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Thursday, December 1, 2016

What to be Improved in the Arab World?


What to be Improved in the Arab World?

Remarks by James M. Dorsey, 30 November 2016

The short answer to the question framing this session is: where does one start? If things in the Middle East and North Africa were not complicated enough, answering the question has been made even more difficult by the rise of Donald Trump, and the fact that no one, maybe not even he, has an idea about what his policy towards the various crises in the Middle East and North Africa will be, or what his attitude might be towards individual countries in the region.

So, rather than speculate or get bogged down in the excruciating detail of individual conflicts like those in Syria, Iraq, Libya or Yemen, what I would like to do is look at fundamental issues that weave themselves like a red thread through whatever conflict or crisis one looks at. These include the ones named in the title of this session – Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen – as well as the phenomenon of militant political Islam, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional dominance and global hegemony in the Muslim world.

Many blame the disintegration of post-colonial nation states like Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, on the drawing of artificial borders by colonial powers as symbolized by the Sykes Picot agreement. If that were true, we would see a similar development across Africa. For much of the second half of the 20th century, many feared that any secession would have a domino effect across the continent. That was the concern with Biafra in the 1960s. Yet, the Organization of African Unity’s recognition of the Frente Polisario, the Algerian-backed liberation movement of the Western Sahara, in the 1980s, and the independence of Eritrea in 1991 after a 27-year long guerrilla war remain isolated events.

Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are falling apart not because they are artificial constructs created by colonial powers but because they were ruled by autocratic governments who were exclusive rather than inclusive. That is to say, significant segments of the population often defined in religious or ethnic terms had no real stake in society and the state. In fact, that is the state of affairs across much of the Middle East and North Africa. Think of Palestinians, Kurds, Shiites, Christians – just to name a few. Radicalisation moreover is being fuelled by misguided foreign policies as well as repressive, exclusionary domestic strategies that produce social marginalization, huge gaps in income distribution, and dislocation of resources in corrupt autocracies with youth bulges that populate a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Indian Ocean.  If this sounds familiar, widespread discontent in the Middle East and North Africa is indeed part of a global trend, albeit perhaps its most brutal and violent expression.

One reason for this is that the Middle East and North Africa are populated by regimes that have a demonstrated willingness to defend the essence of the status quo at whatever price. That price can be the destruction of whole countries as in Syria and Yemen. These regimes see their survival in the shaping of the region in their own mould and do not shy away from stoking conflict and aiming for regime change when and where it suits their interest. External powers like the Soviet Union in the past and Russia today as well as the United States were actively or passively supported the policies of their regional allies.

As a result, no Middle Eastern or North African state or external power emerges from this smelling like a rose. In the days of the cold war it was Soviet-backed revolutionary regimes like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Algeria versus primarily monarchical conservatives. Post-Soviet Union, ideology has made place for pure power plays. The one exception to this rule is the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, one of the 20th centuries few truly popular revolutions.

The Iranian revolution challenged the region’s existing order before and after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. It represents an existential threat to the conservatives, and particularly to Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family. The challenge is multi-fold: a republic rather than a monarchy established as the result of a truly popular revolt that toppled a monarch and an icon of US power in the region. Adding fuel to the fire, Iran’s republican version of an Islamic government is legitimized by an institutionalized, albeit flawed, electoral process and a degree of popular sovereignty, that pays lip service to revolutionary goals.

The Saudis were quick to recognize the existential challenge posed by Iran’s Islamic revolution. They decided early on that they had no choice but to confront it aggressively both regionally and globally. If any one conflict has shaped the Middle East and North Africa, its various conflicts and multiple crises as well as the fate of Muslim majority countries beyond the region and Muslim minority communities elsewhere, it is the epic struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony as well as dominance in the Muslim world.

This is not to deny the fact that national governments and non-state actors were and are important actors in the Saudi soft power ploy.  The result of this confluence of interests has been devastating. It includes wars like the one between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s that left up to a million people dead; the devastation of countries like Iraq, Syria and Pakistan that are wracked by violence in which sectarian conflict was fuelled by both parties; and the spread of religious, inward-looking, intolerant and supremacist ultra-conservatism that offers the discontent and disenfranchised a refuge and creates an environment that in given circumstances serves as a breeding ground for religiously-packaged militancy.

Iran’s revolutionary zeal, despite the emergence of Hezbollah as a potent trans-national Shiite militia force, past Iranian support of Hamas in Gaza and the Islamic republic’s opportunistic alliance with the Houthis in Yemen petered out in all but word in the first year of the revolution. The Iraqi war against Iran funded largely by Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent smaller Gulf states gave rise to Iranian nationalism. Iran fought its proxy battles with the Saudis primarily in the region itself. For Iran, it was a battle about power and a struggle against an inherently discriminatory ideology that targeted its interpretation of the faith.

For the Saudis, it was one that was ultimately existential and about survival. It was not simply regional for the Al Sauds. It was global given the kingdom’s claim to leadership of the Muslim world based on its custody of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the Al Saud’s power sharing arrangement with an ultra-conservative clergy ideologically committed to spreading its interpretation of the faith.

