chinese president Xi Jinping, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of Brazil, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Philippines, effectively agree on illiberal principles of governance.

That tacit understanding reduces the Great Game to a power struggle in which players jockey for their share of the pie.

Far-right anti-Semitic ideologues associated with the Moscow-based Izborsk Club, who influenced Mr. Putin’s thinking, describe their country’s stake in the game as “restoring Russia as a Eurasian empire.”

The club was , named after a 16th century Muscovite fortress that protected Russia’s north-western border.


“The Western overseers are prepared to close their eyes to the excesses of nationalists, to Russophobia, even if it severs all ties of the Georgian people with our country. We are soberly assessing the role of the United States and its allies in the world arena,” Mr. Lavrov said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud,Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

A United Arab Emirates decision to withdraw the bulk of its forces from Yemen shines a spotlight on hard realities underlying Middle Eastern geopolitics.

The pullback suggests that the UAE is preparing for the possibility of a US military confrontation with Iran in which the UAE and Saudi Arabia could emerge as prime battlegrounds.

It also reflects long-standing subtle differences in the approaches of Saudi Arabia and the UAE towards Yemen.

It further highlights the UAE’s long-standing concern for its international standing amid mounting criticism of the civilian toll of the war as well as a recognition that the Trump administration’s unquestioning support may not be enough to shield its allies from significant reputational damage.

The withdrawal constitutes a finetuning rather than a reversal of the UAE’s determination to contain Iran and thwart political Islam witness the Emirates’ involvement in the Libyan civil war and support for renegade field marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar as well as its support for the embattled Sudanese military and autocrats like Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

While the UAE may have withdrawn the bulk of its troops from key regions of Yemen, it leaves behind Emirati-trained local forces that will continue to do its bidding. The withdrawal, moreover, is not 100 percent with the UAE maintaining its Al-Mukalla base for counterterrorism operations.

The UAE’s commitment to assertive policies designed to ensure that the small state can continue to punch above its weight are also evident in its maintenance of a string of military and commercial port facilities in Yemen, on the African shore of the Red Sea, and in the Horn of Africa as well its hard-line towards Qatar and rivalry with Turkey.

As part of its regional and international projection, the UAE is keen to maintain its status as a model for Arab youth and preferred country of residence.

The UAE’s image contrasts starkly with that of Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, including the clampdown on domestic critics and the Yemen war, have prompted embarrassing calls by prominent Islamic scholars for a boycott of the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the five pillars of Islam.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the withdrawal leaves Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, the instigator of the more than four-year long war that has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, exposed.

Nonetheless, despite differing objectives in Yemen, the UAE too suffered from the reputational fallout of bombings of civilian targets that were largely carried out by the Saudi rather than the Emirati air force.

Operating primarily in the north, Saudi Arabia focussed on countering Iranian-backed Houthi rebels whose stronghold borders on the kingdom while the UAE backed South Yemeni separatists and targeted Muslim-Brotherhood related groups.

With the withdrawal, the UAE may allow differences with Saudi Arabia to become more visible but will not put its alliance with the kingdom at risk.

If past differences are anything to go by, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are able to manage them.

The differences were evident in recent weeks with the UAE, unlike Saudi Arabia, refraining from blaming Iran for attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Leaked emails written by Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador in Washington, laid bare the Emirates’ strategy of working through the Saudi court to achieve its regional objectives despite viewing the kingdom as “coo coo.”

Similarly, differences in the two countries’ concept of Islam failed to rock their alliance despite the effective excommunication in 2016 of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism at a UAE-sponsored conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny.

The alliance is key to the two countries’ counterrevolution aimed at maintaining the region’s autocratic status quo in the face of almost a decade of popular revolts, public protests and civil wars.

The UAE-Saudi-led counterrevolution is driven by Prince Mohammed and his UAE counterpart, crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s desire to shape the Middle East in their mould.

The UAE rather than the kingdom was the driver behind the Qatar boycott with Saudi King Mohammed and Prince Mohammed initially reaching out to the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood when they came to power in 2015.

Four years later Saudi Arabia, is unlikely to radically shift gears but could prove less intransigent towards the group than the UAE.

While preparing for possible conflict with Iran may be the main driver for the withdrawal, it is unlikely to protect the UAE from damage to its reputation as a result of its involvement in Libya and Sudan as well as its draconic clampdown on dissent at home.

Mr. Haftar’s UAE-armed forces are believed to be responsible for this week’s bombing of a detention center for African migrants in the Libyan capital Tripoli that killed 40 people and wounded 80 others.

The bombing came of the heels of a discovery of US-made missiles on one of Mr. Haftar’s military bases packed in shipping containers stating they belonged to the "UAE Armed Forces.” The UAE has denied ownership.

The UAE’s withdrawal from Yemen will likely help it evade calls for Yemen-related arms embargoes.

Libya, however, could prove to be the UAE’s Achilles heel.

Said Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: "You are surely aware that if these allegations prove true you may be obligated by law to terminate all arms sales to the UAE.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbeanand Castbox.

Certain that Western and liberal democratic leaders would limit themselves to verbal denials, Russian president Vladimir Putin knew he was kicking into an open goal when he declared on the eve of the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Osaka that liberalism had “outlived its purpose.”

