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The World Cup’s knockout rounds are in full swing, and followers of Middle East soccer will now have to root for teams outside the region. Despite some compelling narratives – the dramatic politicization of Egyptian star Mo Salah, Iran’s rags-to-riches goalkeeper saving a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shrugging off his team’s loss to Russia with Vladimir Putin – most Middle Eastern sides rather ignominiously crashed out of the tournament in the group stages.

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On June 4, Saudi Arabia issued driver’s licenses to ten women for the first times in their lives. This followed a repeal—announced by royal decree last September—of the female driving ban, which officially ended on June 24. In what is one among a number of ambitious socioeconomic reforms driven by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), women in the Saudi Arabia can now obtain a license and drive without the presence of a male guardian.

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The assault by the United Arab Emirates’ forces and their local allies in a Saudi-led coalition on the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah that began last week and remains underway rightly raised concerns once again about the potential humanitarian consequences of Yemen’s ongoing war. Hudaydah is one of the impoverished country’s most important ports, the channel through which most international aid and imports reach Yemeni families in dire need of food, medicine, and fuel. But the discussion surrounding humanitarian aid in the Yemen war has become badly entangled in geopolitics, and it has become difficult to separate posturing on the part of the belligerent parties and wishful thinking on the part of international powers from the actual needs on the ground.

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The author and political thinker George Orwell was many things, but a soccer fan he was not.

In an essay titled “The Sporting Spirit,” written in 1945 during then-Soviet soccer club Dynamo Moscow’s Cold War British tour, Orwell called soccer “a game in which everyone gets hurt and every nation has its own style of play which seems unfair to foreigners.”

He then extrapolated that sport “is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” Orwell recognized the political symbolism inherent in sport and resented it for being one of many drivers of the nationalism fueling international rivalry.

Today’s fans might disagree with Orwell’s joyless characterization of sport as “an unfailing cause of ill-will,” but there is no denying that this World Cup, set in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, is politically charged.

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Though Iran has thus far remained in compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the US decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal could be the first domino to fall, setting off a chain of escalatory events throughout the region.

“This change is US policy is happening at a time when the region is really combustible,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, president of Gryphon Partners and an Atlantic Council board director. Ultimately, the regional impact of US President Donald J. Trump’s May 8 decision to withdraw from the JCPOA will depend on Tehran, and what it decides to do next: play nice on the world stage, or retaliate in its own backyard. 

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Early in his presidency, Donald J. Trump set out to achieve “the ultimate deal”: Israeli-Palestinian peace. The US president deputized his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with the task, claiming the feat could be achieved within the first year of his administration.

A little over a year later that “ultimate deal” is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the Trump administration appears to have further jeopardized its own prospects of brokering such a deal by relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and again failing to acknowledge the potential for Jerusalem to also be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

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Relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have been fractured for much of the past year. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017 citing reports that Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani had made remarks of the United States while offering support for Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran, and claiming Doha’s policies fueled regional terrorism and extremism.

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US President Donald J. Trump on May 8 pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal saying the agreement did not satisfactorily address the Islamic Republic’s ability to build a nuclear bomb or limit its “malign activity.” He also signed a memorandum to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

Trump’s decision will likely strain Washington’s ties with its European allies who had urged him to remain in the deal.

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