The Saudi determination to counter the Iranian revolutionary threat by defeating rather than containing it has ever since shaped Saudi policy towards the Islamic republic and towards Shiites. To be sure, Iran repeatedly took the bait with the creation of Hezbollah, political protests during the haj in Mecca, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, to name just a few of the incidents.

Saudi Arabia’s response to Iran’s revolutionary appeal was to make an ultra-conservative worldview that emphasized denunciation of Muslim others like the Shiites, Ahmadis and Sufis as well as a supremacist worldview and arch-conservative family values an influential player in Muslim communities across the globe. The Saudi effort produced the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in history.

Estimates of Saudi spending on the funding of Muslim cultural, religious and educational institutions across the globe range from $75 to $100 billion. This figure does not include the cost of forging close ties to non-Wahhabi Muslim religious and political leaders, militaries and intelligence agencies in various Muslim nations in a bid to ensure that they bought into the geopolitical elements of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism, first and foremost among which anti-Shiism. It also does not include expenditure on armed groups in Syria, Iraq, Bosnia or Pakistan where Saudi Arabia has funded militant, violent and rabidly anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi groups responsible for the deaths of thousands It also does not take into account the financial cost of Saudi-backing of the US-led anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s with its devastating consequences for both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On one level, the Saudi campaign has been phenomenally successful. Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism in whatever form ranging from Wahhabism to various strands of Salafism to Deobandism has been embedded in Muslim communities across the world and is an influential political player in the Middle East and North Africa as well as countries as far flung as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Mali and minority communities in Western Europe.

Let me illustrate this with an anecdote. The man who was until recently deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema, one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that professes to be anti-Wahhabi, is a fluent Arabic speaker. He spent 12 years in the Middle East representing the Indonesian intelligence service, eight of those in Saudi Arabia. This man professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and at the same time warns that Shiites, who constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population and that includes the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years, are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. This man is not instinctively anti-Shiite, but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel. The impact of Saudi funding is such that even Nahdlatul Ulema is forced to adopt ultra-conservative language and concepts when it comes to perceptions of the threat posed by Iran and Shiites.

Yet, 40 years since the Saudi soft power grab moved into full gear, its success has become as much a liability as it is an asset with the kingdom moving into the firing line against the backdrop of demands that it live up to its responsibility for creating potential breeding grounds for radicalism and devastating whole countries as with the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. The problem is compounded by the fact that the Al Sauds were not always in full control of the use of monies invested in the campaign. As a result, they have let a genie out of the bottle that now leads an independent life, has in part turned on the Saudis themselves, and that can’t be put back into the bottle.

The Saudi-Iranian battle is further accentuated by uncertainty over US policy. That is certainly true with the rise of Trump who from an Iranian perspective has made comments that spark concern in Tehran as well as remarks that could hearten the Iranians. Saudi uncertainty predates the rise of Trump. US officials for much of their country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia have insisted that the two countries do not share common values, that their relationship is based on common interests.

Underlying the now cooler relations between Washington and Riyadh is the fact that those interests are diverging. The divergence became evident with the eruption of popular revolts in 2011 and particularly US criticism of the Saudi military intervention in Bahrain to squash a rebellion as well as hesitant American support for the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It is also obvious in the nuclear agreement with Iran that is returning the Islamic republic to the international fold despite deep-felt Saudi objections.

The result of all of this has been with the rise of the Salmans, King Salman and his powerful son, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, a far more assertive foreign and military policy. Make however no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States. On the contrary, Mohammed Bin Salman has made that clear in various interviews. It was designed, certainly in the era of Obama, to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East in the belief that it will constitute a return to the status ante quo: US support for the kingdom as the best guarantor for regional stability. The Salmans were operating on the basis of Marx’s Verelendungstheorie: things have to get worse to get better. It is a strategy that may or may not work with Trump.

The Saudi strategy with its pervasive impact on the Middle East and the Muslim world at large long made perfect sense. Saudi regional leadership amounted to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is and was to extend its window of opportunity for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. Punitive international sanctions and international isolation long took care of Iran.

Ironically, Trump could extend that window if he adopts a hard line towards Iran. That is for the Saudis nonetheless a double-edged sword. Saudi policy makers have come to see restrictions on Iranian nuclear policy even if they are for a period of 15 years at most as an asset. The problem for the Saudis is that Trump at times has also suggested a harder US approach towards the kingdom itself.

A concern for the Saudis that is more fundamental than uncertainty over US policy in the era of Trump is that Iran despite not being an Arab nation and maintaining a sense of Persian superiority has the assets Saud Arabia lacks to secure its position on a level playing field as a regional power rather than a second fiddle state. Those assets no matter how degraded include a large population base, an industrial base, resources, a battle-hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete, and certainly not with religious ultra-conservatism playing a key influential role.