He may even have anticipated that US president Donald J. Trump would go further and in his own way endorse the Russian president’s assertion.

When asked at a news conference to respond to Mr. Putin’s remarks, Mr. Trump opted to denounce America’s liberals by focusing on American municipal leaders who oppose his policies, including his clampdown on migration.

Mr. Putin “sees what’s going on. If you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles…and San Francisco and a couple of other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people, I don’t know what they are thinking, but he does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is. I’m very embarrassed by what I see,” Mr. Trump said.

In a nod to illiberal governance, Mr. Trump went on to say that “you don’t want it to spread and at a certain point, I think the federal government may have to get involved. We can’t let that continue to happen.”

Mr. Trump’s response was not a one-off remark. His empathy with illiberalism was also evident in his refusal to seriously take Mr. Putin to task for alleged Russian interference in US elections despite the conclusion by US intelligence and special counsel Robert Mueller that there had been extensive meddling.

Similarly, during a breakfast meeting at the G-20 with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Mr. Trump praised the Saudi leader for doing a “spectacular job.”

He praised Prince Mohammed as “a man who has really done things in the last five years in terms of opening up Saudi Arabia” and described the prince’s enhancement of some women’s rights as a “a revolution in a very positive way.”

Mr. Trump made no mention of the fact that Prince Mohammed had imprisoned activists who had campaigned for things like the lifting of a ban on women’s driving as well as scores of critics and dissidents.

The activists, some of whom have asserted that they have been tortured, are standing trial on charges of undertaking “coordinated and organized activities… that aim to undermine the Kingdom’s security, stability, and national unity.”

Like virtually all Western and liberal democratic leaders at the G20, Mr. Trump played down Saudi Arabia’s lack of transparent accountability for last October’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as well as the conduct of the Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led war in Yemen.

The leaders made sure that Prince Mohammed, the host of next year’s G20, was not isolated as he was at their gathering last year in Buenos Aires.

A senior official tempered outgoing British prime minister Teresa May’s call for accountability in a one-on-one with Prince Mohammed by noting that the two leaders had “concluded by agreeing on the importance of the relationship” and of “regional stability” with no apparent qualification.

Perhaps because the targeting in 2018 of two Russians with a nerve agent occurred on British soil, Ms. May took a tougher stand than most in a frosty meeting with Mr. Putin.

“The prime minister underlined that we remain open to a different relationship, but for that to happen the Russian government must choose a different path. The prime minister said the UK would continue to unequivocally defend liberal democracy and protect the human rights and equality of all groups, including LGBT people,” a spokesperson for Ms. May said.

By and large, however, Western and liberal democratic leaders seemed to lend credibility to Mr. Putin’s assertion on liberalism by failing to put their money where their mouth is.

They were equally soft gloved in their interactions with Chinese president Xi Jinping when it came to liberal values such as human rights.

There was no apparent mention, at least no public mention, of China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

The incarceration in re-education camps of an estimated one million Uyghurs amounts to the most frontal assault on a faith group since World War Two’s Nazi assault on Jews.

Likewise, there was overall little that went beyond strong verbiage in the response by liberal democratic leaders to Mr. Putin’s attempt to fuel polarisation in the West by asserting that liberalism “presupposes that…migrants can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights… have to be protected.”

As a result, European Council president Donald Tusk’s retort put little, if any meat, on the response of liberal democratic leaders and seemed more like paying sharp-tongued lip service to values such as human rights

“For us in Europe, these are and will remain essential and vibrant values. What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs. Even if sometimes they may seem effective,” Mr. Tusk said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

China’s chairmanship of an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog could put to the test the cohesiveness of global efforts to counter political violence with Iran and Pakistan hoping that they will be able to avoid blacklisting with China at the helm.

China takes over the chairmanship of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in July, weeks after the group’s plenary in Orlando under the outgoing presidency of the United States gave Iran and Pakistan until October to meet the group’s standards or potentially face blacklisting.

Both countries face potential sanctioning because they have failed to wholly implement measures and safeguards put forward by FATF.

Struggling to diminish the impact of harsh US sanctions, Iran is likely to be less concerned than Pakistan, that has already been grey listed, about the risks associated with grey listing such as reputational damage and the fact that foreign investors and international banks are more cautious in their dealings with countries that have not been granted a clean bill of health.

Foreign investors and financiers have largely curtailed business with Iran out of fear of running afoul of the US sanctions imposed since the United States last year unilaterally walked away from the 2015 international agreement that was designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

While Pakistan, dependent on generous financial support from Gulf states and to a lesser degree China as well as a US$6 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout package, needs to evade blacklisting, Iran would likely be less effected as long as the US sanctions remain in place.

Despite close relations with China, neither Iran nor Pakistan can be certain that Beijing will shield them from blacklisting if they fail to comply with FATF’s demands for improved legal measures and implementation of moves to counter money laundering and funding of political violence.

China together with Europe and Russia, all signatories to the nuclear agreement, has vowed to support Iran in a bid to salvage the deal. That has so far failed to produce the kind of economic relief Iran expects or stopped the Islamic republic from saying that it will progressively abandon its compliance as the US sanctions increasingly bite and tension in the Gulf remains high.

