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

"Dorsey statement (on Egypt) proved prophetic."
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


Thursday, July 30, 2015

AMarriage on the Rocks? Saudis Look Beyond U.S. After Iran Deal (JMD quoted on Bloomberg)

July 30, 2015 — 7:01 AM SGT

Former Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal once compared the bond with the U.S. to a “Muslim marriage,” or one that wasn’t necessarily monogamous.

The kingdom’s recent overtures to other partners suggest the relationship is going through another reappraisal because of the landmark accord with regional rival Iran. After visiting Russia and France last month, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman returned home with $23 billion of aircraft and energy contracts.

“Trust between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. has been damaged by the Iran nuclear deal,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington. “Many in Saudi Arabia feel abandoned by the U.S.”

The U.S., the world’s largest arms supplier, and China each accounted for about 13 percent of Saudi trade last year

They have hit the rocks before, most notably in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks mainly by Saudi citizens. Yet the U.S.-led rapprochement with Iran raises the prospect of a tectonic shift in the Middle East that the Saudis haven’t had to contend with since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran.

For the Saudis, business with Russia can dilute dependence on the U.S., while for the more isolated Russians it’s all about winning friends and getting investment.

“Historically, the relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia is one of mistrust,” said Hani Sabra, head analyst for the Middle East at Eurasia Group. “However, as a result of changing regional and global geopolitics, the opportunity for both sides to consider closer ties in the future is ripe.”

More Assertive

Changes made to the Saudi royal court by King Salman marked a shift toward a younger generation and underscored its more assertive role as the Middle East endures one of its most violent periods. Mohammed bin Salman, 29, was elevated to deputy crown prince after taking the post of defense minister in January and leading the campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In Riyadh, Saudi officials tell diplomats that they worry Iran will use the nuclear agreement to deepen its involvement in Arab affairs as sanctions are lifted and its economy and revenue expand. Former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Bandar bin Sultan, wrote this month in a newspaper editorial that the Iran deal would “wreak havoc” on the Middle East.

“Considering the unprecedented turmoil in the region, the Saudis are trying to keep all their options open,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at consulting company JTG Inc. in Virginia who has worked for the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Like Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin is an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose opponents in a four-year civil war are backed by the Saudis. Putin’s support, though, is seen in Riyadh as wavering, said Nazer.
New Direction?

During the deputy crown prince’s visit to St. Petersburg in June, the Public Investment Fund agreed to jointly spend $10 billion with Russia on projects involving infrastructure, agriculture, medicine and logistics. In previous years, the Saudi fund wasn’t openly pursuing foreign investment.

After meeting with Putin, he flew to Paris, where 12 billion euros ($13.3 billion) in contracts were signed. They included a 3 billion-euro export finance accord between credit insurer Coface SA and the Public Investment Fund. The two countries also agreed to feasibility studies for two nuclear reactors, and Saudi Arabia agreed to buy 30 Airbus A320s and 20 Airbus A330s for 8 billion euros.

“There is a more strategic direction to investing abroad now that follows wider foreign policy interests,” said John Sfakianakis, the Riyadh-based director of the Middle East at investment company Ashmore Group.

‘Dollar Diplomacy’

Saudi Arabia has looked elsewhere before to demonstrate it’s not dependent on the U.S. After the collapse of trust following the terror attacks in which 15 of the 19 perpetrators were Saudi citizens, trade with China duly increased.

The U.S., the world’s largest arms supplier, and China each accounted for about 13 percent of Saudi trade last year. In 2001, U.S. imports and exports made up 19 percent of Saudi trade versus 4 percent for China. Russia, the second-largest seller of military hardware, barely registered either year.

“Financial muscle gets you only so far,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “I doubt it will fundamentally sway Washington. Saudi leadership realizes that irrespective of its views of U.S. reliability and policies, there is no country that can substitute it.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter met with King Salman and Prince Mohammed on July 22 in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, where he tried to reassure them that the U.S. wasn’t wavering in its security commitment.

Saudi Arabia had the biggest percentage increase among the top 15 spenders on defense worldwide last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Outlays rose 17 percent to $80.8 billion. That’s as the halving of oil prices from 12 months ago reduces government revenue.

“For now, that will not stop it from engaging in dollar diplomacy,” said Dorsey. “It’s one of its foremost assets.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Cairo derby: Politics vs. repression


By James M. Dorsey

This month’s premier league final between Cairo’s two storied clubs, Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, once the world’s most violent derby, was more than a clash between two soccer giants. It was a clash between management styles and diametrically opposed approaches towards militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fans. The clash highlighted the advantages of engagement as opposed to the risk of radicalization and escalating political violence.

On the pitch like on the streets and university campuses of Egypt, Zamalek’s emergence as this year’s Egyptian champion despite Ahli having won the derby itself would seem to legitimize the club’s aggressive effort to criminalize its fan base.

The facts on the ground, however, suggest that Al Ahli’s engagement with its supporters has produced far better results, including greater cooperation with a group that like its Zamalek counterpart played a key role in the toppling in 2011 of President Hosni Mubarak and protests against all his successors in the past four years.

Members of Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group, and Ultras White Knights (UWK), the
Zamalek fan group, form the core of prominent student and youth groups that have been targeted by the government of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who in 2013 toppled Egypt’s only democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in a military coup. More than a thousand protesters have been killed on Mr. Al Sisi’s watch while tens of thousands have been incarcerated and thousands expelled from universities.

Zamalek president Mortada Mansour, a larger than life figure, whose at times comical outbursts often persuade the government to maintain a distance even though they support Mr. Al Sisi’s policies, charged that Al Ahli’s victory on the pitch was due to “ghosts and jinns" and that his assertions are “written in the holy Quran.”