Saudi Arabia was shell shocked on September 11, 2001, when it became evident that most of the perpetrators were Saudi nationals. Saudi society was put under the kind of scrutiny the kingdom had never experienced before. The same is happening again today with the rise of jihadism, the war in Yemen and the kingdom’s role in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan.

Changing international attitudes towards Saudi sectarianism and its proxy wars against Iran are evident in a quiet conclusion in Western intelligence and policy circles that the crisis in Syria is in part a product of the international community’s indulgence of Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director John Brennan unsuccessfully tried in 2011 as peaceful anti-regime protests in Syria descended into violence to persuade Saudi Arabia at a meeting in Washington of Middle Eastern intelligence chiefs to stop supporting militant Sunni Muslim Islamist fighters in Syria. An advisor to the Joint Chiefs of Staff recounted that the Saudis ignored Brennan's request. They "went back home and increased their efforts with the extremists and asked us for more technical support. And we say OK, and so it turns out that we end up reinforcing the extremists," the advisor said.

In sum, if inclusion rather than exclusion is the fundamental answer to the Middle East and North Africa’s multiple conflicts, countering Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism is one major key to breaking the vicious cycle. That is obviously easier said than done and only part of any successful effort. Islamic ultra-conservatism is often no longer dependent on Saudi funding and has made such deep inroads into societies as well as governments as for example in Pakistan that it would likely take a generation to turn around. Saudi Arabia’s soft power campaign has also sprouted radical groups that see the Saudis no longer as an inspiration but as corrupt deviants to a fundamentally common interpretation of the faith. As a result, Saudi Arabia is both part of the problem and part of the solution. All of this leaves me where I began my remarks: Where does one start in assessing what can be improved in the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi Arabia is not the only place, but it is certainly one that together with Iran has its fingers in the region’s key pies.

Thank you.


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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Soccer privatization: A template for Saudi reform


By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia has approved the privatization of state-owned sports clubs as part of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to streamline bureaucracy, curb public spending, diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, and upgrade its autocracy.

The effort to clean up the sports sector follows the rare admission earlier this year of a match-fixing scandal as well as a financial crisis that offered a glimpse of the daunting task and pitfalls involved in Prince Mohammed’s reform plan.

The kingdom’s Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA) headed by Prince Mohammed earlier this month ordered sports authorities to create a fund that would provide loans to financially troubled clubs. The council said the fund would create 40,000 new jobs but offered no further detail.

Similarly, few details were provided about how the clubs, some of which are controlled by members of the ruling Al Saud family, would be privatized beyond a statement saying that the council of ministers chaired by King Salman had decided to turn them into commercial ventures.

Cleaning up soccer, the kingdom’s most popular sport, serves to achieve Prince Mohammed’s goals of greater international competitiveness as well as engagement of Saudis in exercise that were spelled out in his Vision 2030, a framework for economic and social reform announced last April.

Privatization of sports clubs, particularly those that have premier league soccer teams, is however where political risk and economic necessity meet in Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce economic and social reform while ensuring that his ruling Al Saud family retains tight political control.

The clean-up of Saudi soccer constitutes a microcosm of how the government and the Al Sauds hope to root out corruption, introduce some degree of transparency, and cater to the aspirations of a young population without surrendering absolute political control.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) sought to demonstrate the government’s sincerity by relegating in July Al Majma’ah-based premier league club Al Mujjazel to the second division for having fixed a match with rival Al Jeel Club. Match fixing had helped Al Mujjazel graduate from the 3rd to the 1st League in a mere two years.

The punishment of Al Mujjazel followed the relegation three years ago of two handball teams, Al Safa FC and Mudhar HC, the first ever in the kingdom’s sports history. The relegations constituted a clear message in a country in which members of the ruling family often interfered with referees and management when clubs were not performing to their liking.

The relegation also followed publication earlier this year of a schedule for clubs to pay off their debts and the imposition of a ban on the hiring of foreign players.

Included in the schedule were Al Ahli Saudi FC which is linked to Prince Faisal bin Khaled bin Abdullah, Al Hilal FC that is headed by Prince Nawaf bin Saad, Al Shabab FC that falls under the auspices of Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, and Al Nasser FC which is controlled by Prince Faisal bin Turki bin Nasser.

Sources close to the federation noted that the schedule listed for Al Nasser only $453,400 in debts to the soccer association even though the club’s total debt is asserted to be approximately $70 million. If correct, it would make Al Nasser Saud Arabia’s most indebted club after Al Ittihad FC, which owes $76 million. Al Ahli’s total debt was listed at $40 million, Al Hilal’s at $36.5 million and Al Shabab at $19.4 million.

“The game of football played by all sports clubs in Saudi Arabia is just like the competition between the business enterprises in which each football club tries to become the best team in the country and hence gain name, fame and superiority over other clubs, or rather say superiority over other princes who are behind the rival clubs,” wrote Sharaf Sabri in a book published more than a decade ago, The House of Saud in Commerce: A Study of Royal Entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Sabri put his finger on the problem the federation is likely to have in cleaning up the kingdom’s premier soccer league, a problem Prince Mohammed will encounter across the board with members of the ruling family having a finger in many pies and not wanting to see their perks compromised.

