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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Saudi-UAE push to mobilize tribes against Qatari emir


By James M. Dorsey

Nearly six months into the Gulf crisis, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are attempting to mobilize tribal opposition as well as little known members of one branch of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family in a bid to weaken, if not topple, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The attempt, suggesting anything from constituting a dig at Sheikh Tamim’s popularity to thinking in some quarters about possible regime change in Qatar, comes against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s failure to garner international support for their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The international community has responded to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s insistence that Qatar accept humiliating demands that would effectively curtail its independence with calls for a negotiated resolution. Qatar has said it wants direct talks with its detractors but would not compromise its sovereignty. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have insisted they would not use force to resolve the crisis.

Speaking in Washington in advance of talks this week with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and members of Congress, Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani, said his country was “well-prepared” for any military attempt to remove Sheikh Tamim from office. Sheikh Mohammed asserted that Qatar could count on the support of France, Turkey, Britain and the US. Qatar hosts the largest US base in the Middle East

“We have enough friends in order to stop them from taking these steps,” but “there is a pattern of unpredictability in their behaviour, so we have to keep all the options on the table for us,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

State-controlled media in the Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two countries leading an alliance of financially dependent states that in June declared their boycott of Qatar, have promoted in recent weeks Sheikh Sultan Bin Suhaim al-Thani, a 33-year old son of former emir Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Thani.

Initially, the media spotlighted a relative of Sheikh Sultan, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani, who lives in Saudi Arabia, but more recently has focused attention on his nephew. Saudi and UAE media toted the two men as influential members of Qatar’s ruling family capable of solving the Gulf rift.

Resident in Paris, Sheikh Sultan is believed to have business interests in the kingdom. Sheikh Sultan’s SST Holdings was last year awarded an $8.8 billion contract for a 1.4 million square metre real estate development in Riyadh that would include a shopping centre as well as mosques, hotels, exhibition halls and artificial lakes.

Qatari authorities reportedly raided Sheikh Sultan’s Doha home in October, confiscating his father’s archive. At almost the same time, they froze Sheikh Abdullah’s assets in the Gulf state.
Sheikh Khalifa was deposed in 1995 by his son and the father of Sheikh Tamim, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who abdicated in 2013.

The Al Arabiya television network, in what appears to be a broadening of the Saudi-UAE effort, this week showed video of Sheikh Sultan addressing thousands of members of the Bani Hajer branch of the Qahtan tribe gathered in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Members of the tribe live primarily in the kingdom, but also in Qatar. Tribal members responded with seemingly lukewarm applause to Sheikh Sultan’s call for a purge in his home country and his urging of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ensure that Qatar does not become a safe haven for militants and corruption.

The broadcast was part of a Gulf media war that is pockmarked on both sides of the divide by inaccurate and sensational reporting that often is little more than blatant propaganda. The Gulf crisis was sparked by false news reports that attributed provocative statements to Sheikh Tamim that he apparently never made. US intelligence concluded that the fake reports had been orchestrated by the UAE.

Al-Arabiya founder and co-owner Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of the late Saudi King Fahd, is among prominent businessmen, princes and officials who were detained earlier this month in Prince Mohammed’s sweeping power grab under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign.

Sheikh Taleb bin Lahem bin Shraim, the head of the Qatari branch of another tribe, the Al Ghafran, fled to Saudi Arabia in September after Qatar stripped him and 54 of his relatives of their Qatari citizenship. Sheikh Taleb said he had been penalized for refusing “to insult the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Sheikh Taleb was one of several Al Ghafran tribal leaders who met with Prince Mohammed in early September. Sheikh Sultan al-Murri, who attended the meeting in Jeddah convened at the request of the tribal leaders, accused Qatar of resorting to “lies and attempts to distort the tribes of Qatar in order to tear up the tribal social fabric in favour of the minority of Iranians.” Qatar has a minority of Shiites and Qatari nationals of Iranian descent.

Relations between Qatar and the Al Ghafran have long been strained. Qatar revoked the citizenship of the entire Al Ghafran clan, some 5-6000 people, after ten of its leaders were accused of plotting a coup in cooperation with Saudi Arabia in 1996. More members of the tribe have lost their Qatari nationality since 2004.

Many have since won a reprieve, but thousands remain in limbo, according to Misfer al-Marri, a tribe member who lives in exile in Scotland. Signalling its support for the clan, than Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud met in 2010 with the coup plotters after their release from Qatari prison.

