Richard Whittall:

“The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has helped me immensely with great information and perspective.”

Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach

"James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport

“Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”

Play the Game

"Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal
"No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated

"Essential Reading"
Change FIFA

"A fantastic new blog'
Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life

"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"
Christopher Ahl, Play the Game

"An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football

Saturday, August 20, 2016

FSF September: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer with James Dorsey

FSF September: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer with James Dorsey

book cover of The Turbulent World of Middle East SoccerOur seventh season begins on September 19, 2016, with a discussion of FSF member James Dorsey’s long-awaited new bookThe Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer[For the UK edition click here].
Dorsey is a journalist and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. His blog on Middle East soccer “(has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture,” notes FSF member Alon Raab.
The book, according to the publisher’s website, examines the game “as an arena where struggles for political control, protest and resistance, self-respect and gender rights are played out. Football evokes deep-seated passions and offers unique insight into the region. Examples include clandestine Saudi women football clubs; political demonstrations at Algerian matches; Somali child solders turned soccer stars; and Iranian women who disguise themselves as men to watch matches.”
For more information about this event and to participate via Skype contact Alex Galarza (galarza1 AT msu DOT edu).

Do African, Eastern European athletes make better Arab Olympians? (JMD quoted on Al Arabiya)

Do African, Eastern European athletes make better Arab Olympians?

Ruth Jebet of Bahrain leaves track after winning the race. (Reuters)
It is every athlete’s dream to win an Olympic medal and celebrate with their own national anthem being played before them while draped in their country’s flag.
While Arabs worldwide have so far celebrated 12 of their own during the Rio Olympics, at least three of those athletes stood before a country and anthem not originally their own.
Bahrain made headlines by winning gold and silver medals when Ruth Jebet came first in the 3,000 meters steeplechase and Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa came second in the marathon. Both had represented Kenya in the past.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) won its second Olympic medal ever via Moldovan-born Sergiu Toma in judo.
The importing - some go as far as saying purchasing - of athletes from Africa and East Europe has been criticized over the years as affecting the fairness of the games.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) won its second Olympic medal ever via Moldovan-born Sergiu Toma in judo.
However, sports experts and observers say the phenomenon is nothing new. “The practice of hiring foreign players is a standard and global practice. It’s not necessarily a trend started by the Arabs,” James Dorsey, syndicated columnist and the author of the blog “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer”, told Al Arabiya English.
Statistics compiled by the IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, found that 45 athletes changed national allegiances to compete for Bahrain between 2012 and 2016. A close second was the United States with 39. Qatar was sixth with 13.
Most athletes receive what is called a “sports passport,” in which a travel document is issued for the number of years an athlete is contracted to compete under while some do receive full citizenships.
These citizenships are not free for life and can be revoked at a given time like the case of Kenyan-born runner Leonard Mucheru Maina (Mushir Salem Jawher under Bahrain), who was stripped of his citizenship after he had run in a marathon in Israel.

Lack of talent vs too much money

Dorsey says small Gulf Arab states, particularly those with small populations such as the UAE and Bahrain, are forced to import foreign athletes because of the small talent pool. However, the trend goes both ways.
“You’ll also see a number of Arab, Middle Eastern countries exporting their talents to other countries,” Dorsey said.
“There are North African players in the Premier League. There are Gulf players who, while not great in number, play for foreign clubs.”

Ruth Jebet, originally from Kenya, of Bahrain poses with her gold medal. (Reuters)
Some Kenyan athletes have no choice for the opposite reason. Kenya usually fields many runners, and is limited by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the number of athletes it can field at international events.
While many of the athletes will switch allegiance for money, for most it is a chance to receive better facilities and guarantee themselves better chances at receiving medals.
“It makes sense for some athletes who don’t have enough resources in their home countries to gravitate toward other countries that could help them, so they move elsewhere, usually Gulf or European countries,” said New York-based sports writer Pablo Medina Uribe.