If that were not difficult enough, the government will also want to ensure that privatization does not weaken its control of sports in general and of soccer in particular given the pitch’s proven potential of serving as a rallying point for anti-government sentiment in a region governed by regimes that seek to tightly control all public space.

Saudi Arabia has long had a complex relationship with soccer because it evokes passions similar to those sparked by religion. Saudi clerics rolled out mobile mosques during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to persuade fans gathered in cafes to watch matches to observe obligatory prayer times.

The government, in the development in recent years of the kingdom’s first national sports plan, initially considered emphasizing individual rather than team sports because of soccer’s political volatility, but was forced to drop the idea given the game’s enormous popularity.

The risks involved in a loss of control of soccer were evident in 2013 when a Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution demanded the resignation of Prince Faisal, a burly nephew of the late King Abdullah who sports a moustache and chin hair, as head of Al Nasser. A You Tube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly being pelted and chanted against as he rushed off the soccer pitch after rudely shoving a security official aside.

The campaign against Prince Faisal followed the unprecedented resignation a year earlier of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the SAFF, the first Gulf royal to be persuaded by public pressure to step down. Prince Nawaf’s resignation led to the election of a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid Alharbi, who is widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer in a country in which women struggle to secure the right to physical exercise and education and participation in sports.

“The Saudis are extremely worried. Soccer clubs rather than the mosque are likely to be the centre of any revolution. Kids go more to stadiums than to mosques. They are not religious, they are not ruled by religious dogma,” said Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad, who heads the Gulf Institute.

Mr. Al-Ahmad was referring to the power of clerics preaching Wahhabism, the puritan interpretation of Islam developed by 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Al-Wahhab. Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family established the kingdom with the help of the Wahhabis who in return were granted the right to ensure that their views would dominate public life.

In a recent, unpublished survey by a Saudi scholar half of the young Saudi men interviewed said their priority was to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely, and drive fast.

Recognizing the ambitions of Saudi youth, who account for much of the population, Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 acknowledged that ”we are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy.”

Countering corruption and sanitizing soccer financially serves that purpose. It also could serve as a template for how Prince Mohammed introduces transparency and accountability in an economy in which members of the ruling family have long felt entitled and able to act with impunity.


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, November 25, 2016

Palestine threatens CAS claim over West Bank clubs (JMD quoted in Global Arbitration Review)

Tom Jones

25 November 2016
[Buy now]

Palestine threatens CAS claim over West Bank clubs(Wikimedia Commons)

In a statement to press earlier this month, Palestinian football chief Jibril Rajoub said he would file a claim at CAS unless FIFA agrees to relocate the teams when the world football body holds its council meeting next January.
“We will not give up. We will never accept any compromise,” he said.
The dispute centres on six football clubs playing in Israel’s lower divisions that are based in Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
The Palestinian FA says the location of the teams violates FIFA rules, which state that football clubs from FIFA member affiliates – such as the Israeli FA – may not play on the territory of other football associations without their permission.
Palestine considers the settlements to be built on its own territory, which is illegally occupied under international law. It argues that the clubs are playing there without the permission of the Palestinian FA, which has been recognised by FIFA since 1998.
FIFA has established a special monitoring committee – headed by South African anti-apartheid campaigner and former FIFA presidential candidate Tokyo Sexwale – to consider the complaints against the Israeli FA, but so far talks have proved unsuccessful.

This week Sexwale held meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the Israeli clubs based in the settlements, as well as the movement of footballers and football goods in and out of Palestinian territory.

Academic and journalist James Dorsey, the author of a blog entitled “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer”, says the recent election of Donald Trump as US president is likely to give “reinforced impetus” to Palestinian plans to file at CAS.
“The indications are that Trump will reverse long-standing US policy that views the West Bank as occupied territory and the settlements as illegal. The question is then whether FIFA would issue a decision which is directly at odds with US policy”, he said.
Any filing at CAS would constitute a first testing of Palestine’s ability to fight its battle with Israel in international forums. The court’s handling of the issue could prove significant in light of Palestine’s accession to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in early 2015, which paves the way for war crimes prosecutions arising from its conflict with Israel.

It is not the first time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has arisen in a sporting context. Earlier this year Scottish football club Glasgow Celtic was fined by the governing body of European football, UEFA, for displaying Palestinian flags in a Champions League qualifier against Israeli club Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Human Rights Watch and FIFA test Middle East fallout of Trump’s election


By James M. Dorsey

Human Rights Watch (HRW), in an initial probing of the impact of the rise of US President-elect Donald J. Trump, has asked the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights to include world soccer body FIFA in a registry of enterprises that do business with Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

The request is based on the fact that the Israel Football Association (IFA) organizes matches in Israeli settlements and allows six settlement teams to play in Israeli Leagues. The Palestine Football Association (PFA) backed by HRW has denounced the Israeli policy as a violation of FIFA policy that stipulates that teams can only play on the territory of another FIFA member with that member’s permission.