For now, the promotion of opponents of Sheikh Tamim appears to be more of a public relations stunt and fixture of the media war than a serious challenge in a country that has witnessed a wave of nationalist sentiment in response to the boycott. Yet, the longer the Gulf crisis drags on and the longer Qatar sustains its refusal to accept Saudi and UAE demands, the more difficult it becomes to find a way out in which all parties can save face.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, November 17, 2017

Did they or didn’t they? The battle for control of Brussels’ Grand Mosque


By James M. Dorsey

It’s hard to prove beyond doubt a direct causal link between militancy and Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative forms of Sunni Muslim Islam. That hasn’t stopped the Belgium’s parliament from attempting to wrest control from Saudi Arabia of Brussel’s downtown Grand Mosque after three years in which Belgians played a prominent role in Islamic State attacks in the Belgian capital as well as Paris.

At first glance, the battle for the mosque, Europe’s largest and most influential Saudi-funded institution that in 1969 was leased to the kingdom rent-free for 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin in a gesture of friendship, constitutes an attempt to counter militant Islamic ideology. It raises nonetheless prickly issues.

Breaking the contract would amount to equating various strands of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism with militancy and political violence – a tenuous assertion given that it propagates Muslim supremacy but in a majority of its expressions rejects violence and often refuses engagement in politics.

That is not to say that militants and ultra-conservatives do not draw on the same textual sources, deny that some militants hail from ultra-conservative backgrounds, or ignore the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism has fuelled intolerance and greater conservatism in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Belgium boasted the highest number of Islamic State foreign fighters per capita of the population.

Breaking the contract would also put the Belgian government in the awkward position of determining what constitutes good or bad Islam, raising questions of whether that is the role of a democratic administration, and potentially compromising the separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion and expression.

A Belgian move to break the contract, which could take up to a year to complete, would create a precedent in Europe and beyond that the kingdom may not welcome, despite a vow earlier this month by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to move Saudi Arabia, that adheres to Wahhabism, an 18th century puritan and literal interpretation of Islam, to an undefined, more moderate form of the faith.

Some analysts suggest that a Belgian move would strengthen his efforts to curb the power of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment derived from a power-sharing agreement with the ruling Al Saud family that dates to the founding of Saudi Arabia. Ultra-conservative religious leaders have bent over backwards to endorse Prince Mohammed’s reforms and the rollback of their powers, despite evidence that they have misgivings.

The battle for control of the mosque also has implications for escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and its arch rival, Iran. The Brussels mosque is operated and funded to the tune of $1.2 million a year by the World Muslim League, a government-sponsored group, that for decades served as a prime vehicle for the propagation of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism.

The League, whose staff was believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, was a major beneficiary of up to $100 billion that Saudi Arabia invested globally over the last 40 years in religious and educational facilities as well as groups that often adhered to ant-Shiite, and by implication, if not explicitly, anti-Iranian positions.

The League’s secretary general, Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, has in the last year sought to project the group as “a global umbrella for Islamic people that promotes the principles and values of peace, forgiveness, co-existence, and humanitarian cooperation” by organizing inter-faith conferences and meeting the Pope.

On a visit to Brussels earlier this year, Mr. Al-Issa denied that Saudi Arabia had funded extremism and sectarianism. "Islam is a 1,400-years old religion. It cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect," Mr. Al-Issa told a conference in the European parliament on Islam and Islamophobia

Mr. Al-Issa has also positioned the League squarely behind Prince Mohammed by backing the Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar and allegations that the Gulf state supports extremism.

report by the conservative Henry Jackson Society charged in July that  Saudi Arabia was the primary funder of extremism in Britain as well as elsewhere. It said the kingdom “since the 1960s has sponsored a multimillion dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the West.”

A prominent Indonesian scholar, wittingly or unwittingly, lent justification to the Belgian move rooted in calls for the furthering of a more tolerant, pluralistic, European version of Islam by unequivocally linking ultra-conservatism to extremism.

“There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy. So long as we lack consensus regarding this matter, we cannot gain victory over fundamentalist violence within Islam,” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, the 51-year old general secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

NU, one of the world’s largest Muslim movements that was founded almost a century ago in Indonesia in opposition to Wahhabism, but includes prominent figures who espouse Saudi-style anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian attitudes.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative who as a young officer lived across the street from the Brussels mosque, described it as “not a house of worship, but a museum to teach Belgians about Islam and the Middle East.”

The mosque is a mere 16 kilometres from Molenbeek, Belgium’s second poorest neighbourhood, that emerged as a hotbed of militancy, with many of the Belgian perpetrators of attacks in recent years in Paris and Brussels hailing from the area. At least two Belgians, who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State, studied Islam at the mosque, according to Belgian intelligence.

A Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed, advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Saudi-inspired "Salafist sentiments are solidly anchored in the minds of Muslims in the Belgian capital. Belgian authorities have been playing with fire for 30 years," said Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism. Mr. Privot estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith…. Discrimination in housing and employment has produced clear lower-class ‘ghetto’ areas of greater Brussels, such as Molenbeek, Schaerbeek and St. Josse, disproportionately inhabited by Muslims regardless of their education and income.” 

