Qatar bids for 2022 World Cup 19, March 2009Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
Tags: Asian cup football, Asian Games, Aspire academy, Athletics, Olympics, Qatar, Soft Power, sports, World Cup bid, WTA Tennis
Qatar has officially announced that it will bid to host the 2022 World Cup. This is one plinth of a far larger strategy to – essentially – put Qatar on the international map, whilst winning friends and influencing them. Sport is one method that Qatar is using to purse this goal. They have already hosted the 2006 Asian Games, one of Tennis’ WTA Championships, and will host the 2011 Asian Cup football tournament as well as the 2010 World Indoor Athletics Championships. Additionally, no-one watching television in (what seems like) the entire Middle East can have missed adverts for Qatar’s ‘Aspire’ sports academy, which aims to train the next generation of Olympic athletes from the region.
Reform in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? 28, February 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in American ME Relations, Saudi Arabia, Soft Power.
Tags: America, conservative, driving, Fouad al-Farhan, King Abdullah, reform, religious police, Saudi, Saudi Arabia, saudi rape victim, Soft Power, the Kingdom, witch, women's rights
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For those studying the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and attempting to discern its future directions, there are two broad schools of thought into which opinions fall. One says that the Kingdom is slowly but surely reforming; that the elite, or at least enough of the elite, are of the opinion that reforms are critical to the future of Saudi society. This line of thinking usually endows King Abdullah with relatively liberal values and a desire to open up the Kingdom. The other school suggests that the real heart of the elite is true-blue conservative, with a very large C. Concessions for greater rights and freedoms, where they have been made, were grudgingly employed because of international (or indeed domestic) pressure to do so. Whilst they may make hopeful noises from time to time about liberalisation, really, deep down, the regime just want things to remain the same as they were for their forefathers. The protagonist for this half of the argument is usually referred to as Prince Naif, the head of the Ministry of the Interior.
Therefore, for the student beginning to delve into the seemingly bipolar world of Saudi Arabian politics, there is a choice to make, and what is worse, there is ample evidence for both camps. This can most starkly be seen regarding the role of women in Saudi society and their rights, or lack thereof.
In the months around the turn of 2008, there have been a myriad of confusing, contradictory and, at times, disheartening reports on women’s rights. In November 2007 the Saudi appeal court doubled the sentence of a 19 year old Saudi woman who was gang raped 14 times from three to six months in jail and from 100 to 200 lashes. Her crime was sitting in a car with a man who was not related to her. This, understandably and justly, created international opprobrium and lead – over a month later – to Saudi King Abdullah pardoning the woman for the crime and thus sparing her the punishment.
Despite the barbarism of the initial sentencing and the staggering inhumanity and callousness of the appeal, in the end, some kind of sense prevailed. In January this year there was another small step forward for women’s rights, when it was decreed that women could now stay in hotel rooms by themselves. True, this is only provided that they had photo ID which would be photocopied and sent to the local police, but, again it is one small step in the right direction. More importantly, however, the very next day it was reported that women in Saudi Arabia would be able to drive ‘by the end of the year.’ This would be a massive step. The fact that a woman could drive is more or less incidental; it is the fact that this has become the symbol of the battle over Saudi women’s rights, which makes this so important.
Back in 1990 a group of women drove through the streets of Riyadh hoping to capitalise on the presence of so many foreign reporters in the Kingdom owing to the Gulf War, only to be arrested and have their jobs taken away. The time was, it seems, not right. However, that is all it is: time. All agree that there is nothing whatsoever in the Quran which forbids women to drive. Indeed, two prominent Saudi scholars including one of Saudi’s most senior religious figures, Abdel-Mohsin al-Obaikan, have recently reaffirmed this wide spread belief. However, aside from practical issues (is it safe for women to wear the mandatory Niqab when driving?) problems lie in the fact that many of those against allowing such a practice see this as making it easier for men and women to fraternise. Indeed, they see women driving as the first great step towards a more liberal and permissive society.
