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Analysis: Has the Gulf reconciled after the Qatar blockade? | GCC



June 5 marks four years since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a blockade on Qatar and five months since the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit at Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia, which marked the end of the deepest rift in the history of the organisation. The way the 43-month blockade started and the way it ended reflect significant broader changes in the regional and international outlook since 2017.

Therefore, it is important to look into what lessons have been learned from the past four years, whether the agreement signed at Al-Ula is durable, and how the process of reconciliation is proceeding.

From beginning to end, the blockade of Qatar was a textbook study of a regional crisis in the age of US President Donald Trump and the weakening of the rules-based international order. What amounted to a power play designed to isolate Qatar politically and economically began with the hacking of the Qatar News Agency and the planting of a fake news story purporting to report incendiary comments by Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. This made the chain of events that followed a real-world manifestation of a crisis rooted in the notion of “alternative facts” – a term coined by Trump’s then senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, in January 2017.

The blockade also followed a pattern of outreach to the incoming Trump administration by Emirati and Saudi officials that began with a visit by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to New York to meet with members of the transition team in December 2016. This outreach culminated in Trump making his first presidential overseas trip to Riyadh in May 2017. This period included a series of interactions seemingly intent on appealing to the transactional and unconventional style of decision-making in the White House by creating and amplifying an influence campaign portraying Qatar as a negative actor in regional affairs.

This approach appeared to pay off as Trump shocked observers, including, by all accounts, his secretaries of state and defence, by initially supporting the blockade and appearing to link the decision to move against Qatar to conversations he had held in Riyadh two weeks before. Trump’s statement threatened to upend the backbone of Qatar’s security and defence partnerships with the US and encourage hopes in blockading capitals that Trump’s transactional approach might lead him to take sides in the dispute.

Seen in retrospect, the assumption that the rest of the US government would follow the White House in taking sides was mistaken, and it was pushback from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defence James Mattis, and US military leaders that ultimately led Trump to change his stance.

It is unclear why officials in the blockading states, including some who were extremely well-versed in US politics, would have thought otherwise. One possibility is that the Trump administration, which entered office loudly proclaiming its intent to do things its own way regardless of the constraint of norms and settled procedure, simply encouraged friends and adversaries alike to believe that it meant what it said.

By September 2017, the blockade had settled into a holding pattern that lasted for the remainder of Trump’s turbulent presidency. A visit to the White House that month by Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah was notable for Emir Sabah’s comment that “what’s important is that we have stopped military action”, but Kuwaiti and US attempts to mediate found it stubbornly difficult to break the impasse. On at least two occasions, in December 2019 and July 2020, hopes for a breakthrough in Saudi-Qatari relations were dashed, illustrating the difficulty of resolving a dispute that involved five parties rather than just two.

What led to a breakthrough in Al-Ula in January 2021 was a series of developments, both regionally and internationally, in 2019 and 2020. Whereas, for Qatar, it was Trump’s tweets in support of the blockade in June 2017 which (temporarily) brought into question the reliability of the US partnership, for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi their “moment of truth” came between May and September 2019. The failure of the Trump administration to respond to the series of attacks on maritime and energy targets in and around Saudi Arabia and the UAE culminated in Trump publicly distinguishing between US and Saudi interests in the aftermath of the missile and drone attacks against Saudi oil facilities.

The 2019 attacks, linked to Iran, punctured the regional assertiveness of Saudi and Emirati policymaking as well as the assumption, particularly when it came to anything to do with Iran, that their interests and US interests were effectively one and the same. Emirati and Saudi leaders began to reach out to Iran, directly and indirectly, to explore ways to de-escalate tensions, while the Qatari leadership responded to the September 2019 attack on Abqaiq by reaffirming the principle of GCC collective security. If nothing else, the 2019 attacks demonstrated that, for all the differences in approach, Doha was not the primary, or even a significant, threat to regional security and stability it had been made out to be in 2017.