The cable noted that “according to the OECD (Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development), unemployment among foreign-born residents is twice that of indigenous Belgians...  Saudi Arabia continues as a source of material support to the Islamic community.  A member of the Muslim Executive told us that the Saudi embassy keeps mosques furnished with Korans and help with such material needs as mosque upkeep and repair,” the cable said, referring to the Belgian Muslim community’s umbrella organization.

Controversy over the Brussels mosque has simmered for several years. In 2015, the Belgian government advised Saudi ambassador Abdullah bin Yahya Almoa'limi that it had problems with the mosque’s director, Khalid Alabri, who was also on the embassy staff.

"His sermons were Salafist, anti-Israel and anti-West. The guiding principle was the primacy of Salafism above all else," a worshipper told Belgian television and radio station RTBF. Mr. Alabri was quietly removed from his post.

In the latest round, Belgium is effectively expelling the mosque’s recently resigned imam, Abdelhadi Sewif, an Egyptian national, by refusing to extend his residency permit because he used his 13-year tenure to espouse Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative.

Mr. Sewif "is a dangerous man to the national security of our country," said Belgian state secretary for asylum and migration Theo Francken in a RTBF interview. Mr. Al-Issa, the World Muslim league head, denied the allegations, noting that investigations of the mosque had cleared it of wrongdoing.

The League, in a bid to counter criticism of the mosque returned its Saudi director, Jamal Saleh Momenah, to the kingdom, and replaced him with Tamer Abou el Saod, a Luxemburg consultant who has Swedish nationality. Mr Momenah, who like Mr. Alabri, enjoyed diplomatic status, was removed after deputies walked away from his parliamentary testimony in Arabic in March convinced that it would be impossible to work with him.

“You can’t build an inclusive society with someone like that. This is an enemy of our Western values. He doesn’t even know the European Treaty on Human Rights,” said Flemish nationalist member of parliament, Christoph D’Haese.

Mr. Sewif was succeeded by Ndiaye Mouhameth Galaye, a Senegalese national who teaches a more liberal interpretation of Islam but has yet to convince parliamentarians that he will take the mosque in a different direction.

In an apparent underestimation of Belgian sentiment and the kingdom’s tarnished reputation, Saudi Islamic affairs minister Ibrahim Al-Zaid this week offered Belgian deputy foreign minister Dirk Achten to train Belgian imams. A “hypocritical suggestion,” quipped a Belgian news website.


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, November 15, 2017

Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s return to Lebanon: A moment of truth


By James M. Dorsey

The proof will be in the pudding when Prime Minister Saad Hariri returns home in the coming days to a country in which friend and foe have rallied around him and he clarifies whether he intends to follow through on his controversial decision to resign.

Few in Lebanon and beyond believe that Mr. Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen whose family company in the kingdom declared bankruptcy earlier this year in one of the first casualties of Saudi Arabia’s fiscal crisis, voluntarily stepped down on November 4 while on a visit to Riyadh.

Mr. Hariri’s subsequent interview on his own Lebanese television station did little to erase suspicion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman forced him to resign in an opening bid to counter Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia that constitutes one of Lebanon’s most formidable political forces. Mr. Hariri warned that Saudi Arabia and its allies could ride roughshod on Lebanon’s economy by imposing sanctions and expelling hundreds of thousands of Lebanese employed in the kingdom.

The fact that Mr. Hariri announced that he would leave his wife and children in the kingdom when he returns to Beirut will reinforce suspicion of Saudi arm twisting should he, once back in the Lebanese capital, move forward with his resignation.

Further calling into question Mr. Hariri’s independence, were reports that Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the head of late King Abdullah’s court, who was among scores of princes, officials and businessmen arrested earlier this month on corruption charges in a sweeping purge, had illicitly paid the Hariri family company $9 billion.

Rumours that Prince Mohammed’s leverage over Mr. Hariri involves the prime minister potentially been sucked into the crown prince’s power grab, executed under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign, were reinforced by the fact that the fate of one of Mr. Hariri’s closest Saudi business associates, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, remains unclear.

A son of late King Fahd, whose immediate relatives were one target group in this month’s selective of purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials and prominent businessmen, Prince Abdul Aziz was first reported to have been put under house arrest during a crackdown in September when scores of Islamic scholars, judges and activists were arrested. It remains unclear whether he is still under house arrest or has been transferred to Riyadh’s gilded prison in the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Lebanon’s foremost Sunni politician, Mr. Hariri was widely credited with keeping the government. in which Hezbollah is represented, together, and ensuring that the country remained on the side lines of the Syrian war despite Hezbollah fighting alongside Syrian government forces and more than a million Syrian refugees spilling into the country.