China’s most recent trade figures with Iran show that Iran’s exports, including crude oil, declined in the first five months of 2019 by 46.6 percent totalling $7.17 billion. China’s exports to Iran slowed by 26% reaching a low of $3.74 billion.

As a result, Iran is likely to be reading tea leaves as senior Chinese, Russian and European officials discuss ways of salvaging the nuclear agreement on the sidelines of this week’s Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Japan.

Beyond not wanting to jeopardize trade talks with the United States, China is likely to walk an increasingly fine line in balancing its relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia as pressure on Iran is cranked up.

Predictions by Chinese analysts that China is likely to pay lip service in Japan to countering US policy towards Iran but in the words of  Zhao Tong, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, not “devote major diplomatic resources to battling the American position,” will do little to inspire Tehran’s confidence in Beijing standing up for it in FATF.

The threat of FATF sanctioning has sparked intense debate in the Islamic republic about how to deal with the group’s demands that it joins the watchdog and significantly upgrade its legal anti-money laundering and terrorism finance infrastructure to evade being blacklisted.

Iran’s parliament has so far passed two of four bills required for membership and together with the Expediency and Discernment Council is debating Iranian accession to the Combating the Financing of Terrorism Convention (CFT) and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime or Palermo Convention.

Similarly, Pakistan has reason not to take Chinese support in FATF for granted. China did not stop the group from last year grey listing the South Asian nation.

China, moreover, is concerned about the safety of its investment of tens of billions of dollars in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of its infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road Initiative.

Beyond having been the target of violent attacks in Pakistan, China is worried about the broader wave of attacks that Pakistan has experienced.

CPEC, linking Pakistan’s volatile Balochistan province to China’s troubled north-western region of Xinjiang, is central to the Belt and Road and a key economic component in China’s brutal effort to reshape the cultural, social and political outlook of the region’s Turkic Muslim population.

China has reportedly detained at least one million Turkic Muslims in re-education camps, the largest faith-based internment since Nazi Germany hoarded Jews into concentration camps.

China is also wary ofenhanced Saudi influence in Pakistan and mounting tension between the United States and Iran that could suck the South Asian state into regional conflict.

Insecurity in Balochistan with its port of Gwadar as a key CPEC node has prompted debate in China about the country’s political and economic exposure in Pakistan.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming questioned the wisdom of China’s investment in Gwadar. “Gwadar wants to be in the shipping business, but it has failed to do so. Pakistan’s economy is not very good, and this port has become very wasteful … under these circumstances, how can China conduct its business? The roads and traffic cannot even be maintained,” Mr. Zhou said.

That statement and broader discussion in Beijing has not gone unnoticed in Islamabad.

As a result, Pakistan like Iran, is likely to wait for China’s adoption of the FATF presidency with a degree of bated breath.

China’s appointee as FATF president, Xiangmin Liu of the People's Bank of China, is certain to add to the unease.

A lawyer with a Yale PhD who was part of a leading New York law firm and a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Mr. Liu is expected to take a tough position on money laundering and funding of political violence and pressure both Iran and Pakistan to comply with FATF demands by October.

That would perfectly serve China’s interest in avoiding that its FATF presidency is sucked into global geopolitical and trade disputes.

That may be easier said than done. No doubt, the US will want to see Iran blacklisted.

Regarding Pakistan, outgoing US president of FATF, Marshall Billingslea, suggested Washington may adopt a similar attitude towards Pakistan.

The Orlando meeting was “not the plenary where we would discuss a blacklisting issue. This was the plenary where we examine how far behind Pakistan is on its action plan... I must say they are far behind,” Mr. Billingslea said in his parting shot.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.


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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbeanand Castbox.

The Middle East is barrelling towards a nuclear and ballistic missiles arms race.

The race is being aided and abetted by a US policy that views the region through the dual prism of the need to stop in its tracks an aggressive, expansionary, and destabilizing Islamic republic that seeks to dominate and as a lucrative market for the US defense and nuclear industry.

The race is further enabled by the inability or unwillingness of other major powers – Europe, Russia and China – to counter crippling US sanctions against Iran in ways that would ensure that Tehran maintains an interest in adhering to the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Iranian nuclear program despite last year’s US withdrawal from the deal.

With the Middle East teetering on the brink of a military confrontation, Iran has vowed to next month start breaching the agreement if the international community, and particularly Europe, fails to shield it against US sanctions.

Former International Atomic Energy Agency (IEA) deputy director general Olli Heinonen, a hard-liner when it comes to Iran, asserted recently during a visit to Israel that Iran would need six to eight months to enrich uranium in the quantity and quality required to produce a nuclear bomb.
US and Chinese willingness to lower safeguards in their nuclear dealings with Saudi Arabia further fuel Iranian doubts about the value of the nuclear agreement and potentially open the door to a nuclear arms race.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left this weekend for visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates before joining President Donald J. Trump for visits to India and South Korea and talks with world leaders at a Group of 20 (G20) summit in Japan.

“We’ll be talking with them about how to make sure that we are all strategically aligned, and how we can build out a global coalition, a coalition not only throughout the Gulf states, but in Asia and in Europe…to push back against the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” Mr. Pompeo said as he departed Washington.

Mr. Trump this weekend detailed the prism through which he approaches the Middle East in a wide-ranging interview with NBC News.