In recent years, there have been other smaller but still significant improvements in women’s rights, which could be seen as softening up the ground for the decisive decision over women driving. For example, women may now travel abroad without a male companion (though his permission is still needed), own companies and seek a divorce. Further sign of progress was seen at the end of January when the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs allowed the creation of a women’s charity – ‘Ansar Al Marrah’ (supporters of women). Its stated goal is to help women improve their social, educational, and cultural levels. The degree to which it will be able to help is, however, entirely dependant on the level of support that it receives from the authorities. Yet, this is, nevertheless, another positive sign.
Unfortunately, we may well get to see just how much power this charity has sooner rather then later. At the start of February a woman was arrested for having a coffee with a work colleague in a Starbucks. After being arrested, she was put in jail, denied the right to call her husband, and forced to thumbprint (sign) a prewritten confession. It was only when her husband found out about this and managed to pull some strings that she was released. There have been suggestions that she might seek legal advice against the religious police that arrested her and the Charity has offered their help.
The arrest was carried out by the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, who used to be a feared organisation in the Kingdom and were highlighted in a recent UN report as “reportedly often act[ing] independently and are accountable only to the governor…[and thus] said to be responsible for serious human rights abuses in harassing, threatening and arresting women who ‘deviate from accepted norms.’” Their powers today are as wide ranging today as they have ever been, but, tellingly, in 2006 there were record numbers of attacks on the religious police by angry citizens in addition to a number of high profile incidents highlighting the seemingly growing trend against the police in more recent years. This could suggest that the Saudi population are turning a corner.
A number of factors appear to cause or support such changing attitudes. The explosion of blogging has been a well documented phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. Whilst the police have been cracking down on this, including the arrest (for officially no reason) of one of the country’s most famous bloggers, Fouad Al Farhan, it is still a massively popular means for Saudi’s to discuss social and political issues. Also, the slow but sure encroachment of Western values via American soft power (i.e. through television, films, music, education in America etc) could finally be having an effect.
However, the religious police are not giving up easily, as shown by the arrest of large numbers of Saudi young men for the outrageous, scandalous, and reprehensible, moral, legal and ethical crime of allegedly “flirting” with a group of girls covered head to toe in a shopping mall in the Kingdom. Not to mention the arrest and sentencing of a lecturer at a Saudi University to flogging for meeting with a female student and the death sentence passed down to an illiterate woman who is accused of being a witch.
Perhaps it is a naïve comment to make, but despite such instances, I am personally convinced that, eventually, Saudi society will reform and treat its citizens equally. The only question is how well the country can manage this transformation. There is worrying scope for destabilisation, which King Abdullah is all too aware of. Indeed, maybe we ought to fall back on the trite, unhelpful, clichéd but thoroughly genuine fact that it took the Western world significantly longer than 150 years to give equality to the sexes. Saudi Arabia is a young country: all we can hope for is that it is a quick learner.
The engine of China’s soft power boom 4, February 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Soft Power.
Tags: beijing, british council, China, Confucius Institute, culture, foreign policy, Soft Power, taipei, Taiwan
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The Taipei Times ran a story today complaining about the pervasiveness and effectiveness of Beijing’s Confucius Institutes. These are a relatively recent foray for China. These centres appear to be run along similar lines to Britain’s British Council, France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe Institute. This is to say that they are there to promote their home country where ever they may be. This is done in many ways. Activities can arrange from arranging music concerts, literary events, organising language classes to disseminating educational material about the home country.
The nameless official in the Taiwanese government claims that “they [the institutes] are controlled by the Chinese government and aim to use education and culture to gain international influence and promote the viewpoints of the Beijing government.” This is as good a definition of soft power as you can get. Indeed, as I have argued before, China have been significantly investing in this aspect of power in recent years. These Confucius Institutes are but one successful aspect of this. It is unsurprising that Taipei are not happy about their number and effectiveness – both Taipei and Beijing essentially propagate a one-China policy with each seeing itself as the rightful leader of the country. It is of course possible that China are using such institutions as some kind of ‘front’ for underhand espionage (indeed, they have shown no qualms whatsoever about stealing from other governments in the past) but this does not seem that likely. However, the official is not even inferring this – merely that China are promoting their culture – hardly the greatest of crimes. Indeed, the world will be a much safer place if China continue down this path of expanding their soft power and forgo the hard power route of coercion and threats.