Mr. Hariri announced his resignation a day after meeting in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Hariri’s office said the prime minister had urged Iran to halt its support of the Houthis as a first step towards ending the war in Yemen. Mr. Hariri denied Mr. Velayati’s assertion that the prime minister had offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his resignation speech on Saudi television, Mr. Hariri uncharacteristically dropped his effort to maintain a modicum of unity in Lebanon by echoing Saudi allegations that Iran and its surrogate, Hezbollah, were attempting sow unrest and instability in the Arab world.

Mr. Hariri may well have been caught in a Catch-22 with Saudi Arabia and more hard-line Lebanese Sunnis demanding that he take a firmer stand towards Hezbollah and the militia and other Shiite groups insisting that Lebanon normalize relations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanon minimized contact with Mr. Al-Assad as part of its effort to disassociate itself from the conflict in Syria.

Reporting from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, one of the country’s poorest urban centres that is home to both Sunnis and Shiites, journalist Sunniva Rose described how some hard liners, supporters of former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who resigned earlier this year in protest against Hezbollah’s domination of politics, were putting up posters with portraits of Mr. Rifi and Prince Mohammed.

The risks for the Lebanese is that they will pay the price for Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East that is being fought on their backs. Saudi Arabia exploited Mr. Hariri’s resignation with Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan declaring two days later that the Lebanese government would “be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia” because of Hezbollah.

Mr. Al-Sabhan warned that “there are those who will stop (Hezbollah) and make it return to the caves of South Lebanon”, the heartland of Lebanon’s Shia community. “Lebanese must all know these risks and work to fix matters before they reach the point of no return,” Mr. Al-Sabhan went on to say.

Prince Mohammed, in a gesture, towards Lebanese Christians and an effort to project the kingdom’s transition to what he described as an undefined form of moderate Islam, received Lebanon’s Maronite Christian Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai this week. The patriarch met separately with Mr. Hariri.

Sporting a big cross on his chest in a country that bans expressions of non-Muslim religions, Patriarch Al Rai’s visit constituted a rare occasion on which the kingdom welcomed a non-Muslim religious dignitary. He was the first Lebanese public figure to visit Saudi Arabia since Mr. Hariri’s resignation.

Lebanon’s political elite, including the prime minister’s Future Movement and Hezbollah, beyond rallying around Mr. Hariri, has called for calm and sought to ensure that the political crisis does not destabilize the country further, or even worse, constitute a prelude to its descent into renewed sectarian strife.  

The elite as well as many ordinary Lebanese fear that their country has become the latest pawn in a Saudi-Iranian proxy war that has primarily been at the expense of others. Saudi efforts to counter Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle sparked the kingdom’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen with devastating humanitarian consequences. Iranian and Saudi intervention in Syria alongside many others aggravated the bloodshed in a brutal six-year long civil war.

Mr. Hariri’s risky resignation constitutes a Saudi-inspired bid to deprive Iranian influence of the legitimacy conveyed upon it by being part of the Lebanese government.

Speaking in Paris, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil insisted that “Lebanon would like for its decisions to be taken freely. Lebanon creates its internal and foreign policy with the will of its people and its leaders who are elected by the people…. Once Hariri is back in Lebanon he can take any decision he sees as right and possible.”


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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Arab media: Saudi purge promises tighter control

Prince Alwaleed at Al Arab

By James M. Dorsey

Long-standing Saudi efforts to dominate the pan-Arab media landscape appear to have moved into high gear with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s purge that targeted members of the ruling Al Saud family as well as prominent businessmen, including at least two media moguls. The purge could also signal an escalation of the Saudi-Qatari media war.

Among those detained was Waleed al-Ibrahim, a founder of Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) that operates the Al Arabiya television network, established to counter Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose Rotana Group has partnered with media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Saudi Arabia’s quest for media dominance dates back to the founding of MBC in 1991 as well as two pan-Arab newspapers, As Sharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat. Qatar not only challenged Saudi dominance with the creation of Al Jazeera in 1996, but also revolutionized the region’s media landscape with its freewheeling, often highly opinionated reporting and programming.

Al Jazeera’s success was one reason why a UAE-Saudi alliance that in June declared a diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state included the shuttering of the network among its core demands. Al Jazeera English that in contrast to Al Jazeera Arabic largely adheres to standards of independent reporting, stands out in a tightly state-controlled media landscape in which many outlets have lost a degree of credibility by projecting themselves as partisans in a media war rather than purveyors of the truth.