The president deflected calls for an FBI investigation into last October’s murder by Saudi government agents of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

“Iran’s killed many, many people a day. Other countries in the Middle East ― this is a hostile place. This is a vicious, hostile place. If you’re going to look at Saudi Arabia, look at Iran, look at other countries,” Mr. Trump said, suggesting that crimes by one country provide license to others.

Asked whether Saudi arms buying was reason to let Saudi Arabia off the hook, Mr. Trump responded: “No, no. But I’m not like a fool that says, ‘We don’t want to do business with them.’ And by the way, if they don’t do business with us, you know what they do? They’ll do business with the Russians or with the Chinese.”

Mr. Trump and other senior US officials reiterated in recent days that they would not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.


As the United States prepared to announce new sanctions, Russia said it would help Iran with oil exports and its banking sector if the European mechanism failed to get off the ground but offered no details.

While countering the sanctions is Iran’s immediate priority, Saudi moves, with the help of the Trump administration as well as China, to put in place the building blocks for a nuclear industry that could develop a military component and a ballistic missiles capability are likely to enhance Iranian questioning of the nuclear accord’s value.

Mr. Trump’s argument that Russia and China would fill America’s shoes if the United States refused to sell arms and technology to Saudi Arabia is not wholly without merit even if it fails to justify a lack of safeguards in the provision of nuclear technology to the kingdom.

With the United States refusing to share its most advanced drone technology, China opened in 2017 its first overseas defense production facility in Saudi Arabia. State-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) is manufacturing its CH-4 Caihong, or Rainbow drone as well as associated equipment in Saudi Arabia. The CH-4 is comparable to the US armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.

Satellite images discovered by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and confirmed by US intelligence show that Saudi Arabia has significantly escalated its ballistic missile program with the help of China.

The missile program runs counter to US policy that for decades sought to ensure that Saudi Arabia had air supremacy in the region so that it wouldn't seek to go around the US to upgrade its missile capabilities.

The program that started in the late 1980s with Saudi Arabia’s first clandestine missile purchases from China suggests that the kingdom, uncertain about the reliability of the United Sates, is increasingly hedging its bets.

Saudi development of a ballistic missile capability significantly dims any prospect of Iran agreeing to limit its missile programme – a key demand put forward by the Trump administration.

Saudi Arabia signed in 2017 a nuclear energy cooperation agreement with China that included a feasibility study for the construction of high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in the kingdom as well as cooperation in intellectual property and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs built in Saudi Arabia.

The HTGR agreement built on an accord signed in 2012 that involved maintenance and development of nuclear power plants and research reactors, as well as the provision of Chinese nuclear fuel.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) warned at the time that the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement had “not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons.”

The Trump administration, eager to corner a deal for the acquisition of designs for nuclear power plants, a contract valued at up to US$80 billion depending on how many Saudi Arabia ultimately decides to build, has approved several nuclear technology transfers to the kingdom.

It has also approved licences for six US firms to sell atomic power technology to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is nearing completion of its first atomic reactor in the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology near Riyadh.

A signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Saudi Arabia has ignored calls by the IEA, to implement proportionate safeguards and an inspection regime that would ensure that it does not move towards development of a nuclear military capability.

"Saudi Arabia is currently subject to less intrusive monitoring by international inspectors because Riyadh concluded what is known as a small quantities protocol with the agency. The small quantities protocol was designed to simplify safeguards for states with minimal or no nuclear material, but it is no longer adequate for Saudi Arabia's expanding nuclear programme,” Kelsey Davenport, director of Non-proliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association, told Middle East Eye.

Ms. Davenport warned that “given these factors, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned that Saudi Arabia is seeking to develop the technical capabilities that would allow Riyadh to quickly pursue nuclear weapons if the political decision were made to do so."

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

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By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, and Patreon, Podbeanand Castbox.

A newly adopted Saudi law on public decency helps define Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vague notion of ‘moderate Islam.’

It also lays bare the pitfalls of his social reforms as well as his preference for hyper-nationalism rather than religion as the legitimizing ideology of his rule and his quest for control of every aspect of Saudi life.

In an indication that Prince Mohammed is walking a fine line, Saudi media reported that the government was still weighing how to implement the law almost two months after it was adopted.

"This (law) is an effort to balance the pressure from conservative elements of society that accuse the (government) of allowing things to go 'out of control'. Effecting social change is an art form -- you want to push as fast as possible without provoking a counter reaction. Not easy!" Ali Shihabi, founder of Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based, pro-Saudi think-tank, told Agence France-Presse.

The law comes on the back of a series of reforms in recent years that were designed to facilitate Prince Mohammed’s plans to streamline and diversify the Saudi economy and project the crown prince as a reformer.

The reforms included the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, relaxation of gender segregation, enhancement of women’s professional opportunities, the introduction of modern forms of entertainment and the curbing of the powers of the kingdom’s feared religious police.

Prince Mohammed also vowed to revert the inward-looking, ultra-conservative kingdom to a form of moderate Islamhe claimed existed prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Ultimately, Prince Mohammed’s short-lived reformist image was severely tarnished by the kingdom’s devastating war in Yemen;  the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; the mass arrest of clerics, activists, journalists and academics; his failure to lift the kingdom’s male guardianship system; and the mushrooming number of people fleeing the kingdom, including dissidents as well as women seeking to escape repressive and abusive families.