China’s foreign policy quid pro quo 21, January 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Foreign Policies, Saudi Arabia, Soft Power.
Tags: China, China's foreign policy, Faustian bargain, Freedom House, immoral foreign policy, Saudi, Saudi Arabia, Soft Power, Western foreign policy
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On any given day China announces various deals, exchanges, missions, activities, exhibitions, events, parties, celebrations, and agreements between itself and any given country. On Thursday last week, it was a technological and scientific agreement with Sierra Leone. On Friday, as reported, it was various cultural exchanges in Malta. What, you might be asking, do Malta and Sierra Leone have in common? The short answer is nothing. Obviously, they need investment and/or support in ventures, but that is hardly a distinguishing feature, after all, who doesn’t? These countries are simply the latest recipients of attention by Beijing and its prodigious foreign police making machine. No country is too small or seemingly too insignificant for Beijing’s attention in a concerted campaign to make friends and – more crucially – influence people.
To this end, China has been making vast steps forward in expanding their soft power. This is a kind of power whereby – crudely put – the country or actor in question will do what China want them to do because they see their goals as being shared by China, they want to follow China’s lead out of loyalty or a belief that it will be to their longer term benefit to do so. Soft power is conveyed in a myriad of ways. It can be through an attentive Ambassador including local business leaders in meetings or conferences, the exporting of a country’s culture through music, theatre, films or technology, thereby theoretically creating a better understanding or empathy or it can be the education of diplomats in Beijing – getting them used to the ways of the Chinese and making contacts that they may well find useful a at later date. China have been pursuing just such polices in East Asia recently with considerable success.
The opposite of soft power is – unsurprisingly – hard power, which is coercion of one form or another: you don’t follow China’s lead because you want to, but because there are implicit or explicit military, economic or diplomatic threats. Whilst the use of hard power can be effective, it is surely better to persuade and finesse countries towards your goals and ends, as opposed to being pressed into doing so, inviting resentment and general antipathy.
But what are these policies and why does China care if they have relations – good or bad – with Sierra Leone or Malta? Most of the time China seek resources or one kind or another. This is clearly the case in Sierra Leone where the Chinese have been harvesting timber (often illegally) for years. In the Maltese case it would be more accurate to say that the Chinese simply want – like all countries – good relations with all countries. However, the Chinese also want one other thing which is utterly central to all of their politics and policies: international recognition and corroboration of the one China policy. This was explicitly reported in the Xinhua report of the Sino-Sierra Leone cooperation agreement and is implicit in every other Chinese policy.
This is the crux of their soft power policies. In return for a countries strict adherence to an avowed police of utter sovereignty and non-interference in other states’ affairs, China offer both unusual support even of smaller countries as well as, crucially, a reciprocated and fervent promise not to interfere in their policies. This policy leads China to deal unusually closely with some of the world’s more repressive regimes.
There are two distinct points of view to this. Firstly, from the other country’s perspective, China offer its help without conditions. There are no human rights complications, no promises for elections, and no pressure for free press. Countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe appreciate China’s unquestioning support in return for arms, oil, trade or whatever is on offer. These kinds of policies – unsurprisingly – draw considerable international criticism. The Chinese charges d’affairs in South Africa recently defended China’s policies of engagement, trade and interactions with Sudan and Zimbabwe by saying that China was ‘simply protecting its own interests’.
Others, notably those from the West, find China’s foreign policy of interaction with often deeply despotic and repressive regimes anything from unfortunate to disgraceful. There is, strictly speaking, no right answer. Whist it is easy for the West to harangue China for these policies, we are not speaking from an unsullied pulpit ourselves, both historically and presently speaking. Selling billions of dollars of arms to various countries in the Middle East, all of whom fair poorly to atrociously on the Freedom House index, does not lend us the high ground. Nevertheless, entering such a kind of Faustian bargain with Saudi Arabia is better than the alternative of non-interaction. Take the recent example of the multiple rape victim in Saudi Arabia who was herself going to be flogged as she was sitting in a car with an unrelated man. The opprobrium that this created in the West was translated into international pressure heaped on the Saudis and can surely be credited with pressuring the Saudi King into pardoning the women. Would this have happened if China had been the major trade partner and the West not had any kind of sway? Obviously not.