The detentions of Mr. Al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of late King Fahd, and Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of King Salman, have sparked speculation that Prince Mohammed wants control of all the kingdom’s major media assets even though those that were held by individuals rather than the state toed the government line in their news broadcasting.

“The prospect of bringing the giants of Saudi and Arab media under unified government control is worrying. It raises concern that the diversity of opinion and coverage will be further curtailed. Mohammed bin Salman is clearly intent on controlling the message as he conducts a dramatic restructuring of the Saudi state and economy,” Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told the Financial Times.

Mr. Al-Ibrahim and Prince Alwaleed’s media outlets could well change hands as part of Prince Mohammed’s intention to confiscate assets worth $800 billion under the mum of his anti-corruption campaign. With a large portion of the assets of those detained in the purge difficult to access because they are parked outside of the kingdom, media assets take on added significance.

An anti-corruption commission established hours before the purge was empowered by decree with “returning funds to the state’s public treasury (and) registering the assets and funds as state property.”
The fact that the two moguls’ major media assets are based in Dubai may make a possible takeover easier. Regulators in the United Arab Emirates have asked UAE banks for information about those detained in Prince Mohammed’s purge in what bankers said was a likely prelude to freezing their accounts.

Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, noted that Prince Mohammed "needs cash to fund the government's investment plans" formulated in Vision 2030 and designed to diversify and rationalize the Saudi economy. "It was becoming increasingly clear that additional revenue is needed to improve the economy's performance. The government will also strike deals with businessmen and royals to avoid arrest, but only as part of a greater commitment to the local economy,” Eurasia said in a note to clients.

The apparent move to tighten state control of media strokes with the crown prince’s crackdown on any form of criticism and/or dissent that manifested itself with an earlier wave of arrests of Islamic scholars, judges, intellectuals and activists as well as his quest to centralize power. The crackdown and potential takeover of media assets comes at a time of unprecedented, more freewheeling public debate on social media about Prince Mohammed’s reforms and policy changes as well as the kingdom’s foreign policy and national security challenges.

Prince Alwaleed, in what appeared to be a naïve attempt to establish a pan-Arab television station that would to some degree divert from official government policy, launched Al Arab in 2015 in Bahrain, another Gulf state in which media censorship is pervasive. In a statement by Kingdom Holding, Prince Alwaleed promised that “Al Arab will break the mould of news presentation, becoming a platform for transparent presentation and discussion of the region’s most intractable issues.”

Al Arab was headed by Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent and at times controversial Saudi journalist, who since going into exile in the United States earlier this year has become more vocal in his criticism of the government. It was taken off the air by Bahraini authorities a day after it went live for broadcasting an interview with Bahraini opposition leader Khalil al-Marzooq.

In the interview, Mr. Al-Marzooq, who resigned his seat in parliament in 2011 in protest against the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters, took issue with the regime’s revocation of the citizenship of 72 Bahrainis, including Turki al-Binali, one of the leading ideologues of the Islamic State, Shiite and human rights activists, journalists, and medical personnel.

It was not clear whether Al Arab was suspended because of differences within Bahrain’s ruling family or in response to pressure from Saudi Arabia whose troops helped Bahrain squash the 2011 popular revolt.

Prince Alwaleed announced earlier this year that he was closing the station, which had not returned to the air since its suspension two years earlier, but had last year decided to move operations to Qatar.

Had Al Arab relaunched in Qatar, it would have put Prince Alwaleed in an awkward position with the eruption in June of the Gulf crisis. With or without Al Arab, Prince Mohammed’s probable media grab will, however, likely escalate what is already a media war that often has little to do with journalism.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, November 10, 2017

Murder in The Hague: Saudi-Iranian proxy war heats up


By James M. Dorsey

Shot dead this week on a street in The Hague, Ahmad Mola Nissi may have died the violent life he lived, but his murder suggests a possible retching up of the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as a step towards Saudi-US-efforts to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its ethnic minorities.

A 52-year-old refugee from Iran in the Netherlands since 2005, Mr. Mola Nissi headed a militant nationalist group of Iranian Arabs that intermittently attacked targets in Khuzestan, Iran’s oil-rich province populated by a large Iranian Arab community. The targets of attacks in 2005, 2006 and 2013 included oil facilities, the office of the governor in the regional capital of Ahwaz, other government offices, and banks.

Mr. Mola Nissi and a second activist, Habib Jaber al-Ahvazi also known as Abo Naheth, survived an Iranian crackdown on the group, The Arab Struggle Movement, that seeks independence for Khuzestan, by escaping to Syria from where they found refuge in Europe.

Activists said they had since focussed primarily on media activism and fund raising, at times creating footage of alleged attacks involving gas cylinder explosives to attract Saudi funds.
No one has claimed responsibility for Mr. Mola Nissi’s killing and Iranian opposition sources blame the regime in Tehran. Some Iranian Arab activists, however, expressed surprise at the killing.