Like much of the international community, the PFA and HRW view Israeli settlements as illegal. In response, the IFA has argued that the settlements are disputed territory whose status has yet to be resolved in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Tokyo Sexwale, the head of a FIFA committee established to deal with Israeli-Palestinian soccer issues, is scheduled to visit Israel this week. Mr. Sexwale’s visit and the HRW request take on added significance in the wake of the rise of Mr. Trump.

Trump insiders have suggested that the president-elect would reverse long-standing US policy that has viewed the West Bank conquered by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war as occupied territory and Israeli settlements as illegal and has argued that they constitute an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Israeli anticipation of a US policy that is far more empathetic to hard-line Israeli policy has already prompted an Israeli government committee to approve a draft bill that would legalize Jewish settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land. The bill is slated to go to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, for the first of three separate readings and possible approval by the Supreme Court.

The bill suggests that Mr. Sexwale will find little traction in this week’s talks with Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. FIFA’s governing council is scheduled to decide the fate of the settlement clubs in early January.  Mr. Sexwale has said that any such decision may need to be ratified by the FIFA Congress expected to be held in Bahrain in May.

The Israeli draft bill also suggests that Israel will be far less receptive to demands that it adhere to international law governing the status of occupied territory. Israeli perceptions are reinforced by reports that Mr. Trump intends to appoint Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee as his ambassador to Israel.

Mr. Huckabee, a staunch supporter of Israeli settlements and advocate of moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a position espoused by Mr. Trump during his election campaign, denied that the president-elect had discussed his appointment during a meeting last week.

The HRW request builds not only on international law regarding the status of the West Bank as occupied territory but also on a decision by a Swiss government-sponsored unit of the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to classify FIFA as a multi-national bound by the group's guidelines rather than a non-governmental organization.

The request is also rooted in a report commissioned by FIFA in which John Ruggie, a Harvard professor and former UN Secretary-General special representative for business and human rights, that urges the soccer body to subscribe to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

With a US administration likely to be far more empathetic to Israeli policy than past US governments toward the West Bank, the HRW request fits Palestinian strategy that has in recent years increasingly focused on confronting Israel in international organizations and the possibility of challenging Israeli occupation in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

That strategy has so far produced mixed results. Mr. Sexwale’s committee was created last year after the PFA failed to garner sufficient votes to force FIFA to suspend Israel’s membership.

Mr. Trump’s election has moreover raised the prospect of a host of illiberal leaders potentially refusing to recognize international law. China refused to recognize an ICC ruling on the South China Sea even before Mr. Trump’s rise, Russia has since withdrawn from the ICC, and the Philippines has suggested that it may follow suit.

Mr. Trump’s rise is likely to give reinforced impetus to the PFA’s plans to go to the world’s top court for sports in a bid to force its Israeli counterpart to view Israeli settlements on the West Bank as occupied territory rather than an extension of the Jewish state. The move would constitute a first testing of Palestine’s ability to fight its battle with Israel in international courts.

The dynamics of the HRW request and the Palestinians’ strategy take on greater significance in the Trump era in which the United States itself may demonstrate greater disregard for international organizations and law.

A more pro-Israeli US policy could moreover complicate a willingness by Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, to openly engage with Israel based on a common interest oppose expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East and North Africa despite the Jewish state’s de facto rejection of Palestinian rights.

A IFA delegation will be attending the FIFA Congress in Bahrain, where the fate of Israeli settlement teams could ultimately be sealed. The presence of an Israeli delegation in a Gulf capital despite a Gulf ban on Israeli passport holders would follow the opening of an Israeli diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates accredited to the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency rather than the UAE government.

The rise of Mr. Trump potentially throws a monkey wrench into Middle Eastern politics, the fallout of which is uncertain. The rise of a more pro-Israeli US administration that projects Islamophobia and questions long-standing US policies and partnerships could complicate the Gulf’s more open alignment with Israel. Palestinian efforts backed by HRW to enforce international law on the soccer pitch may well offer an early indication of how the new winds blowing from Washington will play out in the Middle East and North Africa.


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.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Qatari soft power efforts: two steps forward, one step backwards


By James M. Dorsey

Efforts to leverage Qatar’s 2022 World Cup hosting rights to create the soft power the Gulf state needs to punch above its weight and ensure a sympathetic hearing in the international community in times of emergency operate on the Leninist principle of two steps forward, one step backwards.

Take events this month as an example.

On the plus side, Qatar’s ambition to host not only the World Cup but also an Olympic Games was boosted with a declaration by Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that he was open to a renewed Qatari bid. Qatar’s last bid failed in part because of criticism of its controversial labour sponsorship or kafala system that restricts workers’ rights and puts them at the mercy of their employers.