What this goes to prove is that interaction is needed – but it must be the right sort of interaction. There is a fine line between exacerbating the problems inherent in the countries in question by trading with them, enriching and/or arming the elite, and simply ignoring them. Simply leaving the states as international pariahs will not work. Into this morally created void will walk China, shoring up the regime with trade and reciprocal promises of non-interference. One can only hope that through interaction with the West and the exchange of Western soft power, grandiose notions such as democracy and rights will filter down however slowly and become embedded to help guard against the seductive allure of a mechanical foreign policy of naked self interest.
China expanding its soft power 18, January 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Soft Power.
Tags: China, culture, Soft Power
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China are setting up various cultural extravaganzas in the UK and Malta to coincide with Chinese New Year. The stated goals of the events as a whole are, as ever, to strengthen cultural understanding, forge relationships etc. The events in the UK will be organised by ‘China Now’ a private venture started by, among others, Peter Wong the executive director of HSBC. The Malta festivities will be smaller in scale and appear to be a Chinese government run activity.
Indian Soft Power 17, January 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in Soft Power.
Tags: India, Soft Power
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An excellent article on Indian soft power.
China is building up its soft power in Russia 17, January 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Soft Power.
Tags: China, Russia, Soft Power
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China are setting up a new television channel aimed at promoting China and its culture in Russia, it was announced. This is one aspect of a vast programme that China has been undertaking for years now to expand the attractiveness of China as a brand and to make China an easier, more approachable, more understood place to trade and work. This kind of programme has been especially prevalent in South East Asia in recent years. There are countless examples of exchanges of diplomats being offered as well as scholarships being set up for students and officials from various countries to go and study in China. The idea being that the more familiar foreign officials and foreign nationals are with China the more they will trade with them and come to rely on them as a whole.
“The channel will focus on news about Sino-Russian relations, how to do business in China, programs teaching the Chinese language, series on China’s art, culture, history, places of interest, and also well-chosen Chinese movies, teleplays, and cartoons. There will also be talk shows on hot issues discussing problems emerged during Sino-Russian exchanges.”
France’s exquisite use of soft power 16, January 2008Posted by thegulfblog.com in French IR, Soft Power, The Emirates.
Tags: Abu Dhabi, France, Soft Power
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Abu Dhabi has another French import to join its already impressive Gallic collection. Not satisfied with enticing both the most famous French University (the Sorbonne) and museum (the Louvre) to the city-state, it has now gone and seduced the ‘Armée Française’ into maintaining a permanent garrison of 400-500 troops in Abu Dhabi itself.
This development is due in no small part to the history of the French in the country. The ties between the French and the Emirates generally and Abu Dhabi specifically go back to at least 1971 with the signing of the original oil concessions. Since then, French companies have been heavily investing in various Abu Dhabi based companies, notably ADCO and ADMA. The French acquisition of a permanent military base in Abu Dhabi is, therefore, but the latest example of France’s exquisite use of soft power. Soft power is the ability to get others to do what you want without the use of any coercive means at all. France have made themselves such attractive international friends to those in the Emirates that they will pay somewhere from $800 million to $1 billion to borrow art work and to borrow a name for twenty years. Not forgetting, of course, asking a foreign non-Muslim power to station troops in the homeland.
What does Abu Dhabi feel that they are getting out of this? Stability? Military protection? Surely the last thing that the region needs is yet another military force conducting exercises in and around the perilously narrow Straits of Hormuz? Presumably, Abu Dhabi sees this as another kind of bulwark against any nefarious Iranian activities. However, let’s not forget how easily the Iranian Revolutionary Guard utterly humiliated the British Royal Navy only last year. Would they have thought twice if it had been a French boat? Of course not. Both countries are ex-colonial (although the French are getting less and less ex-colonial by the day) countries with deep seated beliefs about their place in the world which are not necessarily borne out by empirical evidence. As De Gaulle put it his particularly inimitable way, “France can not be France without greatness.”