More seriously, Mr. Mortada has identified the UWK and other militant fans or ultras as enemies of the state aligned with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He succeeded earlier this year in persuading a court to ban ultras as terrorists on par with the Muslim Brothers. In February, Mr. Mortada took pride in taking responsibility for a confrontation at a Cairo stadium between security forces and fans in which at least 20 supporters were killed.

Mr. Mortada, whose hard line mirrors the government’s tough approach towards its opponents, took his battle earlier this month to Al Ahli after thousands of Ultras Ahlawy were allowed to attend a training of their team in preparation for the derby.

UWK, whom Mr. Mortada accuses of having tried to assassinate him, are barred from Zamalek events. The Ahli fans reportedly used the training to mock Mr. Mortada in chants and hurl abuse at him not only because he heads their arch rival but as a result of his hard-line anti-ultras, pro-government stance. They also demanded a lifting of the ban on spectators attending soccer matches that has been in place for much of the four years since the fall of Mr. Mubarak.

In response, Mr. Mortada accused Al Ahli president Mahmoud Taha of allowing fans to “terrorise citizens” and of displaying a lack of respect for the ministries of defense and interior that controls the security forces. The interior ministry has been the main driver behind the ban. Mr. Mortada said he had filed charges against Al Ahli president Mahmoud Taher for hosting a terrorist organization.

Mr. Taha refused to be drawn by Mr. Mortada, noting in a veiled criticism of the ban on spectators that the ultras had “set an example to follow in terms of discipline, given how they had entered and left the stadium despite their large numbers. Ahli, the leader of Arab and African sports with its titles and trophies, refuses to be drawn into such matters … while stressing its respect for different opinions and views,” Mr. Taha said.

While Mr. Mortada’s hard line reflects government policy, Mr. Taha’s approach proved its value in December when Ahlawy fans stormed a stadium hours before it was to host an African championship final in support of their demand that they be allowed to attend the match.

In an unprecedented move, Mr. Taha stopped security forces from violently evicting the fans and negotiated their peaceful departure in exchange for interior ministry agreement to allow them into the stadium during the match. The fans agreed as part of the deal to subject themselves to security checks and not to disrupt the match, a promise they kept.

For a brief moment, the incident held out hope that the government may be persuaded that engagement rather than brutal repression is more likely to reduce tension and prevent radicalization among frustrated and angry youth who lack social and economic prospects.

Ultimately, the government’s willingness to work with Mr. Taha did not indicate a change of heart but a desire to ensure that the match from which Al Ahli emerged as the continent’s champion went off without a hitch.

If Mr. Taha’s soccer-focused approach has proven that engagement produces results, Mr. Mortada and the government’s insistence on brutal confrontation risks further escalation in a country that is fighting an armed insurgency in the Sinai and is witnessing the sprouting of militant urban groups that target security and judicial authorities.

“We had high hopes. We staged the revolution in 2011. The new generation has nothing to lose. We recognize that football is political. That’s why we are involved not only in football but also in politics. We oppose the brutality of this regime and its pawns. Neither Sisi nor Mortada are interested in politics. Their language is exclusively the language of repression,” said an ultra who is also a student leader.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Monday, July 20, 2015

‘Sports bodies must be monitored to end corruption’ (JMD in Today)

‘Sports bodies must be monitored to end corruption’

‘Sports bodies must be monitored to end corruption’
The Swiss authorities launched an investigation into FIFA’s awarding of hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Photo: Getty Images
Monies meant for distribution should be kept withindependent agency, says award-winning journalist
PUBLISHED: 4:16 AM, JULY 18, 2015
UPDATED: 5:30 AM, JULY 18, 2015
(PAGE 1 OF 1) - PAGINATE
SINGAPORE — Getting rid of the patronage system and having independent bodies that monitor the monies global sports groups collect can stop the scourge of corruption that has plagued many sports organisations, including football’s world governing body FIFA, said award-winning investigative journalist James Dorsey.
These two fundamental reforms are needed, he said, for the billions of dollars governing bodies earned through channels like international television rights to benefit the sports constituencies they serve and not corrupt individuals.
In May, FIFA president Sepp Blatter abruptly announced his resignation four days after securing a fifth term in office after a United States-led arrest of several FIFA officials and senior sports marketing executives in a corruption probe believed to involve more than US$100 million (S$136.5 million) spanning more than two decades.
The Swiss authorities also launched an investigation into the Zurich-based FIFA’s awarding of hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively which was shrouded by bribery allegations.
There is now a movement to limit the term of the FIFA presidency, but Dorsey, currently a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said this is not enough.
“Term limitations are fine, but there are two fundamental reforms that are sine qua non,” Dorsey, 63, told TODAY.
“Without those reforms there will be no real change. The first is the eradication of the patronage system.
“FIFA, as an NGO, has a large income that for a significant extent is distributed to national football associations (NFAs) to develop football. FIFA distributes this money and ultimately the president distributes it to who he likes and who he doesn’t.”
Dorsey suggests the monies meant for distribution to NFAs should be parked with an independent institution such a board of trustees to guarantee they will be used as intended.
FIFA, which made US$4.8 billion from last year’s World Cup in Brazil, may be part of the board, but it must also have other stakeholders, especially the NFAs and representatives of players, fans, sponsors as well as others not directly associated with the sport.
Added Dorsey: “It must be totally independent of FIFA, in terms of what happens with those monies, who gets them, and on what basis they are given out. This has been totally lacking.”
The second reform cited by Dorsey is for sports organisations like FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to have independent bodies that monitor them in the same way countries regulate financial institutions.
“They need some form of governance. Part of the problem of global sports is that associations like FIFA, the IOC and AFC, whoever they may be, are essentially a law unto themselves. There is no reason why they should be that,” said Dorsey, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.
The AFC, in particular, has been in Dorsey’s sights since 2011. Three months ago he handed incriminating documents and a video to the Malay Mail that led to AFC general secretary Alex Soosay resigning over allegations that he ordered a cover-up during a 2012 PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) audit of the organisation’s accounts.
At that time, Dorsey had broken a story that a PwC report asserted AFC’s disgraced former president Mohammed bin Hammam had “used the AFC’s company bank accounts to facilitate personal transactions as if they were his personal bank accounts”. Bin Hammam was previously charged by FIFA in 2011 with offering bribes in his attempt to run against Blatter for control of the world body and has since been banned for life from the sport.
In an interview with TODAY, Dorsey noted that almost a third of the members of the AFC 25-member board are from the Middle East, including current president Salman Khalifa of Bahrain who was elected in 2013. “They are all members of either autocratic ruling families that govern their companies or family corporations. The last two presidents are from the Middle East and they rule the AFC the way their countries are ruled,” said Dorsey.
“The centrepoint of Salman’s last two years in office has been the centralisation of power, burying any attempt at reform or investigating allegations of corruption in the PwC report.”