Sports as a political tool

For countries with big sporting ambitions such as Qatar, their practice of importing foreign athletes has been criticized in the past for being overused.
Qatar’s handball team at the Olympics this year compromises 14 players, 11 of whom are foreigners from nine countries and four continents.
To gain national and international recognition, Gulf Arab Olympic committees hope that more chances on the medal podium will translate to better name recognition.
“We live in a world that’s no longer Foreign Ministry to Foreign Ministry. Public diplomacy is a big part of our world, but so is cultural diplomacy and engagement with other cultures at all levels,” said Dorsey.
“Sports is a very important level. In some ways, countries today get ranked not only in terms of how many tanks and warplanes they have, but also how they perform on the sports field internationally.”
However, Simon Rofe, an expert on the diplomacy of international sport at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), says countries need to balance the trend or risk negative consequences.
“If a country is implementing the policy, they need to think about it carefully,” he told Al Arabiya English.
“It says something about how prepared a country is to do absolutely anything necessary to win,” he said. Rofe added that there are consequences of national identity being compromised and hinted at how the practice could alienate local-born athletes.
Although Bahrain native Ali Khamis failed to win a medal, he gained national attention when he qualified for the 400 meters semi-finals compared to the other Bahraini-medal winners.
The trend is not going away anytime soon, says Uribe: “For nations with small populations who want to participate in international sport and be a global player, that’s what they have to do, at least for now, because it will take many generations to develop their homegrown athletes.”

Thursday, August 18, 2016

With mosques under surveillance, IS turns to soccer for recruitment


By James M. Dorsey

Abu Otaiba, the nom du guerre of a self-taught imam and Islamic State (IS) recruiter in Jordan, uses soccer to attract recruits.

“We take them to farms, or private homes. There we discuss and we organize soccer games to bring them closer to us,” Abu Otaiba told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.

Abu Otaiba said he was recruiting outside of mosques because they “are filled with intelligence officials.” Mosques serve him these days as a venue to identify potential recruits whom he approaches elsewhere.

A similar development is evident in Jordanian universities where sports clubs and dormitories have become favoured IS hunting grounds because they so far don’t figure prominently on Jordanian intelligence’s radar.

IS’ use of soccer reflects anthropologist Scott Atran’s observation that suicide bombers often emerge from groups with an action-oriented activity. It also is symptomatic of jihadists’ convoluted relationship to a sport that they on the one hand view as an invention of infidels designed to distract the faithful from their religious obligations and on the other hand see as a useful tool to draw in new recruits.

Attitudes towards soccer are complicated by the fact that many jihadist and militant Islamist leaders are either former players or soccer fans. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a fervent soccer player while in US prison in Iraq where he earned the nickname Maradona after Argentinian superstar Diego Maradona.

Osama Bin Laden was believed to be an Arsenal FC fan who had his own mini-World Cup during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Teams formed by foreign fighters based on nationality played against one another in downtime. While in exile in Sudan, Mr. Bin Laden had two squads that trained three times a week and play on Fridays after midday prayers.
Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah manages clubs in Lebanon while Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, a former player has organized tournaments in Gaza.

An online review conducted in 2014 by Vocativ of jihadist and militant Islamist Facebook pages showed that their owners often were soccer fans. However, jihadist empathy for the sport does not stop them from targeting local games in a geography stretching from Iraq to Nigeria as well as big ticket European and World Cup matches whose live broadcasts hold out the promise of a worldwide audience.

A IS suicide bomber blew himself up in March in a soccer stadium south of the Iraqi capital, killing 29 people and wounding 60. The bomber chose a match in a small stadium in the city of Iskanderiya, 30 miles from Baghdad. The London-based Quilliam Foundation reported at about the same time that boys in IS military training were instructed to kick decapitated heads as soccer balls.

Crowds in IS’ Syrian capital of Raqqa were forced in July to attend the public execution of four players of the city’s disbanded Al Shabab SC soccer team -- Osama Abu Kuwait, Ihsan Al Shuwaikh, Nehad Al Hussein and Ahmed Ahawakh -- on charges that they had been spies for the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia that is in the frontline of confronting IS on the ground in Syria.

Yet, with IS under increased military pressure in Syria and Iraq, the group, desperate to project a degree of normalcy in areas it still controls, appears to be turning to sports and soccer in particular. Breaking with its past muddled banning of soccer despite its use of the sport as a recruiting tool, IS has urged boys in various towns including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq to participate in what it dubbed the Jihad Olympics.

Boys, despite a ban on soccer jerseys and the execution of 13 kids in early 2015 for watching an Asian Cup match on television, play soccer or tug of war during the events and are awarded sweets and balloons if their team is victorious. The boys’ families are invited to watch the games.