“I don’t believe the regime will do such a crazy, stupid crime in Europe that would severely damage the regime’s reputation. I personally don’t believe the regime wants to destroy its ties with the EU for such a person (Ahmad Mola),” one activist said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Mola Nissi was shot dead as he was preparing to establish a television station staffed with Saudi-trained personnel and funding that would target Khuzestan, a south-eastern province that borders on Iraq and sits at the head of the Gulf, according to activists.

The killing comes against the backdrop of an escalation in Saudi-Iranian tensions with the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the firing by Yemeni Houthi rebels of a ballistic missile at Riyadh’s international airport, publication of a blueprint to destabilize Iran using the Pakistani province of Balochistan as a spring plank, and a flow of funds to militants in the troubled Pakistani province. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fuelled the fire when he declared in May that the fight with Iran would take place “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”

Former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Britain and the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who often serves as an unofficial voice of the Saudi government, twice in recent years spoke at rallies organized by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an exiled Iranian opposition group, that based itself in Iraq during the Saudi-backed Iraqi war against Iran in the 1980s. Prince Faisal told one of the rallies that "your legitimate struggle against the (Iranian) regime will achieve its goal, sooner or later. I, too, want the fall of the regime.”

Pakistani militants in the province of Balochistan have reported a massive flow of Saudi funds in the last year to Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative groups while a Saudi thinktank believed to be supported by Prince Mohammed published a blueprint for support of the Baloch and called for “immediate counter measures” against Iran.

Prince Turki’s remarks fit a pattern of Arab calls for independence of Khuzestan. Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic who has since been dropped from the paper’s roster after she wrote positively about Israel, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that “the al-Ahwaz district in Iran...is an Arab territory... Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925... It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.”

Eruptions of discontent in Khuzestan, particularly on soccer pitches when Asian competition matches are played against teams from the Gulf, have become a fixture in Khuzestan that for decades has been an overt and covert battlefield in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony. Mr. Al-Ahvazi told online Arab nationalist Ahvaz.tv in 2015 that  soccer protests were part of an “ongoing confrontation between demonstrators and the forces of the Persian occupation.”

Protests have focussed on identity, environmental degradation, and social issues. Iranian politicians warned of a “national threat” in February when riots erupted in 11 cities in Khuzestan after they lost power during a severe dust storm. The outages led to water shortages as water and wastewater treatment plants were knocked offline. Demonstrators chanted "Death to tyranny", "We, the people of Ahwaz, won't accept oppression" and "Clean air is our right, Ahwaz is our city."

International human rights groups have long accused Iran of discriminating against Iranian Arabs even though many are Shiites rather than Sunni Muslims. Dozens of protesters were reportedly killed during demonstrations in Ahwaz in 2011 that were inspired by the popular Arab revolts.

“Despite Khuzestan's natural resource wealth, its ethnic Arab population, which is believed to constitute a majority in the province, has long complained about the lack of socio-economic development in the region. They also allege that the Iranian government has engaged in systematic discrimination against them, particularly in the areas of employment, housing, and civil and political rights,” Human Rights Watch said at the time.

Mr. Mola Nissi’s assassination remains shrouded in mystery with no clear identification of potential suspects and no claim of responsibility. It raises, however, the spectre of both an escalation in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and the possibility of it expanding beyond the Middle East itself. “The murder remains unresolved, but it doesn’t bode well and is hard to separate from what’s going on in the region,” said one analyst.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Getting the Saudi fight against corruption right


By James M. Dorsey

Kuwaiti billionaire Maan al-Sanea should have seen it coming after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed to root out corruption.

Embroiled in one of the kingdom’s largest financial scandals and collapses that involved a bitter $22 billion battle with a prominent Saudi merchant family, cost some of the world’s biggest banks billions of dollars, and is being slugged out in courts across the globe, Mr. Al-Sanea was low hanging fruit. He was arrested in October when police raided his Saudi mansion two weeks before Prince Mohammed’s frontal assault on the kingdom’s political and economic elite.

Mr. Al-Sanea’s arrest failed to set off alarm bells. Members of the ruling family and business community as well as senior officials likely saw it as a one-off incident. Together with Mr. Al-Sanea, they also grossly underestimated Prince Mohammed’s brashness and ruthlessness and ignored his warning in June that “no one who got involved in a corruption case will escape, regardless if he was a minister or a prince."  

Mr. Al-Sanea, the ruling family and business community had good reason to be complacent: they, like the crown prince and the Salman branch of the family, were all part of a system and a way of doing business that went back to the founding of Saudi Arabia.