James Dorsey is an award-winning journalist who won the 2003 Dolf van den Broek prize, and has written for publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is to deliver a lecture entitled “FIFA’s Crisis: The Geopolitics of Football” at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies on Monday (July 20) at 3.30pm.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Israeli soccer violence moves racism up the government’s agenda


By James M. Dorsey

A violent display of racism by extreme nationalist supporters of storied Israeli football club Beitar Jerusalem coupled with recent Ethiopian Israeli protests against discrimination and the government’s handling of the capture of two Israelis by Hamas has moved racist attitudes towards dark-skinned Jews and Israeli Palestinian up the government’s agenda.

Driving calls for the banning of La Familia, the racist anti-Arab, anti-Muslim fan group of Beitar is concern about damage the group did to Israel’s image abroad rather than a worrisome trend in society at a time that Israel is anxious about the gathering momentum of calls to boycott, disinvest from and sanction the Jewish state for its policy towards the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli foreign ministry officials charged that an incident in Belgium in which Beitar fans waved flags of the outlawed racist Kach party founded by assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane and threw flares and smoke guns on to the pitch as well as a missile that hit a goalkeeper during their club’s Europa League qualifier against Charleloi SC had damaged Israel’s international image. La Familia hung the Kach flags next to the Israeli flag in the stadium. The Israeli fans were welcomed in the stadium by neo-Nazi supporters of Charleroi with swastikas and Palestinian flags.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the incident, saying that he had discussed possible legal action against La Familia, believed to have several thousand followers, with internal security minister Gilad Erdan. “We will not allow them to besmirch the club’s entire fan base or harm the country’s image,” Netanyahu said.

In an editorial liberal newspaper Haaretz warned that “the problem is not Israel’s image in the world, but the overt racism that is fuelled by exactly those same officials who are now condemning it. Netanyahu and (culture and sports minister Miri) Regev are preaching to others what they themselves do not practice. With their racist remarks (‘The Arabs are flocking to the polling stations’), their conduct (threatening the funding of Arab cultural institutions) and their antidemocratic legislation – which is so typical of the government they head – they legitimize the phenomenon called Beitar Jerusalem,” Haaretz said. The paper was referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s fearmongering during the May election in which he warned that strong Palestinian participation threatened the outcome of the vote.

Founded by the revanchist wing of the Zionist movement with strong links to the right-wing nationalist Jewish underground in pre-state Palestine, Beitar has long been a darling of the Israeli right that counted nationalist leaders, including Mr. Netanyahu, among its supporters.

The only club to have consistently refused to hire a Palestinian in a country in which Palestinians ranks among its top players, Beitar has maintained its racist stance despite repeatedly being penalized by the Israel Football Association (IFA).

The economy ministry’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a historic break with past IFA and government policy of only mildly chastising Beitar, summoned the club days before the Belgium incident to justify its racist hiring policies.

The move came weeks after the IFA had narrowly pre-empted adoption of a resolution put forward by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) to suspend Israel’s membership in world soccer body FIFA in part because of its failure to crack down on racism in Israeli soccer. In a compromise, the PFA withdrew its demand in favour of the establishment of a FIFA committee that would monitor Israeli efforts to address Palestinian grievances.

“The more deeply one looks into the reasons and motives for Beitar’s racist conduct, the more strongly the impression emerges that the problem stems from the forgiving attitude of the authorities around it – from the Israel Football Association to the league administration, all the way to ministerial level. These bodies, using various and sundry pretexts, lend a hand to the phenomenon and allow it to exist – whether by turning a blind eye to it or giving convoluted and evasive explanations,” Haaretz said.

“The time has come to stop talking about image, ‘education’ or ‘processes,’ and start taking practical steps. Alongside harsh penalties for manifestations of racism, Beitar Jerusalem must be given a limited window of time during which it will be required to sign Arab players – even at the cost of a major confrontation with its fans. Instead of condemnation, the time has come to act,” the paper said.

The focus on Beitar’s racism further comes on the heels of protests in recent months by Ethiopian Israelis who first demonstrated against the beating up in April by police of an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian extraction and the subsequent closing of an investigation into the incident.