A year later, Trump’s failure to overturn the 2020 presidential election results meant that Gulf leaders faced the prospect of a Biden administration taking office in January 2021. During the campaign, Biden and others on his team had expressed scepticism about the region, and especially the reliability of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a responsible partner. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that the transition from Trump to Biden also saw the ending of a blockade that would likely never have happened under any other president, and that Saudi officials put Mohammed bin Salman front and centre of the reconciliation summit, portraying him as a regional statesman and drawing a line under the past four years.

While the precise details of the Al-Ula agreement have not been disclosed, there are grounds for cautious optimism that the process of reconciliation is more durable than after the signing of the Riyadh Agreement which ended a 2014 diplomatic standoff, and which failed to prevent the subsequent rupture in 2017. Notably, follow-up meetings have occurred between Qatari and Emirati as well as Qatari and Egyptian delegations and successive rounds of talks have taken place to address issues of concern.

This suggests that the Al-Ula Agreement, unlike the Riyadh Agreement, is not a one-off document but rather a part of a deeper process of re-engaging along specific bilateral tracks that could enable the parties to go deeper than a generic “one-size-fits-all” agreement would allow. It further indicates an acknowledgement that issues are bridgeable and not framed as a “take-it-or-leave-it” ultimatum as with the so-called 13 demands made by the blockading states in June 2017 which were no basis for fruitful negotiation.

There also appears to be a recognition of flexibility that relations between Qatar and the four blockading states will not all proceed at the same speed or depth. Already, there are signs that ties have improved fastest and farthest with Saudi Arabia and (to a lesser extent) Egypt, which likely reflects the fact that much of the original animosity behind the blockade did not originate in Riyadh or in Cairo. Along with other GCC leaders, the Qatari leadership expressed support for the crown prince in February in the aftermath of the release of CIA findings related to the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reaffirmed the importance of a stable Saudi Arabia to regional security in the Gulf. Emir Tamim visited Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah on May 10 and ties at all levels appear to have been fully restored.

The blockade of Qatar was the longest rift in the history of the GCC, which marked its 40th anniversary on May 25, and, unlike previous periods of tension, its effect was not restricted to the level of leaders and policymaking elites but encompassed whole nations. Damage done to the social fabric of the “Gulf house” may take longer to repair and memories of the bitterness and rancour on media and social media platforms could linger. For the time being and the foreseeable future, though, all parties to the blockade are likely to establish a modus vivendi at least until the regional or international context changes again.

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New Zealand’s Hubbard selected as first transgender Olympian | LGBTQ News




Laurel Hubbard, 43, will compete in the super-heavyweight women’s event in Tokyo.

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after being selected by New Zealand for the women’s event at the Tokyo Games, a decision set to test the ideal of fair competition in sport.

New Zealand Olympic Committee chief Kereyn Smith said 43-year-old Hubbard – who was assigned male at birth but transitioned to female in 2013 – had met all the qualification criteria for transgender athletes.

“We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play,” Smith said in a statement.

Hubbard will compete in the super-heavyweight 87-kg category after showing testosterone levels below the threshold required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The 43-year-old had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning.

“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard, an intensely private person who rarely speaks to the media, said in a statement issued by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) on Monday.

Hubbard has been eligible to compete at Olympics since 2015, when the IOC issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition.

Some scientists have said the guidelines do little to mitigate the biological advantages of people who have gone through puberty as males, including bone and muscle density.

Advocates for transgender inclusion argue the process of transition decreases that advantage considerably and that physical differences between athletes mean there is never a truly level playing field.

Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes, criticised Hubbard’s selection.

“It is flawed policy from the IOC that has allowed the selection of a 43-year-old biological male who identifies as a woman to compete in the female category,” the group said in a statement.

Weightlifting has been at the centre of the debate about the fairness of transgender athletes competing against women, and Hubbard’s presence in Tokyo could prove divisive.

Her gold medal wins at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, where she topped the podium ahead of Samoa’s Commonwealth Games champion Feagaiga Stowers, triggered outrage in the host nation.

Samoa’s weightlifting boss said Hubbard’s selection for Tokyo would be like letting athletes “dope” and feared it could cost the small Pacific nation a medal.

Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said last month allowing Hubbard to compete at Tokyo was unfair for women and “like a bad joke”.