That is why rather than creating a large number of enemies and opening himself up to accusations of selectively targeting people in a bold move that appeared to be more about grabbing power than rooting out corruption, Prince Mohammed may have been well-advised to make his anti-corruption stand differently.

The crown prince’s anti-corruption committee, established hours before the first arrests and announcement of dismissals of prominent princes, officials and businessmen were made, has projected itself as an enforcement agency with the powers to arrest, freeze assets and impose travel bans rather than a regulatory body that would introduce legislation designed to fundamentally alter an ingrained system.

Rooted in a system that until the late 1950s made no distinction between the budgets of the state and the ruling family, Saudi laws still only barely delineate the dividing lines between them nor do they contain anything that would amount to a code to prevent conflict of interest or regulate the way members of the ruling family do business with the state. In fact, business deals often amount to insider baseball in a country in which the family’s finances and sources of revenue are a closely held secret. In fact, if revealed, the Fortune 500 billionaire’s list could well look very different.

Members of the ruling family and associated businessmen initially often made their money by representing foreign companies and receiving huge commissions on government contracts. They often took loans from banks which they failed to pay back. National Commercial Bank, where numbered accounts of princes were managed by senior management, nearly collapsed at the beginning of this century because of unpaid loans.

Life magazine editor Noel F. Bush on a visit in 1943 during which he travelled in the country with its first king, Ibn Saud, portrayed a ruler who operated on the principle of ‘the state is mine’ and doled out welfare to his subjects. It is a system that has since repeatedly been upgraded but whose fundaments remain in place.

“Our unemployment rate would drop rather significantly if the billions we squandered on kickbacks and lavish personal enrichment schemes dressed up as public-works projects were spent instead on the development of small to medium enterprises, vocational training and 21st-century education reforms… In Saudi Arabia, senior officials and princes become billionaires as contracts are either enormously inflated or, at worst, a complete mirage,” wrote Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who recently moved to the United States in anticipation of the crown prince’s crackdowns.

Mr. Khashoggi cited the example of an airport built “in the wrong location simply to benefit the princes who own the land. They received the land for free from the government and then got extravagant compensation for the property.”

Prince Mohammed’s plans to diversify and streamline the economy, loosen strict social codes to further his economic reforms, and, in a world in which autocracies can no longer primarily rely on repression, cater to social and job aspirations of an in majority young population while avoiding political change and tightening his grip on power, may well be the most far-reaching upgrade of the system.

No doubt, Prince Mohammed’s tackling of corruption and targeting of prominent people strikes a popular cord with many Saudis who have long been unhappy with arbitrary privileges members of the ruling family were able to accrue to further their business and financial interests.

Nonetheless, the impression that the most recent wave of arrests constituted a power grab rather than a systemic tackling of corruption is reinforced by the fact that the crown prince’s dealings as well as that of his tack of the ruling family remain beyond scrutiny.

The $500 million purchase by Prince Mohammed of the Serena, the world’s 15th largest yacht, raised eyebrows when it was disclosed in 2016 by The New York Times at a time that the crown prince had imposed austerity measures as a result of which many in the kingdom were struggling to make ends meet. The 32-year old crown prince never clarified how he had amassed his wealth.

Nor is it clear how his father, King Salman, funded the use of two offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands to take out mortgages on his London homes worth $34 million and manage a yacht. Similarly,  this week’s publication by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of the Paradise Papers disclosed offshore holdings by several other members of the monarch’s branch of the family.

The New York Times moreover reported that a major Saudi investment firm founded by one of the king’s sons, and now chaired by another, owned a significant stake in a conglomerate that does extensive government business, including in a shipbuilding partnership with a French defense contractor. A smaller firm founded by another of King Salman’s sons operated in sectors regulated and/or funded by the state such as health care, telecommunications and education.

To be clear, offshore assets are not illegal nor are members of the ruling family barred under Saudi law from benefitting from doing business with a state that was named after the family. Equally clear, however, is that Saudi Arabia may benefit more from a reformer who exudes transparency, lives up to his vow that all are equal under the law, and tackles corruption structurally rather than punitively.

To achieve that, Prince Mohammed may be better served by an anti-corruption committee that is less vindictive and more focused on developing and enforcing a set of laws, rules and regulations that ensures rule of law by institutionalizing anti-corruption norms, policing conflict of interest, and introducing transparency into the finances of the state as well as the ruling elite.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Saudi Crown Prince’s unprecedented power grab could come to haunt him


By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has won the first round of what could prove to be an unprecedented power grab that comes to haunt him. The prince’s frontal assault on significant segments of the kingdom’s elite; assertions of unrest in the military and the national guard, and a flood of rumours, including allegations that a prominent member of the ruling family, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, died under mysterious circumstances suggest however that the struggle may be far from over.