Ethiopian activists have since agreed to a request by the family of Avera Mengistu not to protest against the government’s handling of his disappearance in Gaza some ten months ago. The government issued a gag order on reporting of the incident that was lifted earlier this month under pressure from the media and various politicians. As a result of the gag order, even members of Mr. Netanyahu’s security cabinet and parliament’s foreign affairs and security committee were kept in the dark

Similarly, Mr. Netanyahu did not visit the Ethiopian family until earlier this month and only after his hostages and missing persons coordinator, Col. (Res.) Lior Lotan, was forced to apologize for telling the family that their son's release would be delayed if they criticized the prime minister.

Col. Lotan also insisted that the family refrain from connecting the government’s handling of their son’s case to the Ethiopian protests against discrimination. “I’m going to tell you this in the toughest way possible: Whoever puts on Avera the story of what’s between the Ethiopians and the State of Israel will leave him in Gaza for another year,” Col. Lotan was heard saying on tape.

Mr. Mengistu was detained after he climbed over a fence to enter Gaza. Hamas said it had released him after questioning but was still holding an Israeli Bedouin who legally crossed into Gaza in April. Mr. Mengistu is still missing.

Israeli media charged that the government had kept Mr. Mengistu’s disappearance secret because of his skin colour, noting that his family speaks poor Hebrew, lives in poverty, and does not have the wherewithal to stand up for their son’s rights.

Some analysts argue that the government’s handling of the case of Mr. Mengistu and the Bedouin, whose name has not been released, are not unique. Families of past Hamas prisoners and soldiers missing in action who are not of Ethiopian or Arab descent said they too had been humiliated and forcibly silenced by the government during their ordeal.

Nevertheless, the combustible mix of Israel’s image being on the line as a result of the violence of Beitar fans as well as Palestinian soccer efforts to force changes in Israeli policy, the protests against discrimination against dark-skinned Israelis, and the disappearance of Israeli nationals in Gaza puts Israeli racism in the spotlight. Israel cannot afford to be seen to be ignoring a dark side of its society and culture.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Anti-Chinese Protests in Turkey: Relations with China Under Test



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: RSISPublications@ntu.edu.sg for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentary, Yang Razali Kassim. 


No. 153/2015 dated 15 July 2015
Anti-Chinese Protests in Turkey:
Relations with China Under Test

By James M. Dorsey

Synopsis


Protests in Turkey against alleged repression of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang have put China’s sensitive relationships with the Muslim world to the test. The protests raise the spectre of China’s restrictive policy towards the Uighurs muddying relations with other Muslim nations as well.

Commentary

CHINA AND TURKEY had high hopes when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on a 2010 visit to Ankara negotiated a strategic partnership, that envisioned Turkey helping China quell a simmering insurgency in its north-western autonomous region of Xinjiang.

The deal, a year after then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused China of genocide in Xinjiang, involved a halt to Turkish support for Uighur secessionist groups. It promised mutual economic benefit and Turkish leverage at both ends of the Silk Road Economic Belt that Beijing hopes to revive across the Eurasian land mass. Together with the Maritime Silk Road in what Beijing calls the “One Belt One Road” project, this comprises a network of roads, railways, ports and pipeline that China expects will link it to the Middle East and Europe via Central, Southeast and South Asia.

High hopes

In recognition of the fact that Uighurs historically have always looked West towards their Turkic cousins rather than East at the Han Chinese, China encouraged Turkey to invest in Xinjiang on preferential terms in the hope that greater Turkish influence would dampen nationalist sentiment in the region that has been on the rise since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Chinese expectations of Turkey’s potentially moderating influence were also reflected in China’s decision to send religious students to Turkey rather than to Islamic centres of learning in the Arab world.

Close relations were further highlighted by Ankara considering the acquisition of a Chinese surface-to-air missile system and Turkey becoming the first country in which a Chinese bank would operate an overseas business with the acquisition of Tekstilbank by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world’s largest bank.

China had hoped that by enlisting Turkey it would be able to counter US support for Uighur activists that it viewed as an effort to create problems for Beijing in its own backyard. Chinese concerns have since been heightened by the fact that an estimated 300 Chinese Muslims have joined the Islamic State (IS) in Syria whose leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, described China as one of the worst violators of Muslim rights.

War of words

Those hopes now threaten to be mired in a war of words between Beijing and Ankara sparked by Uighur nationalist protests against Chinese discrimination, including a ban on fasting during Ramadan and the forced opening of restaurants during daytime fasting hours.

The ban was introduced at the tail end of a failed year-long government campaign against what it termed “terrorism” and “illegal religious activity” that involved strict controls of sermons in mosques, closure of a number of Islamic schools and restrictions on traditional dress.

Nationalist Turks see the ban that applies to government employees, students and teachers – a significant segment of the Uighur population -- as the latest of a series of restrictive measures aimed at weakening Uighur identity and religiosity. Chinese authorities have defined illegal religious activity among others as refusing to shake a woman’s hand; rejection of inter-ethnic marriage; boycotting government social programmes, and closing restaurants during Ramadan. Women’s headscarves and beards are viewed with suspicion.

The measures have also sparked protests in Malaysia and Cairo. The 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) expressed concern and called on Beijing to respect Uighurs’ religious rights. The Qatar-backed International Union of Muslim Scholars headed by prominent Islamic scholar Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi put out a similar, more strongly worded statement.

Turkish passions were fuelled by sensationalist reports in pro-government media of a massacre of Uighurs while fasting and others being forced to consume alcohol.  These came amid domestic Turkish politicking as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sought to forge a coalition government in the wake of last month’s parliamentary election that failed to produce an absolute majority for the ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP).