Mr. Bach’s statement may well reflect the emergence of a world in which human and other rights count for less with the rise of President-elect Donald J, Trump in the United States and of illiberal, if not authoritarian leaders, in countries ranging from Russia, China and Turkey to Eastern Europe.

Mr. Bach could nonetheless come to regret his remark if predictions by Trump insiders prove correct that the new president, reluctant to confront Saudi Arabia head on, is likely to pick on Qatar as a state that plays both ends with its close alliance with the West and hosting of a major US military base while at the same time allegedly supporting militant Islamist and jihadist forces.

Also on the plus side, in a significant gesture to human rights groups and trade unions in a part of the world that refuses to engage with its critics, Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organizing committee and a major international trade union, Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI), agreed to launch unprecedented joint inspections of the working and living conditions of migrant workers involved in World Cup-related projects.

The agreement is intended to demonstrate Qatari sincerity in reforming the kafala system at a time that it is under fire for moving too slowly. Human rights and trade union activists have charged that Qatar is going through motions rather than embarking on truly substantive reform.

Yet, activists are unlikely to be satisfied even if the inspections prove that living and working conditions of World Cup-related migrant workers have substantially changed. The activists are demanding that far-reaching change be incorporated in national legislation applicable to all workers in the Gulf state and effectively enforced. Changes in national law expected by the end of this year are likely to fall short of activists’ expectations.

A 52-page Amnesty International report published earlier this month documented what it called “appalling” abuses of the rights of workers employed in the renovation of the Khalifa International Stadium. The Qatari World Cup organizing committee said most of the issues in the report that date back to last year have since been addressed.

Finally, Qatar’s willingness to entertain whatever degree of change and engage with its critics is prompting limited change and debate of the labour issue elsewhere in the Gulf. Prominent Saudi journalist Khaled Almaeena, a regime insider, in an article earlier this month denounced the kafala system as “slavery and ownership.’’

Mr. Almaeena was speaking from experience. “I was for 25 years the editor of the Arab News and for two years the Saudi Gazette, both English language Saudi newspapers. They were the eyes and ears of both Saudis and expatriates, probably more so of the latter. To them, we were a helpline. They wrote to us for advice, assistance, inquiries and support. Most of the letters dealt with working conditions, the breaking of contracts, unfair dismissals and unjust accusations…. There was no recourse to legal aid…” he wrote.

On the minus side, the backlash of the rise of illiberal leaders, the decline of concepts of tolerance and human rights, and a wave of conservatism, if not ultra-conservatism, are making themselves felt.

Qatar University this month cancelled a lecture on women in Islam by prominent Saudi women’s activist Hatoon Al Fassi, a member of the university’s faculty as well as that of Saudi Arabia’s King Saud, after faculty and students demanded on Twitter that she be sacked for challenging Qatari and Islamic values.

Similarly, the Qatari World Cup committee, in a further indication that Qatar may be backtracking on promises, said that current restrictions on alcohol consumption would be upheld during the World Cup. Qatar had earlier said that venues for alcohol consumption would be expanded from hotel bars to specific locations around the country during the tournament.

Not that alcohol is the litmus test of a successful Qatari World given that the tournament may attract a different demography with far more fans from the Middle East, North Africa and the Muslim world who care less about alcohol than their Western counterparts.

Reinforcing perceptions of wrongdoing in Qatar’s World Cup bid, world soccer body FIFA, banned Saoud al-Mohannadi, the vice president of Qatar’s 2022 committee, for one year for refusing to help in a corruption investigation. The ban dashed Mr. Al-Mohannadi’s ambition to become vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and ultimately of FIFA’s governing council

Finally, in a bow to Saudi intolerance of any criticism, Qatar this month fired Jaber Salim Al-Harmi, the editor of Al Sharq newspaper, for tweeting that “other (Gulf) countries slash their citizens’ salaries, while Qatar increases wages. We thank Allah Almighty first and foremost then we thank our leadership which uses national resources for its people’s welfare.”

Mr. Al-Harmi’s comment hit at austerity measures across the Gulf, but particularly in Saudi Arabia, that effectively rewrite social contracts under which citizens enjoyed state-provided cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for surrendering political rights.

Saudi Arabia has been particularly hard hit with stark increases of utility prices and mass layoffs. Qatar this month promised by contrast that it would raise by up to 100 percent the salaries of government employees, the bulk of the Gulf state’s indigenous labour force.

At the bottom line, Qatar’s massive investment in sports as a soft power tool has yet to withstand a cost-benefit litmus test. Without doubt, Qatar has enacted changes that put it among Gulf states in a class of its own. Yet, it has yet to convince many that those changes are only the beginning of a process that will ultimately lead to true reform.

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.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Qatar calls into question its sincerity in pushing World Cup-driven reform


By James M. Dorsey

For much of the last six years since winning the hosting rights of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar appeared to be taking a slow and torturous path towards some degree of reform. Yet, in an increasingly conservative world in which human rights are put on the backburner, fears among rights and trade union activists that lofty Qatari promises of labour reform and some degree of greater liberalism may not be much more than just lofty undertakings appear to be gaining steam.