Sparking ridicule on social media, the new law defines limits of Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and creates one more anchor for his repression of any form of dissent.

The law bans men’s shorts except for on beaches and in sports clubs. It also bans garments with questionable prints that like shorts "offend public tastes." It forbids the taking of pictures or use of phrases that might offend public decency as well as graffiti that could be interpreted as "harmful."

The bans packages public decency as representing Saudi "values and principles" in a nod towards Prince Mohammed’s promotion of a hyper-nationalist Saudi identity.

Yet, various of its restrictions are more in line with the kingdom’s long-standing austere interpretation of Islam while others reinforce the crown prince’s repression of anything that does not amount to an endorsement of his rule or policies.

The restrictions on clothing and this month’s closure on opening night of the kingdom’s first-ever alcohol-free ‘Halal’ discoconstitute an apparent effort to cater to ultra-conservatives who oppose liberalisation of gender segregation and public religious rituals such as the muted lifting of rules that force businesses to close during prayers times.

The reforms, while significant in and of themselves, stop short of dismantling what politics scholar Brandon Ives terms ‘religious institutionalism’ or the intertwining of religion and state through a “plethora of institutions, policies, and legal codes.”

Religious institutionalism complicates Prince Mohammed’s attempt to replace religious legitimization of his rule with hyper-nationalism because of its success in fusing religion with Saudi culture.

“Religion and culture are now so intertwined in what it means to be Saudi that it is hard to separate the two,” said Eman Alhussein, author of a just published European Council of Foreign Relations report on Saudi hyper-nationalism.

As a result, some nationalists have joined religious conservatives in calling for limitations on what is deemed acceptable entertainment and media content.

Ms. Alhussein noted that some online critics were cautioning that the promotion of hyper-nationalism stripped Saudis of their values in a manner that weakens their loyalty to the regime.

“Nationalism in this increasingly strident form could eventually become a Trojan horse that undermines the state,” Ms. Alhussein warned.

Nationalism’s double edge is enhanced, Ms. Alhussein went on to argue, by the undermining of the buffer function of the kingdom’s traditional religious establishment. “The state will now be more accountable for its credibility, and potentially much more exposed,” she said.

Prince Mohammed’s refusal to tackle religious institutionalism impacts not only his attempts at consolidation of his power but also his effort to project the kingdom as an enlightened 21st century state.

The crown prince, in a bid to alter the kingdom’s image and cut expenditure, has significantly reduced spending on a decades-long, US$100 billion campaign to globally promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

Prince Mohammed has at the same time ordered state-controlled vehicles that once promoted religious ultra-conservativism to preach tolerance, mutual respect and inter-faith dialogue instead.

Mr. Ives’ analysis suggests, however, that the kingdom’s U-turn is unlikely to lead to a clean break with support abroad of ultra-conservatism without the dismantling of religious institutionalism.

He argues that the domestic pressure that persuades states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to support co-religionist rebel groups beyond their borders is generated not by religious affinity but by religious institutionalism that creates a political role for religious forces.

Mr. Ives’ arguments appear to be borne out by continued Saudi support for Islamist militants in Balochistan, the Pakistani province that borders on Iran, as well as Algeria and Libya and propagation of non-violent expressions of an apolitical, quietist, and loyalist interpretation of Islam in countries like Kazakhstan.

Saudi Arabia’s new public decency law in effect highlights the limitations of Prince Mohammed’s reforms.

In a private conversation last year with the Archbishop of Canterbury during a visit to Britain, Prince Mohammed reportedly put some flesh on the skeleton of his vision of moderate Islam.

When urged by the archbishop to allow non-Muslims to open places of worship in the kingdom, Prince Mohammed responded: "I could never allow that. This is the holy site of Islam, and it should stay as such."

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.

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By James M. Dorsey

When Pope Francis I visited Egypt in 2017 to stimulate inter-faith dialogue he walked into a religious and geopolitical minefield at the heart of which was Al-Azhar, one of the world’s oldest and foremost seats of Islamic learning. The pope’s visit took on added significance with Al-Azhar standing accused of promoting the kind of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that potentially creates an environment conducive to breeding extremism.

The pope’s visit came as Al-Azhar, long a preserve of Egyptian government and ultra-conservative Saudi religious influence, had become a battleground for broader regional struggles to harness Islam in support of autocracy.

At the same time, Al-Azhar was struggling to compete with institutions of Islamic learning in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan as well at prestigious Western universities.

The battleground’s lay of the land has changed in recent years with the United Arab Emirates as a new entrant, a sharper Saudi focus on the kind of ultra-conservatism it seeks to promote, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s efforts since 2015 to impose control and force Al-Azhar to revise its allegedly conservative and antiquated curriculum that critics charge informs extremism.

Ordained by God

Addressing a peace conference at Al-Azhar, the pope urged his audience to "say once more a firm and clear 'No!' to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God."