A pro-government newspaper, catering to nationalist sentiment, published a bloodied map of Xinjiang as part of its coverage of a visit to Beijing by a delegation from the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the first pro-Kurdish party to be represented in the Turkish parliament. The newspaper said the HDP had gone ahead with the visit “despite the East Turkestan torture,” a reference to Xinjiang by its Uighur and Turkic name.

Chinese policy as core driver of unrest

In response, Chinese officials have revived accusations that Turkey is encouraging Uighur radicalism. Tong Bishan of the Chinese public security ministry's Criminal Investigation Department recently told foreign correspondents that Turkish diplomats in South-east Asia had facilitated passage of hundreds of Uighurs to Turkey from where they were being sold to IS as "cannon fodder".

Tong was referring to the issuing of Turkish passports to 173 Uighur refugees in Thailand to prevent their return to China. The issue of Turkish passports has however become sensitive after the perpetrators of an attack last year at a train station in Kunming in Yunnan province in which 33 people were killed, were found to have been travelling on Turkish documents.

China’s focus on external forces fuelling unrest in Xinjiang was however called into a question by a clash with police last month in the ancient city of Kashgar in which 28 people died. The clash’s background suggested that Chinese policy rather than Islamist ideology may be a core driver fuelling nationalist violence.

The attackers were reportedly members of one family whose land had been confiscated and given to a Han Chinese. Impoverished, the family turned to religion, only to be tackled by authorities who forced female members to bare their hair and males to shave their beards.

The government, rather than heed warnings of the impact of Chinese policies, has sought to silence its critics. Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti warned in a lengthy article published after he was arrested last year that because Chinese policies “do not address deep-seated problems, we cannot afford to be sanguine about Xinjiang’s future, nor can we be certain that violence will not erupt again”.

Tohti’s warning appears to be something that China accepts as a principle to counter jihadism anywhere but in Xinjiang. In a recent debate on US-Chinese cooperation in the Middle East, Yang Jiemian, a senior fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, argued that “tackling root causes” was the key to combatting extremism but that “China has other ways” that include a “strong medicine with side effects”.

It is the strong medicine that threatens to complicate China’s relations with key players in the Muslim world, as seen in the protests by the OIC and global Islamic leaders as well as in countries such as Malaysia and Egypt.


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

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

Nanyang Technological University
Block S4, Level B4, 50 Nanyang Avenue, Singapore 639798
Tel: +65 6790 6982 | Fax: +65 6794 0617 | www.rsis.edu.sg

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

More Corrupt Than FIFA: A Brief History of Syrian Football


By Omar Ibrahim[1]

On December 30, 2012, the Syrian national soccer team was received by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in his People’s Palace, an exquisite fortress overlooking the Syrian capital from Mt. Mezzeh. The president congratulated the team for its first-time winning of the West Asian Football Federation Championship,[1] and rewarded each player with an apartment, a job, and SYP150,000 (USD1500).[2] Among the red-clad players who queued up to shake Assad’s hand was 31-year-old Mosab Balhous,[3] the national team’s goalkeeper and former goalkeeper of Homs-based Al-Karamah SC.

Their smiling exchange put a good face on a harsher history: 17 months earlier, on August 2, 2011, the president’s security forces had arrested Balhous on charges of sheltering armed gangs and possessing suspicious amounts of money.[4] The goalkeeper’s home city of Homs, popularly dubbed the “Capital of the revolution”, has been under regime attack since April 2011, and its Baba Amr district has served as a refuge for army defectors.

Now, with civil war devouring Syria for a fifth year, Syrian soccer seemed to be doing fine. Thanks to the Assad regime’s calculated support, three of its national teams and two local clubs have qualified for regional and international tournaments. These wins serve a distinct political purpose: a victorious soccer team burnishes Assad’s credentials as a secular leader still in control of his country, in stark contrast to the Islamic State (IS), which flogs people for wearing soccer jerseys.

The Rulers of the Game

Today, 14 clubs play in the highest division in the country. In April 2015, Syria’s National Soccer Team jumped 26 places in the FIFA World Ranking to 126th internationally and 15th on the Asian level; in May, it rose further to 125th.[5] The national team also made it to the second round of qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 2019 Asia Cup,[6] while the Olympic Soccer Team qualified for the finals of the 2016 AFC U-23 Asian Cup in Qatar.[7] Syria's Junior Soccer Team has qualified for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile,[8] and Al-Jaish and Al-Wahda clubs for the advanced stages of the Asian Cup Championship.[9]

These successes have come despite international sanctions on Syria, which have resulted in FIFA freezing $2,250,000 according to the Syrian General Sports Federation (GSF) though experts believe it could be much more that was earmarked for the Syrian Football Association (SFA).[10] The Assad regime is working to prove that this money will only go towards developing soccer and will not be used to fund political or military activities. The Baath Party, the country’s official ruling party, nonetheless, continues to control sports. GSF sources said that party appoint GSF members.