Australia’s weightlifting federation sought to block Hubbard from competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast but organisers rejected the move.

Hubbard was forced to withdraw after injuring herself during competition, and thought her career was over.

“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end,” Hubbard said on Monday, thanking New Zealanders.

“But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha (love) carried me through the darkness.”

Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand President Richie Patterson said Hubbard had worked hard to come back from the potentially career-ending injury.

“Laurel has shown grit and perseverance in her return from a significant injury and overcoming the challenges in building back confidence on the competition platform,” he said.

Hubbard is currently ranked 16th in the world in the super heavyweight category.

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Apple Daily could shut ‘in days’ after Hong Kong asset freeze | Freedom of the Press News




Company adviser says action under security law means it cannot access some $50 million in funds to pay staff and vendors.

Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be forced to shut “in a matter of days” after authorities used the national security law imposed by China to freeze the company’s assets as it arrested the paper’s editor and four other directors, an adviser to jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai told Reuters on Monday.

Mark Simon, speaking by phone from the United States, said the company was no longer able to access its funds and would be holding a board meeting on Monday to discuss how to move forward.

“We thought we’d be able to make it to the end of the month,” Simon told the news agency. “It’s just getting harder and harder. It’s essentially a matter of days.”

His comments signal closure is imminent even after Apple Daily said on Sunday the freezing of its assets had left the newspaper with cash for “a few weeks” for normal operations.”

The news comes two days after editor Ryan Law, 47, and chief executive Cheung Kim-hung, 59, were denied bail after being charged under the security law with collusion with foreign forces.

Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law arrives back at the detention centre after he was remanded in custody on Saturday [Lam Yik/Reuters]

Three other senior executives were also arrested last Thursday when 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices in a case that has drawn condemnation from Western nations, human rights groups and the chief United Nations spokesperson for human rights.

The three have been released on bail.

Simon told Reuters it had become impossible to conduct banking operations.

“Vendors tried to put money into our accounts and were rejected. We can’t bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favour. We just wanted to find out and it was rejected,” he said.

Speaking earlier to US news channel CNN, Simon said the company had about $50 million available, but was unable to access the funds.

The publisher has come under increasing pressure since its owner Jimmy Lai was arrested under the national security law last August, which marked the first time the company’s headquarters was raided. Lai, 73, is now jailed and facing trial under the national security law. In May, the authorities also froze some assets belonging to the longtime critic of Beijing has also had some of his assets frozen.

Three companies related to Apple Daily are also being prosecuted for collusion with a foreign country and authorities have frozen HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of their assets.

China imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last June saying it was necessary to restore “stability” to a territory that had been rocked by mass protests in 2019, some of which turned violent.

The broadly-worded law criminalises acts such as subversion, sedition, collusion with foreign forces and secession with possible life imprisonment, but critics have said it is being used to suppress legitimate political debate with dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists among the more than 100 arrested since it was brought into force.

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Birmingham Classic: Ons Jabeur beats Daria Kasatkina to win first title




Tunisian second seed Ons Jabeur defeated Russia’s Daria Kasatkina in straight sets to win her first singles title at the Birmingham Classic.

World number 24 Jabeur triumphed 7-5 6-4 against the fourth seed to become the first Arab woman to win a WTA title.

In Berlin, Russian qualifier Liudmila Samsonova stunned Swiss fifth seed Belinda Bencic to win her first title.

The 22-year-old world number 106 battled back from a set down to win 1-6 6-1 6-3 in her first final.

Victories for Jabeur and Samsonova mean there have now been 10 first-time singles winners on the women’s Tour this year.

Jabeur broke Kasatkina’s serve three times to prevail in the first set, before successive breaks at the start of the second put the 26-year-old in control at 4-0.

Two-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist Kasatkina recovered to 4-3, but Jabeur held on to win a singles final at the third attempt.

It was a breakthrough week for Samsonova in Germany, during which she also defeated seventh seed Victoria Azarenka of Belaurus in the semi-final.

World number 12 Bencic won the first five games as she dominated the opening set, but Samsonova matched that feat in the second before completing her comeback with breaks in the first and ninth games in the deciding set.

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