To be sure, the controversial awarding of the hosting rights has contributed to more open discussion in Qatar of hitherto taboo subjects including the rights of workers who constitute the vast majority of the population of the tiny, energy-rich Gulf state; the definition of Qatari identity; what rights, if any, non-Qataris should have in obtaining Qatari citizenship; and the rights and social position of women and gays.

A 28-year old Qatari, in the latest pushing of the envelope that brings into the open issues that in the past were kept private because of Qataris’ sense of privacy and family honour, earlier this month decried in an article in Doha News that government policy denies young men and women the right to marry the person of their choice.

Writing under the pseudonym Yousef, the young Qatari described how he was forced to divorce his wife of East European origin after the government refused to sanction the marriage and give his spouse a residence permit because she was not a Muslim even though she had converted.

“Our marriage changed me. It took me outside my bubble, and made me question our culture’s values. I didn’t understand why, for example, we Qatari men are allowed to go to clubs where alcohol is served, but at the same time the committee was telling me that my wife’s culture and traditions did not fit ours. This was not making any sense to me,” Yousef wrote.

“I feel that the Qatari government is playing with people’s lives. It hurt to see my country talking about human rights on the global stage, but then denying citizens the right to marry whoever they choose. I want to know why my request was refused. Was it because my family isn’t important enough? Do we not know the right people? I know plenty of Qatari men married to foreign women who got their approval in less than a month, just because they know someone in the government. And why is it ok to marry a second wife or a third wife, but refuse a man permission to marry just one? he added.

Yousef ultimately came to the conclusion that “I will have to leave Qatar and live abroad if I want to get married to a foreigner. I hate that it has to be like that. I love my country. I don’t want to leave Qatar or leave my family, but what options do I have?”

Like the rights of migrant workers caught in a sponsorship system that puts them at the mercy of their employers, Yousef’s plight goes to the heart of Qatar’s most existential problem: the viability of a demography in which the citizenry accounts for a mere 12 percent of the population and fears that any change will endanger their grip on their society, culture and state.

Six years into the preparations for the 2022 World Cup, the belief among many activists as well as world soccer body FIFA officials that Qatar’s stark demographic reality was forcing it to move slowly on reforming, if not abolishing the sponsorship or kafala system is wearing thin.

To be sure, Qatar in the wake of the awarding of the World Cup and in contrast to other Gulf states initially cooperated with it critics who took it to task for the labour and living conditions of workers constructing World Cup-related infrastructure. The Qatari 2022 committee as well as a few other major Qatari organizations adopted standards and model contracts in cooperation with the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

New measures designed to streamline and curtail abuse of the sponsorship or kafala system are scheduled to come into law before the end of the year. The measures fall short however of granting workers’ basic rights.

Against the backdrop of a recent Amnesty report that counters assertions of the Qatari committee that it is applying the standards but cannot enforce them on non-World Cup contractors, FIFA is likely to take on more direct responsibility for the issue and come under greater pressure regarding the labour issue.

With a Dutch trade union taking FIFA to court in Switzerland on the issue of labour rights in the Gulf state, the soccer body has announced that starting with the Qatar World Cup it would scrap local organising committees for its flagship event.

The 52-page Amnesty report listed eight ways in which World Cup workers employed for the showcase Khalifa International Stadium were still being abused and exploited. It charged that despite efforts to the contrary workers still pay absorbent recruitment fees, live in appalling conditions, are lured to Qatar with false salary and job promises, do not get paid on time, cannot freely leave Qatar or change jobs, and are threatened by employers when they dare complain.

The Qatari 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy asserted in a statement that “challenges in worker conditions existing during early 2015” that had been identified by Amnesty had largely been addressed by June of this year. It said the problems involved four of some 40 companies involved in work on the Khalifa stadium and that three of those firms had been banned

“The tone of Amnesty International’s latest assertions paint a misleading picture and do nothing to contribute to our efforts. We have always maintained this World Cup will act as a catalyst for change — it will not be built on the back of exploited workers. We wholly reject any notion that Qatar is unfit to host the World Cup,” the statement said.

The Qatari committee, in a further indication that Qatar may be backtracking on promises, said that current restrictions on alcohol consumption would be upheld during the World Cup. Qatar had earlier said that venues for alcohol consumption would be expanded from hotel bars to specific locations around the country during the tournament.

Not that alcohol is the litmus test of a successful Qatari World. The tournament moreover may attract a different demography with far more fans from the Middle East, North Africa and the Muslim world who care less about alcohol than their Western counterparts.

Nonetheless, the backtracking on alcohol coupled with increasingly strained Qatari relations with human rights groups and trade unions, and the snail pace of labour reform casts a shadow on Qatari sincerity.

Qatar may well feel that the rise of populist leaders across the globe could reduce pressure on it to embark on real reform. That could be true. Yet, by the same token, populist leaders who ride a wave of nationalism may also have to also be seen to be standing up for the rights of their nationals working in foreign lands.