State investment in soccer also continues although no hard data is available. GSF president Maj. Gen. Muwafaq Jomaa said last March that 30% of the sports budget went to soccer and the rest was allocated to 29 other disciplines. “We thank the political leadership and the government for the support. Sports have become politics, art and a national state [through which] we [in GSF] represent our dear homeland [abroad] in an honest way,” Jomaa told he state-run Al-Ikhbaria television [11]

Control is further exercised through the GSF’s refusal to give the SFA independent authority over its own budget. The GSF has accused the SFA of trying to form “another republic inside the GSF” on the back of FIFA’s ban on government interference. “The GSF, the government and the political leadership [the National Security Bureau of the Baath Party] do not accept that the SFA is subordinated to the FIFA. This is against [our] laws. If there are regulations from the FIFA that the SFA has to apply, it has to apply it. We do not mind that,” Jomaa said.[12]

A Favorite Fiefdom

Soccer has long been the most popular game in Syria, and as such a favorite tool for the regime’s self-promotion. In 1981, the late president Hafiz al-Assad issued a series of decrees that ensured social and financial security for champion athletes who finished in any of the first three places at the Arab, Asian, Mediterranean and Olympic Games.[13] Five years after the Hama massacre of 1982, in which Syrian Army units in a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood razed the city and killed as many as 40,000 residents,[14] the late president told14 guest countries participating in the 10th Mediterranean Games in Latakia that “we want the land [of Syria to be] a land of peace and friendship…the [Mediterranean] Sea to be a sea of peace and friendship with seagulls flying over it, not planes of murder and destruction…[and] the Mediterranean region to be the nucleus of the World’s peace, from which doves of peace are released to spread in the sky.”[15]

Syrian media played up Syria’s defeat of France 2:1 despite the fact that the games cost Syria $300 million it could ill-afford in a time of economic downturn.[16] Keeping that memory alive proved at times easier said than done. Hafez Al-Assad’s eldest son Basil, an avid equestrian who headed an annual tournament in commemoration of the soccer victory, lost a horse race in 1993 to Adnan Qassar, the leader of the Syrian equestrian team. Qassar was promptly arrested on charges of attempting to assassinate Basil and imprisoned without trial for 21 years in Tadmur prison. He was finally released in June 2014 by a presidential amnesty granted by Basil’s younger brother Bashar, who inherited the presidency in 2000 after the death of his father and the earlier passing of his brother in a car crash.[17]

Syria’s most feared informal militias, or shabiha, formed in the eighties from the ranks of Assad relatives and supporters, also kept a hand in local athletics, including soccer. Their founder, Fawaz al-Assad,[18] was a cousin of the late president and controlled the port of Latakia with its smuggling routes. Fawaz was also a supporter of the city’s Tishreen soccer team before becoming its honorary president.[19] Latakia soccer fans recall Fawaz coming once to the Al-Assad Stadium with a helicopter and talks with the referees before the game to ensure that his team would win the game.

Bashar al-Assad carried on his elders’ tradition of using an unsporting degree of force against opponents, athletic and otherwise. In mid-March, 2004, around 40 Kurdish civilians were killed in Qamishli, northeast Syria, after riots broke out between Kurdish and Arab soccer fans.[20] Hundreds of Kurds were injured and around 2,000 were tortured in the regime’s jails after they had demanded an investigation into the forced disappearance of Kurdish civil society activist and Sunni religious leader Sheikh Mashook al-Khaznawi.[21] In June 2005, the Kurdish protests erupted again against alleged government's involvement in the assassination of Khaznawi.[22]

Soccer also figured prominently in government efforts to manage relations with neighboring countries in the wake of the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri allegedly at Syria’s behest as well as with domestic critics opposed to the regime’s decision to liberalize the economy. Al-Assad more frequently attended soccer matches where fans chanted, “Oh, Bashar, raise your hand!,” a request he gladly honored.

Blood on the Field  

The eruption in 2011 of mass anti-government protests triggered by the arrest and torture of school-age children in Dera’a who wrote anti-government graffiti on walls[23] set Syria on a path of civil war that significantly weakened the Assad regime and virtually destroyed the country. Mahmoud al-Jawabra, a 24-year old player for Dera’a’s Al-Shouleh SC who was among four demonstrators killed by security forces four days after the arrests became an icon of the initially peaceful protestors and the first casualty of the revolt.[24]

The Dera’a protests quickly spread to other Syrian cities, where Assad’s forces turned sports stadiums into detention centers and military bases. Damascus’ Abbasiyyin Stadium, which had hosted a holy mass by Pope John Paul II in 2001,[25] has since been used as a military base from which the Syrian Army launches rockets into neighboring opposition-controlled districts such as Ghouta and Douma.[26]

Al-Jawabra was soon joined by other athletes who opposed the regime, including Ghazi Zoghaib, the head of Al-Karamah and former head of the Homs branch of the Baath Party; his wife in Baba Amr;[27] Al-Karamah soccer player Ahmad Suwaidan who was killed during the military’s shelling of the Al-Karabees neighborhood of Homs;[28] Al-Karamah and Syrian Junior Soccer Team player Abdul Rahman Al-Sabbouh killed in a massacre in Baba Amr;[29]  and Homs’ Al Wathbah SC player Youssef Suleiman, a player from the Homs-based al-Wathbah Club killed in a mortar attack near Tishreen Stadium in central Damascus;[30] In May 2013, the photo of the body of Ahmad Othman a 14-year-old Syrian boy wearing an FC Barcelona soccer jersey, went viral on social media. Othman and his family had been killed when Assad’s forces shelled the town of al-Baydah near Banyas.[31]

The General Association for Sports and Youth in Syria (GASY)[32] [33], an opposition sports organization, has documented the killing of 217 Syrian athletic personnel who have been killed in the war so far. GASY blames the Assad’s regime for those losses. Images of several athletes were found in late March and early April among leaked pictures of bodies of people tortured and killed in the regime’s jails. Among pictures circulated by activists circulated were the remains of Mohammad Abdul Rahman Zarefeh [34], Syria’s Judo Champion and National Team player; Iyad Quaider[35], an al-Wahda player; and Louay al-Omar, a former player at al-Karamah[36].