IS appears to have been struggling with the notion of using soccer as a way of placating its population and projecting normalcy for some time. The group authorized the showing of the FC Barcelona and Real Madrid derby a week after the attacks in November 2015 in Paris that targeted a major soccer match among others, but at kick-off rescinded the permission and closed down cafes and venues broadcasting the match because of a minute’s silence at the beginning of the game in the Madrid stadium in honour of the victims of the attacks in the French capital.

A precursor to IS’ Jihad Olympics was an exemption of children from the ban on soccer as well as video clips showing fighters in a town square kicking a ball with kids. Confusion within the group about its policy towards soccer is reflected in the fact that age limits for the exemption vary from town to town. In Manbij, a town near Aleppo recently conquered by US-backed militias, children older than 12 were forbidden to play the game while in Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor in eastern Syria the age limit is believed to be 15.

Similarly, foreign fighters have been allowed to own decoders for sports channels and watch matches in the privacy of their homes.

“IS policy towards soccer is driven by opportunism and impulse. The group fundamentally despises the game, yet can’t deny that it is popular in its ranks and in territory it governs,” said a former Raqqa resident.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Soccer investments’ reputational risk catches up with UAE

By James M. Dorsey

Reputational risk associated with autocratic investment in high profile soccer clubs threatened to catch up with the UAE as a powerful coalition of political and civic leaders in Manchester demanded that the Gulf country release political prisoners, investigate allegations of torture and respect human rights.

The leaders, who include members of parliament and Manchester’s city council, lawyers, and human rights activists, made their demands in a letter to UAE Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the owner of Manchester City FC.

Sheikh Mansour, a half-brother of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is the senior official responsible for the Abu Dhabi judiciary. UAE officials have insisted that the acquisition of Manchester City as well as Sheikh Mansour’s investment in a Major League Soccer team in the United States was a personal rather than a government investment.

Human Rights Watch warned as far back as 2013 that the UAE was using soccer to launder its image.  Former English Football Association Chairman Lord Triesman called at the time for making a country’s human rights record one of the criteria for establishing whether a state entity or member of a ruling family passes the "fit and proper person test" for ownership of a Premier League club.

Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch’s senior Gulf researcher, describing the UAE as "a black hole" for basic human rights, has asserted that "a Premier League club (Manchester City) is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses."

The portrayal of acquisitions and sponsorships of prominent soccer clubs by autocrats as an effort to launder a country’s reputation casts a shadow over the use of soccer as part of the soft power strategy of the UAE as well as Qatar that expects to host the 2022 World Cup.

Gulf investors in soccer hope that soccer investments will allow them to embed themselves in the international community in ways that would ensure international public empathy in times of need and leverage diplomatic and commercial opportunities.

Sheikh Mansour’s acquisition in 2008 of Manchester City in which he has so far invested $1.3 billion has paved the way for a host of deals between the city and UAE companies, including a $1.3bn urban regeneration project.

The projects, some of which are managed by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), which is owned by Sheikh Mansour, have sparked protests by activists who assert that the deals allow developers to destroy monumental sites such as a 16th century pub in downtown Manchester and replace them with high-end residential complexes.

“The UAE has deep pockets but a worryingly poor human rights record. Many Mancunians will appreciate what Emirati money has done for Manchester, but they’ll also be extremely concerned about freedom of speech being suppressed and the host of unfair trials and torture cases that have occurred in the UAE. This is real opportunity for Manchester City Council and all other bodies in Manchester with commercial relations with the UAE to use their considerable influence with the Emirati authorities to raise human rights and show that they care about these issues,” said Amnesty International advocacy officer Kieran Aldred.

The leaders called in their letter, that was organized by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for an investigation into allegations of torture and the release of Emirati human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Roken, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail in July 2013 following a huge crackdown on political and human rights activists in the UAE.

Mr. Al-Roken was one of 94 people sentenced in a court case that human rights activists denounced as unfair and a violation of due process. The defendants were denied legal assistance while being held incommunicado pre-trial, allegedly tortured, and refused the right of appeal.

“In addition to our concerns about the imprisonment of Mohamed al-Roken and others like him, we have concerns about the UAE’s ongoing abuse and exploitation of migrant workers, the existence of laws that appear to tolerate the physical abuse of women, and the authorities’ exclusion from the UAE of NGOs, journalists, and academics who have criticised the UAE’s record on human rights,” the letter said.