In doing so, the pope was shining a spotlight on multiple complex battles for the soul of Islam as well as the survival of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa. These battles include Saudi efforts to distance ultra-conservatism from its more militant, jihadist offshoots; resistance to reform by ultra-conservatives who no longer are dependent on support of the kingdom; and differences between Saudi Arabia and some of its closest Arab allies, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, in their approaches towards ultra-conservatism and opposition to extremism.

Mr. Al-Sisi, referring to assertions that Al-Azhar’s curriculum creates a potential breeding ground for extremism, charged at the outset of his campaign that “it is impossible that this kind of thinking drive the entire world to become a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction to the extent that we antagonize the whole world. It’s unconceivable that 1.5 billion Muslims will kill the whole 7 billion in the world so that they alone can rule.”

Mr. Al-Sisi, often prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandisement, threatened the university’s scholars in 2015 that he would complain to God if they failed to act on his demand for reform. "Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.," Mr. Al-Sisi said.

Speaking months later to a German Egyptian community, Mr. Al-Sisi, an observant Muslim who in a 2006 paper argued that democracy cannot be understood without a grasp of the concept of the caliphate, asserted that “God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, he made me like this so I could see and understand the true state of affairs. It’s a blessing from God.”

Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault on Al-Azhar was sparked by multiple factors: the Islamic State’s extreme violence; pressure by the United Arab Emirates that more recently joined the fray of those seeking to shape Islam in their mould, and the experiences of Egyptian intelligence officers with militants.

Hatred and bloodshed are backed up by curricula…that are approved by Islamic scholars, the ones that wear turbans… When I interrogated the extremists and talked to the Azhari scholars, I reached the conclusion that extremism comes primarily from the ancient books of Islamic jurisprudence which we’ve turned into sacred texts. These texts could have been forgotten long ago had it not been for those wearing the turbans,” said former Egyptian intelligence officer and lawyer Ahmad Abdou Maher, a strident critic of Al-Azhar.

Islam al-Bahiri, another Al-Azhar critic, who was jailed for his views and later pardoned by Mr. Al-Sisi charged that “Al-Azhar is part of the problem, not the solution. It cannot reform itself because if it does reform itself it would lose all authority. Al-Azhar is fighting for its own survival and not for the religion itself… They want you to follow religion as they understand it.”

Ironically, Mr. Al-Sisi has himself to blame for Al-Azhar’s ability to fend off the president’s effort. In attempting to not only tighten state control of Al-Azhar, Mr. Al-Sisi overreached by trying to fundamentally alter its power structure.

Legislation introduced in parliament would have limited the tenure of the grand imam, create a committee that could investigate the imam if he were accused of misconduct, broadened the base that elects the imam, included laymen in the Body of Senior Scholars that supervises Al-Azhar, and added presidential appointees to the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s overreach enabled Al-Azhar, in a rare example of successful opposition to his policies, to mobilize its supporters in and outside of parliament and defeat the legislation. It also allowed Al-Azhar to reject out of hand of Mr. Al-Sisi’s demand that it rewrites the rules governing divorce to make it more difficult for husbands to walk away.

The proposed legislation nonetheless sent a message that was heard loud and clear in Al-Azhar. In response to Mr. Al-Sisi’s assault, the leadership of Al-Azhar has sought to curb anti-pluralistic and intolerant statements by some members the faculty, set up an online monitoring centre to track militant statements on social media, and paid lip service to the need to alter religious discourse. It has, however, stopped short of developing a roadmap for reform of the institution and its curriculum.

Differences of opinion between ultra-conservatives among the Al-Azhar faculty and those more willing to accommodate demands for reform surface regularly.

Soaad Saleh, an Islamic law scholar and former head of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee, last year publicly criticized a ruling by grand mufti Shawki Allam that exempted Egypt’s national team from fasting during Ramadan in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup.

Ms. Saleh argued that only those travelling for reasons that please God such as earning money to feed the family, study or to spread the word of God were exempted from fasting. Soccer did not fall in that category, the scholar said.

Ms. Saleh earlier asserted that Muslims who conquered non-Muslims were entitled to sex slaves. “If we [Egyptians] fought Israel and won, we have the right to enslave and enjoy sexually the Israeli women that we would capture in the war,” Ms. Saleh said.

Ms. Saleh remains a member of the Al-Azhar faculty. So is Masmooa Abo Taleb, a former dean of men’s Islamic studies who argued several years ago that Al-Azhar had endorsed the principle that Muslims who intentionally miss Friday prayer could be killed.

Combatting extremism

Al-Azhar nevertheless asserts that it has reviewed its curriculum and was working with the education ministry to revise school textbooks. It rejects suggestions that the revisions are primarily cosmetic.

“We have done a number of corrective as well as preventive measures to respond to this urgent call about reforming Islamic religious discourse. We have revisited a number of religious fatwas that were authored in the past; fatwas that unfortunately have given rise to a number of wrong behaviours,” said Ibrahim al-Najm, a senior scholar at Dar al-Iftar, the Al-Azhar unit responsible for legal interpretations.”

Mr. Al Najm pointed to a revision of a fatwa that authorized female genital mutilation as well as Al-Azhar Facebook pages with millions of followers that refute jihadist teaching such as those of the Islamic State. A recent online textbook says in the introduction: “We present this scientific content to our sons and daughters and ask God that he bless them with tolerance and moderate thought ... and for them to show the right picture of Islam to people.”