Their pictures were among 55,000 images of 11,000 dead prisoners smuggled out by a former military police photographer who called himself Caesar. A report based on this evidence produced by three former international prosecutors and sponsored by Qatar asserted that the Syrian regime had systematically killed and tortured about 11,000 people.[37]

The regime denies responsibility and has charged that athletes had been killed by terrorist groups. It asserted, for example, that basketball player-coach Nour Aslou was killed in February as she left the Al-Assad Sports Hall in Aleppo by a terrorist sniper.[38] Opposition forces rejected the accusation, saying that the area where Aslou was killed was more than 2 km away from opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo.[39] By the same token, opposition forces have taken credit for the killing of athletes such as Syrian boxing champion Ghiath Tayfour who was accused of cooperating with security forces against protesters.[40]

Protest chants when the demonstrations first erupted in 2011, were often based on popular football songs composed by national youth soccer team goalkeeper Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, a leader of the revolt in Homs. Together with another player, Tarek Intabli, a left-winger at Homs’ Al-Wathbah SC, Al-Saroot was among the Homs rebels who negotiated an initial withdrawal the Syrian Army from the city.[41] Intabli was killed in March 2015 in a rebel effort to take control of Idlib.[42] Al-Saroot, following the killing by security forces of his four brothers and an uncle,[43] swore allegiance to IS in late 2014.[44] IS-affiliated Twitter accounts denounced him five months later as "a traitor to Islam" for leaving IS to join Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al Qaeda and a major opponent of IS.[45]

A Vicious Tie

In February, Assad insisted that Syria is not a failed state “as long as the government and state institutions are fulfilling their duty towards the Syrian people”.[46] By promoting its soccer achievements, the regime aims to show that Syria is a state where the army is in control and institutions are functioning. The basis of this projection is the regime’s control over central Damascus and other city centers, primarily Homs and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous.

Projection of the regime’s strength on the pitch is focused on the performance of clubs like Al-Jaish (The Army), which is sponsored by the Defense Ministry and qualified for the quarter-finals of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. [47] Another regime darling, Al-Wahda, failed to qualify after it was defeated by Tajikistan’s Istiqlol football in a 4-2 penalty shootout.[48] Al-Wahda is sponsored by Muhammad Hamsho on whom the United States has imposed sanction for allegedly fronting for Assad’s brother, Gen. Maher al-Assad in financial transactions and the acquisition of wealth through cronyism.[49] Al-Wahda won the Premier League Championship in 2014 after defeating Al-Jaish[50] and in July 2015 qualified for the finals of the Republic Football Cup. The performance of the two clubs despite the war highlighted the importance the regime attributes to Damascus where wealth, development, security, and mass mobilization has been concentrated in the past.

The clubs’ successes failed however to mask the devastation of more than four years of war in which more than 200,000 people have been killed, more than nine million people have lost their homes,[51] and 90% of Syrians are considered to be poor.[52] The regime’s loss of large swaths of territory has moreover deprived it of enormous resources.

Many Syrian football teams have suffered corresponding losses. Five years ago, Al-Karamah of Homs and Al-Ittihad of Aleppo represented Syria in the same Asian Cup Championship in which Damascus teams are now the sole Syrian competitors. But after the destruction of their cities, they are no longer among the top teams in the local league. Once funded by top businessmen from their own cities, they now rely on GSF sponsorship, which continues to seek access to the frozen FIFA funds. 

Given Syrian soccer’s strong ties with the regime’s military and security wings, gaining access to FIFA funding remains a long shot. “FIFA probably believes that the Syrian football authority won’t be able to use the money on football activities,” a Damascus-based journalist and football expert said. “With the full control of the Baath Party over the GSF, and clubs like Al-Jaish sponsored by the Defense Ministry and Al-Shorta funded by the Interior Ministry, FIFA would think twice before sending money to the Syrian Football Association.”

Syrian soccer players have but a few bad options: die under torture or from a sniper’s bullet, join an Islamist organization or the Syrian army, be a PR tool for the Assad regime, or flee the country. Syrian soccer players competing abroad largely chose the latter. The most recent player to do so was Mohammad Jaddoua, captain of Syria's Junior Football Team that qualified for the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Chile. Jaddoua illegally left Syria for Germany in April 2015 in search of a better future. His departure made him an outlaw with the Syrian Football Federation banning the team’s members from travelling abroad.[53]

The participation of Syrian players in competitions hosted by Qatar, which the Syrian regime accuses of “sponsoring terrorist organizations in Syria”, has also been anathema for the regime since November of 2011, when Syria announced that it would not participate in the Arab Games in Qatar. Its boycott was in protest against the Arab League's decision to suspend Syrian membership. In a statement directed to international and Arab Olympic and sports committees, the Syrian Olympic Committee and the GSF said that “Syrian athletes will adhere to resistance and confronting the conspiracy against Syria,” according state-run news agency SANA.[54]

Even if Syrian players want to join their national team, many of them face extensive problems. Some have yet to fulfill their compulsory military service, while others have expressed their sympathy with the Syrian revolution; either one is enough to get them arrested whenever they land in Syria.  Such treasonous expressions have guaranteed that neither Firas Al-Khatib, the former captain of Syria’s National Soccer Team and now a striker for Kuwait’s Al-Arabi Sporting Club, nor Jehad Al Hussain, a midfielder with Al-Taawoun of the Saudi Professional League, will join the national team. Both of these players from Homs condemned the massacres committed by regime forces, especially in their own city.[55]

However, the Baath Party ensured that 26 year-old striker Omar Al Soma, who plays for Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli and is one of the kingdom’s top scorers, would be allowed to play for the Syrian national team without repercussions despite the fact that he has yet to fulfill his military service and reports that he supported the uprising.[56]

For players who want to represent the opposition in exile, a new soccer front has recently been established. Walid al-Muhaidi, head of the opposition [Free] Syrian National Football Team (FSNFT), said in May that players were training in a camp in Turkey.[57] Muhaidi is a former SFA member who in October 2013 said he had defected with some 100 other athletes from Deir ez-Zor.[58] His new team’s jerseys are green, the color of the revolution as opposed to the red of Syria’s national team.