Despite significant moves by the UAE government to relieve the most onerous aspects of the Gulf’s kafala or sponsorship system for migrant labour, Al Khaleej newspaper reported earlier this month that mostly Indian workers in Abu Dhabi's Mussafah camp had not been paid by their employer for more than 10 months and were struggling to survive. The workers ran the risk of being penalized because they had been unable to renew their visas.

The workers’ plight coincided with an agreement between the UAE and India to ensure that blue-collar Indian workers receive the wages and benefits promised to them before departure to the UAE and that they were not travelling on fake visas or job offers.

The UAE government last month ordered employers to arrange free accommodation for workers paid $540 or less per month. The decision applies however only to companies with more than 50 workers.

Glaringly absent among the signatories of the letter was Labour Party member of parliament and Manchester mayoral candidate Andy Burnham who had expressed concern when Sheikh Mansour initially acquired Manchester City. Several other Labour parliamentarians were also absent. It was not immediately clear why the Labourites had not joined the initiative.

The letter was published on this month’s anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo massacre in Manchester in which 18 people were killed and 700 wounded when the cavalry suppressed a pro-democracy and anti-poverty rally.

“Manchester has a rich tradition of standing up for political rights, women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. So the city’s close relationship with the UAE government, which has such a poor rights record, causes alarm for those who celebrate its historic past,” Mr. McGeehan said.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario

Friday, August 12, 2016

Political Violence and Sectarianism in Pakistan

RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email: for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentary, Yang Razali Kassim. 

No. 204/2016 dated 12 August 2016

PoliticalViolence and Sectarianism in Pakistan

By James M. Dorsey


Pakistan’s generals blame their country’s cycle of political violence, including a recent bombing in the Baluch capital of Quetta, on groups in Afghanistan. The focus on external enemies complicates efforts to reduce political violence, ease inter-communal strains, and facilitate easing of tensions with Pakistan’s neighbours.


PAKISTAN’S MILITARY commanders gathered this week to assess the impact of the massive bombing in Quetta that killed some 70 people and wiped out a generation of lawyers in the province of Baluchistan. They believed there was a sinister foreign-inspired plot that aimed to thwart their effort to root out political violence. The commanders’ analysis strokes with their selective military campaign that targets specific groups like the Pakistani Taliban and the Sunni-Muslim Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

The commanders failed however to acknowledge the real lesson of Quetta: decades of Pakistani military and intelligence support underwritten by funding from quarters in Saudi Arabia for sectarian and ultra-conservative groups in Pakistan has divided the country almost irreversibly. Generations of religious students have their critical faculties stymied by rote learning and curricula dominated by memorisation of exclusionary beliefs and prejudice resulting in bigotry and misogyny woven into the fabric of Pakistani society.

The Domestic Challenge: Too Much Money

“The enemy within is not a fringe... Large sections of society sympathize with these groups. They fund them, directly and indirectly. They provide them recruits. They reject the Constitution and the system. They don’t just live in the ‘bad lands’ but could be our neighbours. The forces have not only to operate in areas in the periphery, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but have also to operate in the cities where hundreds, perhaps thousands form sleeper cells, awaiting orders or planning to strike,” said Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider in a recent commentary.

The military campaign against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose leadership has largely been wiped out in encounters with Pakistani security forces, is a case in point. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is closely tied to banned anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi group Sipah-e-Sabaha, which continues to operate openly with government support under a succession of different names.

Sipah leaders, in a rare set of lengthy interviews, have little compunction about detailing their close ties to Pakistani state institutions and Saudi Arabia. They are also happy to discuss the fact that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are pushing them to repackage their sectarian policies in a public relations effort rather than a fundamental shift that would steer Pakistan towards a more tolerant, inclusive society.

“The Saudis sent huge amounts often through Pakistani tycoons who had a long-standing presence in Saudi Arabia as well as operations in the UK and Canada and maintained close relations with the Al Saud family and the Saudi business community. One of them gave 100 million rupees a year. We had so much money, it didn’t matter what things cost,” said a co-founder of Sipah.