Yet, scholars of the university struggle when confronted with an Al-Azhar secondary school textbook, a 2016 reprint of a book first written hundreds of years ago that employs the same arguments used by jihadists. The book defines jihad exclusively as an armed struggle rather than the struggle to improve oneself and contains a disputed saying of the Prophet according to which God had commanded Mohammed to fight the whole world until all have converted to Islam.

Scholars argued that such texts were part of history lessons that teach Islamic law, including the rules of engagement in war in times past. They assert that students are taught that interpretations of the law in historic texts may have been valid when the books were written but are not applicable to the modern-day world.

They further stress that the concept of jihad an-nafs, the struggle for improvement of oneself, was taught extensively in classes on ethics and morals. Al-Azhar has nonetheless advised faculty that they should not allow students to read old texts without supervision. Panels have been created to review books to ensure that they do not advocate extremist positions.

Al-Azhar’s critics charge that it is plagued by the same literalism and puritanical adherence to historic texts that radicals thrive on and that feeds intolerance and discrimination. Al-Azhar has lent credibility to those charges through various positions that it adopted. Those include, for example, demanding closing down a TV show that advocated the purge of canonical texts that promote violence against and hatred of non-Muslims and the suspension of a professor for promoting atheism by using books authored by liberals. 

Al-Azhar’s huge library that provides teaching materials is a target too. It contains volumes of interpretations of the Qur’an and the sayings of the prophet written over the centuries, some of which preach militant attitudes such as a ban on Muslims congratulating Christians on their holidays, a Muslim’s duty to fight infidels, the imposition of the death penalty on those who abandon Islam, and harsh punishments for homosexuals.

The blurring of the lines

Complicating the effort to reform Islam is a dichotomy shared by both Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi. Both accept the notion of a nation state and see themselves as guardians of Islamic Orthodoxy, witness the crackdowns for example on LGBT, as well as Mr. Al-Sisi’s failure to make good on his promise to counter discrimination of Egypt’s Coptic minority and widespread bigotry among the Muslim majority.

Al-Azhar and Mr. Al-Sisi also both embrace the civilizational concept of the ummah, the community of the faithful that knows no borders. Their efforts to counter extremism are moreover not fundamentally rooted in values that embrace tolerance and pluralism despite the adoption of the lingo but as defenders of Muslim conservatism against extremism and jihadism, trends they deem to be heretical.

In a study written in 2006 at the US War College, Mr. Al-Sisi, a deeply religious man whose wife and daughter are veiled, pushed the notion that democracy in the Middle East needed to be informed by the ‘concept of El Kalafa,’ the earliest period of Islam that was guided by the Prophet Muhammad and the Four Righteous Caliphs who succeeded him. “The Kalafa, involving obedience to a ruler who consults his subjects, needed to be the goal of any government in the Middle East and North Africa,” Mr. Al-Sisi wrote.

Resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s calls for fundamental reform is nonetheless deeply engrained. It has been boosted by a history of fending off attempts to undermine its independence, a deeply embedded animosity towards government interference and its definition of itself as the protector of Islamic tradition.

It has also been undergirded by decades of Saudi influence that was long abetted by Mr. Al-Sisi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and Mr. Al-Sisi’s high-handed approach.

The resistance within Al-Azhar to Mr. Al-Sisi’s campaign is further informed by the fact that although still revered, Al-Azhar no longer holds a near monopoly on Islamic learning. Beyond the competition from Saudi, Jordanian and Turkish institutions, Al-Azhar is also challenged by Islamic studies at European and North American institutes such as Leiden University, Oxford University, London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) the University of Chicago and McGill University.

Yet, those institutions too are not immune to producing ultra-conservatives. Take for example, Farhat Naseem Hashmi, a charismatic, 60-year old Pakistani Islamic scholar and cultural entrepreneur who graduated from the University of Glasgow. Ms. Hashmi has become a powerful ultra-conservative force among Pakistan’s upper middle class. Or Malaysian students in the Egypt, UK and elsewhere who were introduced to political Islam by Muslim Brotherhood activists at their universities.

Muhammed Azam of the Kuala Lumpur-based International Institute of Islamic Studies notes that the Malaysian government no longer funds students that want to go to Al-Azhar. “If they go (to Al-Azhar), it is self-funded,” Mr. Azam said. He noted further that Saudi Arabia had stepped in to offer hundreds of scholarships at institutions in the kingdom. “Because of the financial constraints, people to go to whatever country has got sponsorship,” Mr. Azzam said.

At the same time, Mr. Azzam said more Malaysians were heading to Jordan. “There is a shift. Malay parents now send their kids to Jordan to further their studies either in Islamic studies or Sharia or one specific subject matter or banking and finance… They have a different curriculum. They have the Islamic and the secular curriculum and that has given a different result for the graduates who come back,” he said.

A grinding, long drawn out battle

The upshot of all of this is that the struggle for Al-Azhar is likely to be grinding and drawn out rather than swift and decisive. It is a political, geopolitical and religious battle in which Mr. Al-Sisi, backed by his Gulf allies sees religious reform as one key to countering perceived security threats and extremism.