“A message to those footballers who are carrying this flag of [the regime], the flag of blood,” one FSNFT player told the opposition radio of the Nsaeem Syria FM. “Leave such a criminal team. It is not Syria’s team, it is the team of a criminal regime.” Said another player: “I am honored to join it to prove to people that we can be up to the expectations of the rebels.”

Meanwhile, in the Syrian capital, the game goes on, even as the façade of normalcy it is meant to represent appears increasingly hollow. In April,[59] the month Syrians celebrate their country’s independence, Israeli fighter jets struck Syrian Army weapons caches. And though huge pictures of President Bashar al-Assad were recently installed in the Damascus stadiums of Tishreen, al-Jalaa and al-Fayhaa, they loom over mostly empty seats, since for the past four football seasons spectators have rarely been allowed audience to attend football matches.

Viewers tuning in to one of the soccer league games broadcast live from Damascus and Lattakia can see that the spectacle is flagging. As the play shifts back and forth, only a handful of spectators at best look on, and the roar of the crowd has long been displaced by the sounds of bombing and gunfire intensifying just outside the frame.

Text Box: History repeats itself 

Soccer in Syria is a microcosm of the Syrian regime’s overall response to the protests that began in 2011. Instead of addressing the problem, the regime chose first to deny it. When that did not work, they regime used excessive force. 

Similarly, although the Syrian National Team was banned from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers by FIFA for fielding an ineligible player, no one has so far been held accountable for that administrative mistake,  nor has anyone apologized for it.

But overlooking or even encouraging corruption is nothing new in Syrian athletics. In the first decade of this millennium, the GSF faced several accusations of corruption, most of which were covered up by political interventions. In June 2009, the Syrian football league was rocked by allegations of match-fixing and institutional corruption that resulted in two of the country’s biggest clubs being temporarily expelled from the league. 

Backed by their connections with the security forces, the two clubs took their cases to the GSF, accusing members of the SFA of being corrupt. The GSF illegally commissioned the Syrian Olympic Committee to investigate into the accusations. The committee’s investigation found the accusations leveled at the SFA by the two clubs to be true, so the GSF dissolved the SFA and gave the two clubs the green light to continue playing in the first division. FIFA in turn denounced the dissolution and called for the reinstatement of the SFA.

Throughout this scandal, just as anti-Assad protestors were described as “infiltrators”, “mercenaries” and “conspirators”, General Farouk Bouzo, then-serving president of the GSF, said the SFA had no right to take its complaints to FIFA, saying, “Those who went to FIFA have been conspiring against their country.”

On August 12, 2009, the Ba’ath Party waded into the matter by asking five of the nine SFA board members – who are Baathists – to resign.

FACT BOX

History repeats itself

Soccer in Syria is a microcosm of the Syrian regime’s overall response to the protests that began in 2011. Instead of addressing the problem, the regime chose first to deny it. When that did not work, they regime used excessive force.

Similarly, although the Syrian National Team was banned from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers by FIFA for fielding an ineligible player, no one has so far been held accountable for that administrative mistake,[60] nor has anyone apologized for it.

But overlooking or even encouraging corruption is nothing new in Syrian athletics. In the first decade of this millennium, the GSF faced several accusations of corruption, most of which were covered up by political interventions. In June 2009, the Syrian football league was rocked by allegations of match-fixing and institutional corruption that resulted in two of the country’s biggest clubs being temporarily expelled from the league.

Backed by their connections with the security forces, the two clubs took their cases to the GSF, accusing members of the SFA of being corrupt. The GSF illegally commissioned the Syrian Olympic Committee to investigate into the accusations. The committee’s investigation found the accusations leveled at the SFA by the two clubs to be true, so the GSF dissolved the SFA and gave the two clubs the green light to continue playing in the first division. FIFA in turn denounced the dissolution and called for the reinstatement of the SFA.

Throughout this scandal, just as anti-Assad protestors were described as “infiltrators”, “mercenaries” and “conspirators”, General Farouk Bouzo, then-serving president of the GSF, said the SFA had no right to take its complaints to FIFA, saying, “Those who went to FIFA have been conspiring against their country.”

On August 12, 2009, the Ba’ath Party waded into the matter by asking five of the nine SFA board members – who are Baathists – to resign.






[1] Omar Ibrahim is a pen name for a Syrian researcher and journalist


[5] http://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/men/afc.html / http://www.fifa.com/fifa-world-ranking/ranking-table/men/afc.html

[8] Scheduled between October 17 - November 8, 2015 / http://www.sana.sy/en/?p=13112
[13] Muslim Women and Sport (International Studies in Physical Education and Youth Sport) Paperback – February 12, 2012by Tansin Benn (Editor), Gertrud Pfister (Editor), Haifaa Jawad (Editor) - www.amazon.com/Muslim-International-Studies-Physical-Education/dp/0415522374
[32] The General Association for Sports and Youth in Syria defines itself as a ‘Syrian sports NGO that takes care of the free Syrian sports people’. By ‘free’ the organization refers to sports people who, in support of the Syrian revolution, have stopped playing under the umbrella of Assad’s government. NGO’s Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/Sport.Youth.In.Syria?fref=photo).