By James M. Dorsey
Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, having the right to host this year’s World Cup, is discovering the pitfalls of seeking soft power, whether through sport or religion, without grabbing skeletons in its closet.
Last week, France highlighted the pitfalls when it questioned security in the next kingdom a mysterious explosion in a support vehicle with six members of the Sodicars Racing team exploded outside the Donatello Hotel in the coastal city of Jeddah.
The blast, days before last week’s start in the kingdom of the Dakar Rally, seriously injured French rider Philippe Boutron. The 61-year-old sustained ‘burnt and torn’ bones and was transferred to a military hospital in Paris for further medical treatment after three initial operations in the kingdom. The other passengers escaped unharmed.
The blast cast a shadow over Saudi efforts to project itself as an excellent venue for major international sporting events. It also hurt the impact of last month’s visit to the kingdom by French President Emmanuel Macron and his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Macron was the first Western head of state to engage directly and publicly with the crown prince since the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Disagreements between France and Saudi Arabia over the cause of the explosion could raise questions about security in the kingdom as well as the crown prince’s suppression of potential competitors and any form of disagreement.
The race, originally called the Paris-Dakar Rally, moved from North and West Africa several years ago for safety reasons, first to South America and in 2020 to Saudi Arabia.
France opened a terrorist investigation into the incident, but Saudi Arabia insisted it had found an investigation no initial criminal suspicions. The Saudi Foreign Ministry said it was liaising with French authorities.
The issue was probably discussed in a phone call Sunday between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Mr. Le Drian had earlier demanded that Saudi Arabia provide “the greatest possible transparency.”
In addition, France warned its subjects in the kingdom to exercise “maximum vigilance” in the aftermath of the explosion.
Richard Gonzalez, chairman of Sodicars, backed French suspicions of a deliberate attack. “I saw everything. It was a deliberate act; there is no doubt about it, “said Mr. Gonzalez said.
Saudi Arabia is widely believed to see sport as an opportunity to diversify its economy away from dependence on oil exports and as a vehicle for improving public health and a way to polish its severely affected human rights image.
The blast coincided with a second recent setback in Saudi efforts to divert attention from its human rights violations, not only through sport but also by projecting the kingdom as a religiously tolerant beacon of a ‘moderate’ interpretation of Islam and a leader in interfaith dialogue.
The kingdom’s projection suffered a defeat with the forced decision to move its side King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) from Vienna to Lisbon. The center hopes so the kingdom’s lack of freedom of religion and violated human rights record will spark less controversy in the Portuguese capital.
Proponents of her case have been working to make the actual transcript of this statement available online. blame for the controversy surrounding It.
Heather Wokusch, a consultant who worked with KAICIID, noted that the center offered free workshops to integrate Muslims into Austrian society and organized opportunities to build capacity in peaceful dialogue and interfaith principles. It has included initiatives to combat hate speech in Nigeria and protect Rohingya in Myanmar.
“Why close an office that successfully supports vulnerable populations in Austria and abroad? And who will take responsibility for all those services if the KAICIID Dialogue Center is closed? ” asked me Wokusch.
Unanswered was why the promotion of interfaith dialogue and inter-communal harmony should be outsourced primarily to a Saudi-funded institution rather than being an equally shared responsibility of Austria and other members of the international community.
Similarly, the lack of a degree of religious freedom and tolerance in the kingdom is not mentioned, which is in stark contrast to its global promotion of interfaith dialogue. Unlike most Muslim-majority countries, the kingdom bans public non-Muslim worship and the construction of non-Muslim houses of worship.
To be fair, the kingdom allowed oblique references to Christmas and Valentine’s Day in recent years. Last year it supremacist references removed to Jews, Christians and Shiites in school books.
However, Saudi Arabia may also face adversity in its traditional diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions in the Middle East, in part through a Iraqi-led dialogue with Iran.
In a reversal of what appeared to be efforts by both countries to soften their rhetoric, Saudi media have in recent days published articles addressing issues to which Iran is particularly sensitive.
The publications came days after Saudi King Salman ruled concerns over Iran’s alleged lack of cooperation with the international community about its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its “negative behavior” in the region.
Together with earlier statements by Saudi officials designed to temper expectations about the talks with Iran, it appears that the king’s remarks and publications suggest that progress in the dialogue is moving slowly.
“We follow with concern the Iranian government’s policies that destabilize regional security and stability, including the construction and support of sectarian armed militias and the proliferation of its military force in other countries,” the king said.
Arab News, the kingdom’s leading English-language newspaper, last week published a full-page article feeding an Iranian belief that Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, wants to see Iran break up as a nation-state. the fate of oppressed Iranians of Arab descent in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan and their centuries-old aspirations.
Similarly, in a recent article, Al-Jazirah, a daily newspaper that, like all Saudi media, follows the government’s line, returned to sectarian rhetoric. The article claimed that Iran was trying to spread its Shiite part of Islam outside the Middle East, especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Ethiopia and Nigeria.
None of this is to say that Saudi public and traditional diplomacy has failed.
However, it does indicate that efforts to project Saudi Arabia as an enlightened kingdom require greater degrees of transparency and comply at home with the same principles it promotes abroad, in order to be effective.
It also suggests that a rapprochement between the kingdom and Iran is likely to be fragile and more of a mutually acceptable arrangement if a meeting of minds, regardless of whether talks in Vienna succeed in reviving the 2015 Iran deal that Islamic Republic’s nuclear program has been curtailed. .
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.