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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Reformist Saudi prince bounces up against flawed education system and ingrained social mores


By James M. Dorsey

An unpublished survey of aspirations of young Saudi men suggests that garnering enthusiasm for Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s vision of the kingdom’s social and economic future, let alone a buy in, is likely to meet resistance without a hitherto lacking effort to win support.

Obstacles to get broad-based acceptance of social changes involved in Vision 2030, the prince’s masterplan for the future published in April, are rooted in the cloaking of ultra-conservative tribal mores in Islamic legitimization by the kingdom’s religious scholars. They also stem from a flawed education system that fails to impart critical thinking and analytical skills.

“People were not interested in political change or reform. They wanted social change but they pull back when they realize this has consequences for their sisters. Their analytical ability and critical thinking is limited,… If you look at Twitter, people don’t know how to argue. They don’t have the patience for discussion. They live in a bubble… If people would do what they talk about on Twitter, angels would shake their hands. They talk about an ideal world…but reality is totally different,” said Saudi scholar Abdul Al Lily, author of a recent book on rules that govern Saudi culture. Mr. Al Lily surveyed 100 Saudi men all of who were approximately 20 years old.

Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest Twitter penetrations and features ultra-conservative religious scholars with millions of followers. Twitter constitutes a relatively less controlled arena in a country in which all physical and virtual public space is tightly controlled. Saudi Arabia this month announced efforts on the Internet “to protect the social and economic system of the country… (and) the society from any violations on the security and mental levels.”

Saudi Arabia’s Shura or Advisory Council, in another setback to potential reform, this month rejected initiating a review of the kingdom’s ban on women’s driving.

Some 50 percent of those surveyed by Mr. Al Lily said they wanted to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely, and be able to drive fast, Mr. Al Lily said. He said issues of political violence, racism, international interests or the dragged out Saudi war in neighbouring Yemen did not figure in their answers.

The young men’s aspirations challenged the core culture of a country that enforces strict gender segregation and dress codes and struggles with concepts of fun. Ultra-conservatives and militant Islamists see fun as a potential threat to political and social control. That is particularly true with regard to youth who in the words sociologists Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera have “a greater tendency for experimentation, adventurism, idealism, drive for autonomy, mobility, and change.”

Bayat noted separately that “whereas the elderly poor can afford simple, traditional, and contained diversions, the globalized and affluent youth tend to embrace more spontaneous, erotically charged, and commodified pleasures. This might help explain why globalizing youngsters more than others cause fear and fury among Islamist (and non-Islamist) anti-fun adversaries, especially when much of what these youths practice is informed by Western technologies of fun and is framed in terms of Western cultural import… In other words, at stake is not necessarily the disruption of the moral order, as often claimed, but rather the undermining of the hegemony, the regime of power on which certain strands of moral and political authority rest.”

It is these fundamental attitudes, that Prince Mohammed, in a bid to upgrade Saudi autocracy and bring it into the 21st century, is seeking to tweak.” We are well aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they in harmony with our prosperous economy. It is why we will support the efforts of regions, governorates, non-profit and private sectors to organize cultural events,” Vision 2030 said.

Prince Mohammed may have been jumping the gun when he recently greeted journalist and author Karen Elliott House with the words “Welcome to the new Saudi Arabia” as they watched the LED-lit bodies of New York dancers gyrating on a Riyadh arena stage to deafening hip-hop music. Some 1,300 Saudis of all ages—robed men and abaya-covered women sat side by side whooping their approval.

Mr. Al Lily’s interviewees however pulled back when confronted with the notion that liberties they wanted would also apply to their womenfolk. “People ended up not doing anything when confronted with the idea that someone might want to go on a date with their sister. They pulled back when they realized the consequences,” Mr. Al Lily said.

A recent Saudi television cultural show mocked the attitude of young Saudi men demanding greater freedoms. It portrayed two young men who told their wife and sister that they were going to Mecca although they had bought airline tickets to Cairo for a few days of fun. When the two women detected their menfolk’s deception, they decided to follow them. Sitting in a nightclub in Cairo, the two men poked fun at two women who entered fully covered from top to bottom. “They must be Saudis. How did their brothers let them travel?” said one of the men to the other, not realizing that they were looking at their sister and wife.

Mr. Al Lily argues that to succeed, Prince Mohammed will have to sell Vision 2030 to the youth of a country in which Under-21s account for an estimated 60 percent of the population. Few of those interviewed by Mr. Ali as well as many of his academic colleagues had read the document.

“The issue is how Saudis perceive change,” Mr. Al Lily said. He likened Vision 2030 to the wind in a Saudi proverb that says: “If there is a door that might bring wind, close the door.”

Saudi attitudes towards change are in Mr. Al Lily’s view stand-offish. “People don’t believe in change… The government doesn’t have a plan to sell Vision 2030.  In addition, it has at least partially been drafted by foreigners. All of this is important. Implementing it will not be easy,” Mr. Al Lily 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.