"Some Things are Natural"

Sipah leader Ahmad Ludhyvani, a meticulously dressed Muslim scholar, speaking in his headquarters protected by Pakistani security forces in the city of Jhang, noted that Sipah and Saudi Arabia both opposed Shiite Muslim proselytisation even if Sipah served Pakistani rather than Saudi national interests.

“Some things are natural. It’s like when two Pakistanis meet abroad or someone from Jhang meets another person from Jhang in Karachi. It’s natural to be closest to the people with whom we have similarities… We are the biggest anti-Shia movement in Pakistan. We don’t see Saudi Arabia interfering in Pakistan,” Ludhyvani said over a lunch of chicken, vegetables and rice.

The soft-spoken politician defended his group’s efforts in Parliament to get a law passed that would uphold the dignity of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The law would effectively serve as a stepping stone for institutionalisation of anti-Shiite sentiment much like a Saudi-inspired Pakistani constitutional amendment in 1974 that declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. As a result, all applicants for a Pakistani passport are forced to sign an anti-Ahmadi oath.

Showing Off High-level Support

Sipah officials said a Pakistani cleric resident in Makkah who heads the international arm of Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a militant anti-Ahmadi Pakistan-based group, closely affiliated with Sipah, acts as a major fundraiser for the group.

Sipah put Pakistani and Saudi support on public display when it last year hosted a dinner in Islamabad’s prestigious Marriot Hotel for Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen Al-Turki, a former Saudi religious affairs minister and general secretary of the Muslim World League, a major Saudi vehicle for the funding of ultra-conservative and militant groups. Hundreds of guests, including Pakistani ministers and religious leaders designated as terrorists by the United States attended the event at the expense of the Saudi embassy in the Pakistani capital.

The corrosive impact of such support for groups preaching intolerance and sectarian hatred is demonstrated in another disturbing trend in Pakistan. This is the spike in honour killings that mirrors a jump in lethal attacks on artists, writers and journalists. The aim is to maintain subjugation of women, ensure the dominance of religious rather than secular education, and undermine traditional as well as contemporary popular culture.

It is also mirrored in controversy over the Council of Islamic Ideology, whose offices are ironically located on Islamabad’s Ataturk Avenue, that was created to ensure that Pakistani legislation complies with Islamic Law. The Council has condemned co-education in a country whose non-religious public education system fails to impose mandatory school attendance and produces uncritical minds similar to those emerging from thousands of madrasahs run by ultra-conservatives and those advocating jihadist thinking.

The Council declared in 2014 that a man did not need his wife’s consent to marry a second, third or fourth wife and that DNA of a rape victim did not constitute conclusive evidence. This year, it defended the right of a husband to “lightly beat” his wife. It also forced the withdrawal of a proposal to ban child marriages, declaring the draft bill un-Islamic and blasphemous.

Continued official acquiescence and open support for intolerance, misogyny and sectarianism calls into question the sincerity of government and military efforts to curb without exception intolerance and political violence. The result is a country whose social fabric and tradition of tolerance is being fundamentally altered in ways that could take a generation to reverse.

James M. Dorsey PhD is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, Germany.

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

MR Book Club: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (SB Nation review)