His nemesis, a Sorbonne-educated imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque, Ahmed El- Tayeb, pays lip service to the notion of reform but insists that textual fidelity is a sign of piety, expertise and righteousness, not obscurantism. Reform in Mr. El-Tayeb’s view cannot entail abandoning unambiguous Koranic texts or authentic sayings of the Prophet or hadiths.

Mr. Al-Sisi appears to also have learnt a lesson from his failed effort to bend Al-Azhar to his will. His religious endowments ministry has laid the groundwork for male and female imams to be trained at a newly-inaugurated International Awqaf Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than Al-Azhar. The ministry has drafted the curriculum to include not only religious subjects but also politics, psychology and sociology.

Built on an area of 11,000 square meters, the academy boasts a high-tech infrastructure with foreign language and computer labs.  Sheikh Abdul Latif al-Sheikh, the Saudi Islamic affairs minister, attended the inauguration and promised that the Saudi Institute of Imams and Preachers would work closely with the academy. Select Al-Azhar faculty have been invited to teach at the academy. Training courses last six months.

The academy competes with the just opened Al-Azhar International Academy that in contrast to the government’s academy focuses exclusively on religious subjects. The Al-Azhar initiative builds on the institution’s international outreach in recent years that was designed to combat extremism and project Al-Azhar as independent and separate from the Egyptian government.

Parallel to the inauguration of the government academy, Mr. Al-Sisi, in an effort to curtail Al-Azhar’s activity decreed that senior officials including Mr. El-Tayeb would need to seek prior approval from the president or the prime minister before travelling abroad.

As part of his effort to micro-manage every aspect of Egyptian life and frustrated at Al-Azhar’s refusal to bow to his demands, Mr. Al-Sisi, moreover, ignoring Al-Azhar objections, instructed his religious affairs ministry to write standardized sermons for all mosque preachers.

While resisting Mr. Al-Sisi’s attempts to interfere in what Al-Azhar sees as its independence and theological prerogatives, it has been careful not to challenge the state’s authority on non-religious issues. This was evident in Al-Azhar’s acquiescence in the arrest in 2015 of some 100 Uyghurs, many of them students at Al-Azhar, who at China’s request were deported to the People’s Republic.

Convoluted geopolitics

The pope’s interlocutors at Al-Azhar meanwhile tell the story of the institution’s convoluted geopolitics.

They included former Egyptian grand mufti Ali Gomaa, an advocate of a Saudi-propagated depoliticized form of Islam that pledges absolute obedience to the ruler, an opponent of popular sovereignty, and a symbol of the tension involved in adhering to both Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism that serves the interests of the Saudi state, and being loyal to the government of his own country.

A prominent backer of Mr. Al-Sisi’s grab for power, Mr. Gomaa frequently espouses views that reflect traditional Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism rather than the form projected by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In an interview with MBC, a Saudi-owned media conglomerate, Mr. Gomaa asserted in 2015 that women did not have the strength to become heart surgeons, serve in the military, or engage in sports likes soccer, body building, wrestling and weightlifting. A year later, Mr. Gomaa issued a fatwa declaring writer Sherif El-Shobashy an infidel for urging others to respect a woman’s choice on whether or not to wear the veil.

Prince Mohammed has since 2015 significantly enhanced women’s professional and sporting opportunities although he has not specifically spoken about the sectors and disciplines Mr. Gomaa singled out.

Pope Francis’ interlocutors in Cairo also included Mr. El-Tayeb, the imam of the Grand Mosque. A prominent Islamic legal scholar, who opposes ultra-conservatism and rejected a nomination for Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize, recalls Mr. El-Tayeb effusively thanking the kingdom during panels in recent years for its numerous donations to Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar scholars, the legal scholar said, compete “frantically” for sabbaticals in the kingdom that could last anywhere from one to 20 years, paid substantially better, and raised a scholar’s status.

“Many of my friends and family praise Abdul Wahab in their writing,” the scholar said referring to Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century religious leader whose puritan interpretation of Islam became the basis for the power sharing agreement between the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family and its religious establishment. “They shrug their shoulders when I ask them privately if they are serious… When I asked El-Tayeb why Al-Azhar was not seeing changes and avoidance of dogma, he said: ‘my hands are tied.’

To illustrate Saudi inroads, the scholar recalled being present when several years ago Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, a former grand mufti and predecessor of Mr. El-Tayeb as imam of the Al-Azhar mosque, was interviewed about Saudi funding. “What’s wrong with that?” the scholar recalls Mr. Tantawy as saying. Irritated by the question, he pulled a check for US$100,000 from a drawer and slapped it against his forehead. “Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), they are our brothers,” the scholar quoted Mr. Tantawy, who was widely seen as a liberal reformer despite misogynist and anti-Semitic remarks attributed to him, as saying.

Separating the wheat from the chafe at Al-Azhar is complicated by the fact that leaders of the institution although wary of Salafi influence have long sought to neutralize ultra-conservatives by appeasing rather than confronting them head on. 

The Al-Azhar scholars believed they could find common ground on the grounds that they and the ultra-conservatives each had something the other wanted. Beyond gaining influence in a hollowed institution, ultra-conservatives wanted to benefit from its credibility while Al-Azhar hoped to capture some of the ultra-conservatives’ popularity on Muslim streets. That popularity would help justify Al-Azhar’s long-standing support for Egyptian..
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