There is little doubt that Prince Mohammed is in firm control for now. However, there is also little doubt that many in the kingdom’s elite are licking their wounds and that the crown prince believes that bold action, crackdowns and repression is his best way of ensuring that he retains increasingly absolute power.

Criticism and potential opposition ranges from those that feel shut out of the corridors of power to those who see their vested interests threatened by Prince Mohammed’s reforms and actions and/or are critical of the war in Yemen, his putting limits on ultra-conservative social codes, and his power-hungry, autocratic style.

As a result, the rumours about Prince Abdul Aziz, even if they may well prove to be incorrect, take on added significance. Prince Abdul Aziz is a son of late King Fahd, a major shareholder in Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) that operates the Al Arabiya television network, whose other major shareholder, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of the king, was among those detained this weekend.

Prince Abdul Aziz was known to be a supporter of the former crown prince, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was forced out of office earlier this year after rumours were floated that he had a drug addiction. Prince Mohammed is believed to have been under house arrest since.

Prince Abdul Aziz was also a partner in Saudi Oger, the troubled company of the family of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned this weekend in a seemingly Saudi-engineered move to destabilize Lebanon and confront Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia.

Prince Abdul Aziz has an alleged track record of going to the extreme in confronting his opponents. In an unprecedented move, Prince Turki bin Sultan, another member of the ruling family, filed a court case in Geneva in 2015 accusing Prince Abdul Aziz of orchestrating his abduction, sedation and forcible repatriation from Switzerland in 2003. A reformist, Prince Turki said he was kidnapped after he had accused the defence and interior ministries of corruption and planned to organize a seminar to detail the misconduct.

Sifting through the rumours and assessing the balance of power in Saudi Arabia amounts to the equivalent of Kremlinology, the phrase used at the time of the Soviet Union to try to decipher the inner workings of the Kremlin.

Nonetheless, what is confirmed as fact as well as the rumours appear to bolster suggestions that Prince Mohammed’s crackdown and power grab targeted among others factions of the ruling family related to late kings Abdullah and Fahd as well as the family of the powerful late interior minister and crown prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef’s father.

What is certainly also true is that Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s crackdown on corruption strikes a popular cord among many in the kingdom who have long resented the awarding of often inflated mega contracts to members of the family as well as alleged land grabs by princes. Countering corruption beyond targeting potential critics and opponents has however a darker side in a country in which until the late 1950s members of the ruling families could access public funds for private use.

This week’s publication by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) of the Paradise Papers, exposing the secret dealings and offshore interests of the global elite, potentially puts another member of ruling family in Prince Mohammed’s firing line.

Former deputy defense minister Prince Khalid bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, known as the father of Saudi missiles for his secret procurement in the late 1980s of Chinese missiles for the kingdom, and command alongside US General Norman Schwarzkopf of the US-led alliance that forced Iraq in 1991 to retreat from its occupation of Kuwait, was the only Saudi whose offshore dealings were revealed by the massive leak of documents of the Bermudan branch of offshore law firm Appleby.

The documents showed that Prince Khalid was a beneficiary of two trusts and registered at least eight companies in Bermuda between 1989 and 2014, some of which were used to own yachts and aircraft.
Several of those dismissed or detained in Prince Mohammed’s most recent crackdown were last year named in a similar leak known as the Panama Papers because they came from a law firm in the country.

They include former Riyadh governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, whose oil-services company PetroSaudi was linked to Malaysia’s multi-billion dollar 1MDB scandal; Prince Turki bin Nasser bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a former military commander and head of the kingdom’s meteorological and environmental authority; former deputy defense minister Prince Fahad bin Abdullah bin Mohammed; and former Saudi Telecom chief Saoud al-Daweesh.

The Panama Papers identified tens of Saudi nationals, including several members of the Bin Salman branch of the ruling family. The leaks included wealthy persons from across the globe with offshore assets, a legal practice that implies no wrongdoing.  

The military and the national guard, a 100,000-man praetorian guard that was the long-standing preserve of King Abdullah and his closest associates, have remained silent in the wake of this weekend’s arrest of guard commander Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, a son of King Abdullah, and dismissal of navy commander Vice Admiral Abdullah bin Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Sultan, believed to be a son the late former defense minister and crown prince, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

The changes in command nonetheless have reverberated through the ranks. “Things may well quiet down but many in the guard and the navy don’t like the way things were managed,” said a well-placed source.

The source’s assessment was echoed by former CIA official and Saudi expert Bruce Riedel. Following a tweet by US President Donald J. Trump in support of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown, Mr. Riedel noted that “the Trump administration has tied the United States to the impetuous young crown prince of Saudi Arabia and seems to be quite oblivious to the dangers. But they are growing every day.”


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