MR Book Club: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

The Massive Report Book Club is back with a review of James Dorsey's The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer
From its beginning a few short months ago the Massive Report Book Club's goal was to introduce readers to great Crew SC related or Crew SC adjacent books. This month's selection, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer by James Dorsey is definitely the latter. Unlike previous selections this book is not a "must-read" for Crew SC fans, or for American soccer fans in general. It is not a book for everyone. It is, however, a fascinating and informative look in to a vastly different world, through the lens of the game we love.
First, some backstory. The book club had just started. Massive Report Podcast producer Sam Fahmi and I were discussing it in between segments of the Podcast. I asked Sam, a native Egyptian, if there was a book about Egyptian soccer I could check out, mainly for my own enjoyment. I'm one of those nerds who wants to know everything about everything, at least when it comes to soccer. He said no, not really. Disappointing, but there are plenty of good soccer books out there for me to read.
The next day, however, I see a tweet about a new book coming out. It is called The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. Well then, I know a sign from the soccer gods when I see one. I tweet it to Sam and he tells me to send in for a press copy. After all, I have a book club now. So I requested one and...
Nothing. No email saying they'll send one. No email saying it was rejected. Just... silence. Oh well, right? I'll pick it up eventually. Then, one day, about six weeks later, it shows up on my doorstep, unannounced. How utterly cool? The bad news was that by the time it arrived, half of the Crew's Middle Eastern contingent, Amro Tarek, had already moved on to the greener pastures, leaving only Michigan-born Iraqi international Justin Meram. This left me at a bit of a cross-roads, as my reasoning for having it in the book club was now even thinner. Luckily, though, the book was quite different than I thought it would be.
I was expecting an overview of the game throughout the region, some history mixed in with a broader cultural context, something along the lines of a more regionally focused version of The Ball is Round. Instead, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is an in-depth look at the link between soccer, soccer fans, politics, and religion throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Let's get one thing out there early: this is not a book everyone will enjoy. It is not a light, breezy sort of read. It was challenging, at times, at least for someone like myself who is not particularly familiar with the region, its geography, history, and customs. That's not to say it's inaccessible. Dorsey does a fine job of explaining, when needed, some (but I'm sure not all) of the intricacies of the regions socio-political history. However, if you're looking for something light, this may not be the book for you.
With that caveat out of the way, let's talk about what you'll find inside The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. The chapters are broken down roughly in to countries, with soccer (and soccer fandom's) role in the country the subject of the chapter. In some of the chapters it's a look at how soccer's popularity is dealt with in the more conservative Muslim countries, where spending time playing (or watching) sports is considered a distraction from more important matters of day to day life, particularly prayer. In others it's a look at how soccer diverted players from the youth militias prevalent in some areas.
The most interesting chapters to me, however, were those on the ultras groups in Egypt and Turkey, and the roles they played in popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, and immediate aftermath. The chapter on Egypt, in particular, was a highlight for me. Dorsey does a fantastic job of illustrating just how connected soccer is to the day to day life of Egypt. His descriptions of the Ultras, of how their support of their club defines almost every aspect of their lives was incredibly interesting.
The fact that Ultras groups were at the forefront of the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime stands in stark contrast to the almost entirely apolitical nature of supporters groups in America. In fact, last year there was a debate within Crew SC supporters' groups about a possible "refugees welcome" banner, with the argument being that politics should be separated from the game, that "it has no place". After reading this book I realize just how much of a first-world luxury that line of thinking is. While I respect the opinion of those who would rather not see political issues come to the limelight at MAPFRE Stadium, I would encourage those people in particular to seek out this book, if only to see that in some parts of the world, there is no choice in the matter to be had.
That is the real value of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, in my mind. It is a window in to a very different part of the world, where the game we love has a very different meaning in people's lives. While it is not the sweeping overview of the game in the region I was expecting, it proved to be a very informative, enjoyable read of a different sort. I recommend it for anyone seeking for different perspectives on the game around the world.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Is Saudi Arabia Zion?

By James M. Dorsey

Kamal Salibi, one of the Arab world’s foremost contemporary historians, kicked up a storm when he concluded in a 1985 linguistic exegesis that Judaism’s Zion was not located in Israel but in Saudi Arabia. Israelis, Jews, Saudis, Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians found common ground at the time to denounce Mr. Salibi in stark terms.

Israelis, Jews and evangelists charged that Mr. Salibi’s bombshell book, The Bible Came from Arabia, constituted an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish State and undermine its historic claim to modern day Israel. Israeli historians and rabbis denounced the theory as mythology, science fiction and nonsense.

Saudis, afraid that Israelis might take Mr. Salibi seriously and attempt to colonise the mountains of Sarawat, which the scholar believed was the Jordan valley referred to in the Bible, bulldozed dozens of villages which contained buildings or structures from Biblical antiquity. Abodes were turned into rubble in line with Wahhabi ideology that legitimized destruction of anything that could be construed as idol worship.

The Saudi effort made it more unlikely that archaeology would ever be able to resolve the controversy given that decades of diggings in modern day Israel have yet to yield incontrovertible evidence such as Hebrew inscriptions that unambiguously refer to events, people, or places named in the Old Testament.

Nonetheless, in a twist of irony, Saudi Arabia launched Mr. Salibi on his linguistic exegesis with the government’s publication in 1977 of a comprehensive list of thousands of place names in the kingdom. The list sparked Mr. Salibi’s interest because he had found little material for the early period of a history of Arabia he had just published.

''I was simply searching for place-names of non-Arabic origin in west Arabia, when the evidence that the whole Bible land was here struck me in the face. Nearly all the biblical place-names were concentrated in an area about 600 km long by 200 km wide, comprising what are today Asir and the southern part of the Hijaz,'' Mr. Salibi wrote.

The controversy over Mr. Salibi’s assertions has long died down. Lack of contact between Saudi Arabia and Israel which do not maintain diplomatic relations and the fact that the kingdom was and is hardly a tourist destination except for the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina ensured that research was all but impossible.

That however may be changing. Saudi Arabia, in an effort to diversify its energy-dependent economy and develop alternative sources of income is preparing to become a tourist destination, boasting its numerous historic sites.

Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are changing as both countries find common ground in their hostility towards Iran and need to confront jihadist groups like the Islamic State. A retired Saudi general last month led a delegation of academics and businessmen in a rare, if not first public visit to Israel in a bid to stimulate debate about a 14-year old Saudi plan for Israeli-Arab peace.

The thawing of informal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia is a far cry away from a situation in which Saudi Arabia will lift its ban on Israelis traveling to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia already in the 1990s rewrote visa regulations that effectively prevented Jews from visiting the kingdom. The Saudi labour ministry included in 2014 Judaism for the first time as an acceptable religion for migrant or foreign workers in the kingdom.

Writing in The Times of Israel two weeks after retired General Anwar Eshki’s visit, journalist Jessica Steinberg noted that a vibrant Jewish community had populated 3,000 years ago areas that today belong to Saudi Arabia and that the cities of Medina, Khaybar and Taymar hosted large numbers of Jews in the 6th and 7th century. Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, Spain, a medieval Jewish traveller, visited some of those communities during a 12th century trip to what is today Israel. Rabbi Benjamin’s writings offer a demography of the communities he encountered.

A dying generation of elderly Saudis of Yemeni origin who live in towns and cities along Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen still recall the days prior to the establishment of the State of Israel when Jews were part of their community.

Anticipating a day where Israelis might be able to visit Saudi Arabia, Ms. Steinberg offered a primer of five Jewish sites in the kingdom’s Khaybar valley and ancient city of Taymar that can be accessed virtually:

   Khaybar, a date-growing valley and oasis with natural wells, that was home to a Jewish community and served as a stop on the incense trade route from Yemen to Syria and Lebanon. Although its 1,400-year-old cemetery is void of headstones, locals recall its Jewish history.

   Khaybar Fortress, the 1,400-year-old Fortress of the Jews perched on a hill overlooking the oasis that was conquered by the Prophet Mohamed. His nephew and son-in-law, Ali, unlocked the gate of the fortress, letting the Prophet’s army enter and conquer it.

   The Palace of the Jewish Tribe’s Head, also located in Khaybar, that was home to the Jewish tribe of Marhab famous for its gold and jewellery trade.

   Tayma known as fortified Jewish city where travellers stopped at the oasis to visit the Al-Naslaa Rock Formation, one of the most photogenic petroglyphs, or rock art, depicting the life and times of ancient communities.

   Bir Haddaj, a large well at the centre of Tayma that dates back to at least to the middle of the 6th century BCE. The well is mentioned in the Book of Isaiah as the place where the descendants of Ishmael’s son, Tema, lived: “Unto him that is thirsty bring ye water! The inhabitants of the land of Tema did meet the fugitive with his bread.”

Holding out the hope for closer ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Ms. Steinberg suggested that “the day may be drawing near” when “historical sites pertaining to the ancient Jewish experience” will be accessible.

As a result, Saudi tourism as much in the Middle East that is easily politicized could blow new life into the controversy over Mr. Salibi’s theory years after he passed away. Saudi fears notwithstanding, Israelis like their Saudi counterparts have no desire to rock the boat or even contemplate the theoretical possibility that that their forefathers may have made a mistake. Any argument that Israel might eye Saudi oil reserves is countered by the fact that Israel is becoming an oil producer in its own right.

Beyond the historical and academic value of settling the controversy sparked by Mr. Salibi, his theory offers rich material for the ultimate ‘what if’ book or great novel on the Middle East. Imagining ‘what if’ would unlikely lead to even more conflict in an already tortured region but could well offer new perspectives on how to resolve its multiple conflicts.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario