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The Globalist's Top Ten Books in 2016: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer


Middle East Eye: "

The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is one of the weightiest, most revelatory, original and important books written about sport"

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


Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach: "James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport: “Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”
Play the Game: "Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal: "No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated: "Essential Reading"
Change FIFA: "A fantastic new blog'

Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life:
"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"

Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football


Saturday, March 23, 2019

The fallacy of soccer’s magical bridge-building qualities



By James M. Dorsey

Edited remarks at Brookings seminar in Doha: Lessons from the 2019 Asian Cup: Sports, Globalization, and Politics in the Arab World

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Imagining himself as a peacemaker in a conflict-ridden part of the world, FIFA President Gianni Infantino sees a 2022 World Cup shared by Qatar with its Gulf detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as the magic wand that would turn bitter foes into brothers.

It may be a nice idea, but it is grounded in the fiction that soccer can play an independent role in bringing nations together or developing national identity.

The fiction is that soccer has the potential to be a driver of events, that it can spark or shape developments. It is also the fiction that sports in general and soccer in particular has the power to build bridges.

Mr. Infantino’s assertion that if foes play soccer, bridges are built is but the latest iteration of a long-standing myth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Soccer is an aggressive sport. It is about conquering the other half of a pitch. It evokes passions and allegiances that are tribal in nature and that more often than not divide rather than unite.

In conflict situations, soccer tends to provide an additional battlefield. Examples abound.

The 2022 World Cup; this year’s Qatari Asian Cup victory against the backdrop of the Gulf state’s rift with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt; the imprint the Palestinian-Israeli conflict puts on the two nations’ soccer; or the rise of racist, discriminatory attitudes among fans in Europe.

The Bad Blue Boys, hardcore fans of Dinamo Zagreb’s hardcore fans, light candles each May and lay wreaths at a monument to their comrades who were killed in the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. They mark the anniversary of a riot during the 1990 match against Serbia’s Red Star Belgrade, their club’s most controversial match, as the first clash in the wars that erupted a year later and sparked the collapse of former Yugoslavia.

Fact of the matter is that sports like ping pong in Richard Nixon’s 1972 rapprochement with China or the improvement of ties between North and South Korea in the most recent Summer Olympics served as a useful tool, not a driver of events.

Sports is a useful tool in an environment in which key political players seek to build bridges and narrow differences.

The impact of soccer in the absence of a conducive environment created by political not sports players, is at best temporary relief, a blip on an otherwise bleak landscape.

The proof is in the pudding. Legend has it that British and German soldiers played soccer in no-man’s lands on Christmas Day in 2014, only to return to fighting World War One for another four years. Millions died in the war.

Similarly, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites poured into the streets of Iraqi cities hugging each other in celebration of Iraq’s winning in 2007 of the Asia Cup at the height of the country’s sectarian violence only to return to killing each other a day later.

Soccer’s ability to shape or cement national identity is no different. In other words. football can be a rallying point for national identity but only if there is an environment that is conducive.

The problem is that soccer and the formation of national identity have one complicating trait in common: both often involve opposition to the other.

That is nowhere truer than in the Middle East and North Africa where soccer has played and plays an important role in identity formation since it was first introduced to the region in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Qatar has been in some ways the exception that proves the rule by plotting its sports strategy not only as a soft power tool or a pillar of public health policy but also as a component of national identity. That element has been strengthened by the rift in the Gulf and bolstered by this year’s Asian Cup victory.

Qatar’s efforts to strengthen its national identity benefits from the fact that the Gulf state no longer operates on the notion that Gulf states have to hang together. Today its hanging on its own in a conflict with three of its neighbours.

Soccer’s role in identity formation in the Middle East and North Africa was often because it was a battlefield, a battlefield for identity that was part of larger political struggles.

Clubs were often formed for that very reason. Attitudes towards the country’s monarchy in the early 20th century loomed large in the founding of Egypt’s Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, two of the Middle East and North Africa’s most storied clubs.

Clubs in Algeria were established as part of the anti-colonial struggle against the French. Ottoman and Iranian rulers used sports and soccer to foster national identity and take a first step towards incorporating youth in the development of a modern defense force.

Zionists saw sports and soccer as an important way of developing the New Jew, the muscular Jew. 

To Palestinians, it was a tool in their opposition to Zionist immigration. And finally, soccer was important in the shaping of ethnic or sub-national identities among Berbers, Kurds, East Bank Jordanians and Jordanian Palestinians.

In other words, soccer was inclusive in the sense of contributing to the formation of a collective identity. But it was also divisive because that identity was at the same time exclusionary and opposed to an other.

The long and short of this is that soccer is malleable. Its impact and fallout depend on forces beyond its control. Soccer is dependent on the environment shaped by political and social forces. It is a tool that is agnostic to purpose, not a driver or an independent actor.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel  to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand's grieving Muslim community.

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey's flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.

Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.

The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.

As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.

Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.

It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.


Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.

Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.

Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.

Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.

While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.

The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.

The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded  Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.

The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.

“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.

The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.

Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..

Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad's tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.

"When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has," Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The emerging new world order’s alarm bells: Men like Brandon Tarrant and Andreas Breivik



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

This week’s attack on two mosques in New Zealand reflects a paradigm shift: the erosion of liberal values and the rise of civilisationalism at the expense of the nation state.

So do broader phenomena like wide spread Islamophobia with the crackdown on Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as its extreme, and growing ant-Semitism These phenomena are fuelled by increasing intolerance and racism enabled by far right and world leaders as well as ultra-conservatives and jihadists.

These world leaders and far right ideologues couch their policies and views in terms of defending a civilization rather than exclusively a nation state defined by its citizenry and borders.

As a result, men like China’s Xi Jingping, India’s Narendra Modi, Hungary’s Victor Orban and US president Donald J. Trump as well as ideologues such as Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former strategy advisor, shape an environment that legitimizes violence against the other.

By further enabling abuse of human, minority and refugee rights, they facilitate the erosion of the norms of debate and mainstream hate speech.

Blunt and crude language employed by leaders, politicians, some media and some people of the cloth helps shape an environment in which concepts of civility and mutual respect are lost.

Consequently, the likes of Brenton Tarrant, the perpetrator of the attacks on the Christchurch mosque in which 49 people died, or Andreas Breivik, the Norwegian far-right militant who in 2011 killed 78 people in attacks on government buildings and a youth summer camp, are not simply products of prejudice.

Prejudice, often only latent, is a fact of life. Its inculcated in whatever culture as well as education in schools and homes irrespective of political, religious, liberal, conservative and societal environment.

Men like Messrs. Tarrant and Breivik emerge when prejudice is weaponized by a political and/or social environment that legitimizes it. They are emboldened when prejudice fuses with politically and/or religiously manufactured fear, the undermining of principles of relativity, increased currency of absolutism, and the hollowing out of pluralism.

Their world is powered by the progressive abandonment of the notion of a world that is populated by a multitude of equally valid faiths, worldviews and belief systems.

The rise of civilisationalism allows men like Messrs. Tarrant and Breivik, white Christian supremacists, to justify their acts of violence in civilizational terms. They believe their civilization is under attack as a result of pluralism, diversity and migration

The same is true for jihadists who aim to brutally establish their vision of Islamic rule at the expense not only of non-Muslim minorities but also Muslims they deem no different than infidels.

Civilisationalism provides the justification for men like Hungary’s Mr. Orban to adopt militant anti-migration policies and launch attacks laced with anti-Semitism on liberals like financier and philanthropist George Soros.

It also fuels China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang, an attempt to Sinicize Islam and the most frontal assault on the Islamic faith in recent memory.

Similarly, civilisationalism validates Mr. Modi’s notions of India as a Hindu civilizational state and Mr. Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-migrant policies and his continued vacillation between lending racism and white supremacism legitimacy and condemning far-right exclusivism.

Civilisationalism poses a threat not only to the world we live in today but to the outcome of the geopolitical struggle of what will be the new world order. The threat goes beyond the battle for spheres of influence or competition of political systems.

Civilisationalism creates the glue for like-minded thinking, if not a tacit understanding, between men like Messrs. Xi, Orban, Modi and Trump, on the values that should undergird a new world order.

These men couch their policies as much in civilisationalism as in terms of defense of national interest and security.

Their embrace of civilisationalism benefits from the fact that 21st century autocracy and authoritarianism vests survival not only in repression of dissent and denial of freedom of expression but also maintaining at least some of the trappings of pluralism.

Those trappings can include representational bodies with no or severely limited powers, toothless opposition groups, government-controlled non-governmental organizations, and some degree of accountability.

The rise of civilisationalism is further facilitated by a failure to realize that the crisis of democracy and the revival of authoritarianism did not emerge recently but dates back to the first half of 1990s.
Political scientists Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg concluded in a just published study that some 75 countries have embraced elements of autocracy since the mid-1990s. Key countries among them have also adopted aspects of civilisationalism.

The scholars, nonetheless, struck an optimistic tone. “While this is a cause for concern, the historical perspective…shows that panic is not warranted: the current declines are relatively mild and the global share of democratic countries remains close to its all-time high,” they said.

This week’s attack in Christchurch is one of multiple civilizational writings on the wall.
So are the killings committed by Mr. Breivik; multiple jihadist attacks, the recasting of political strife in Syria and Bahrain in sectarian terms; the increasing precarity of minorities whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish; rising Buddhist nationalism, and the lack of humanitarianism and compassion towards refugees fleeing war and persecution.

These alarm bells coupled with the tacit civilisationalism-based understanding between some of the world’s most powerful men brushes aside the lessons of genocide in recent decades.

Ignoring the lessons of Nazi Germany, Hutu Rwanda, the Serbian siege of Srebrenica or the Islamic State’s Yazidis poses the foremost threat to a world that is based on principles of humanitarianism, compassion, live-and-let-live, and human and minority rights.

Framing the challenge, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman noted that Mr. Trump’s “predecessors confidently proclaimed that American values were ‘universal’ and were destined to triumph across the world. And it was the global power of western ideas that has made the nation-state the international norm for political organisation. The rise of Asian powers such as China and India may create new models: step forward, the ‘civilisation state.’”

Mr. Rahman argues that a civilizational state rejects human rights, propagates exclusivism and institutions that are rooted in a unique culture rather than principles of equality and universalism, and distrusts minorities and migrants because they are not part of a core civilisation.

In short, a breeding ground for strife and conflict that can only be kept in check by increasingly harsh repression and/or attempts at mass re-education and homogenization of the other – ultimately a recipe for instability rather than stability and equitable progress.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Chinese pressure tactics put countries between a rock and a hard place



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Recent Chinese pressure on Myanmar to approve a controversial dam project and the arrest in recent days in Kazakhstan of a human rights activist suggest that China in a seemingly tone-deaf pursuit of its interests is forcing governments to choose between heeding increasingly anti-Chinese public sentiment and pleasing Beijing to ensure continued political and economic support.

Apparent Chinese disregard of public opinion, whether as a matter of policy or because of haphazard insensitivity, is compounded by the powering of anti-Chinese sentiment in several countries as a result of commercial terms of China-funded Belt and Road projects that favour the use of Chinese rather than local labour and materials.

The Chinese approach risks anti-Chinese sentiment meshed with social and economic discontent exploding into popular protests that could prove destabilizing. It potentially could complicate Chinese efforts to ensure that the Muslim world continues to refrain from criticizing China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the strategic but troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Chinese pressure on various countries aimed at imposing its will strokes with China’s adoption of a more aggressive diplomatic posture that has seen its diplomats employ blunt, undiplomatic language and repeatedly break with diplomatic protocol.

As a result, increasing Chinese pressure on Myanmar to revive the suspended Myitsone dam project in ethnic Kachin state is putting the government between a rock and a hard place.

The government is being forced to choose between ignoring popular concerns that the dam would disrupt the traditional economy of the Kachin in a region wracked by ethnic insurgency and cost Myanmar control of the Irrawaddy River, its most important waterway, or risk the ire of China on which it depends politically and economically.

China has reportedly offered in return for the dam to support Myanmar that has been condemned by the United Nations, Western countries and some Muslim nations for its repressive campaign against the Rohingya, some 700,000 of which fled to Bangladesh in 2017.


China’s state-controlled Global Times newspaper recently quoted Xiamen University Myanmar expert Fan Hongwei as saying that “the abrupt suspension of such a significant project has blurred political trust between China and Myanmar.”

Former Myanmar President Thein Sein in 2011 suspended the US$3.6 billion dam project in response to a campaign that brought together conservationists, scholars, and political activists including Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Activists assert the dam, if built as previously designed, would flood 600 square kilometres of forestland in northern Kachin state and export 90 % of the power produced to China.

Myanmar is not the only country that has recently experienced Chinese attempts to force it to act in ways that could have unintended consequences.

Kazakh police, despite widespread public criticism of the crackdown in Xinjiang, last weekend raided the office of Atajurt Eriktileri, a group that has reportedly documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China and arrested activist Serikzhan Bilash.

Activists suspect that the raid was the result of Chinese pressure aimed at squashing criticism of the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Similarly, Russian leaders are facing mounting public anger in the Lake Baikal region and the country’s Far East at their alleged connivance in perceived Chinese encroachment on the region’s natural resources including water.

A petition by prominent Russian show business personalities opposing Chinese plans to build a water bottling plant on the shores of Lake Baikal attracted more than 800,000 signatures, signalling the depth of popular resentment and pitfalls of the Russian alliance with China.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi sought to put a good face on differences with China over his country’s demand that the focus of the China Pakistan Economic Project (CPEC), a US$45 billion plus crown jewel of the Belt and Road, be shifted from infrastructure and energy, to poverty alleviation, job creation and agriculture.

China has acknowledged Pakistan’s demand but suggested that the refocussing would happen in good time.

Mr. Qureishi asserted this week had CPEC had entered its second phase but provided few details. The minister said agreements on the second phase that would involve the creation of four economic zones would be concluded at some unspecified date in the future.

China notably refrained in recent months from contributing to a financial bailout of Pakistan that was achieved instead with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who have committed some US$30 billion in funding and investments.

Pakistani and Chinese officials have gone out of their way in recent months to deny any dent in what they have described as an all-weather friendship.

“There is no threat to CPEC. Our government considers it a game changer,” M. Qureishi insisted this week.

China’s deputy chief of mission in Islamabad, Lijian Zhao, insisted in an interview last year and in a series of tweets that China “always supported & stood behind @Pakistan, helping #develop it’s #infrastructure & raise #living standards while creating #job.”

Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. Indications so far are that China is digging in its heels on the assumption that its political and economic clout will allow it to get its way. Its an approach that ignores potential black swans and does little to garner soft power.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, March 11, 2019

Kazakh police raid raises spectre of China’s long arm



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

A police raid on a Kazakh group documenting the plight of Kazakhs and Uyghurs caught in a brutal crackdown in China’s north-western province of Xinjiang is about more than a government seeking to please Beijing in the hope that it improves the lot of its ethnic kin while preserving diplomatic and economic relations.

Amid suspicions that the raid on the offices of Atajurt Eriktileri and the arrest of activist Serikjan Bilash was carried out as a result of Chinese pressure aimed at squashing criticism of the crackdown, the raid seemingly reflects an increasingly aggressive Chinese effort to impose its will on others and ensure that they observe the respect and deference that China believes it deserves.

Atajurt Eriktileri supports relatives of people who have disappeared in Xinjiang and says it has documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China.

Police on Sunday sealed the group’s office in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, seized the group’s computers and archives and flew Mr. Bilash, who said he was being accused of “inciting ethnic hatred, to the Kazakh capital of Astana.

The East Turkistan Awakening Movement, a Washington-based Uyghur exile group, said Mr. Bilash had been arrested on charges of "creating tensions between #Kazakhstan and #China."

The Kazakh police raid is but the latest incident pointing to China’s more aggressive form of diplomacy that includes an increasing number of undiplomatic comments by Chinese diplomats across the globe.

At times, those comments are couched in civilizational terms steeped in what political scientist Zhang Weiwei describes as the rise of the civilizational state under President Xi Jinping.

Describing the trend towards a civilizational state that involves a rejection of Western concepts, including notions of human rights and freedom of religion, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rahman noted that China was not alone in its embrace of the idea as an alternative to the traditional concept of a nation state based on national borders and language. Mr. Rahman suggested that the concept was also gaining currency in countries like India and Russia.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended his diplomat’s more outspoken statements by pointing to China’s need to stand up for its “rightful and lawful interests.” Mr. Wang insisted that China would not tolerate infringements of its sovereignty and national dignity.

“Chinese diplomats, wherever we are in the world, will firmly state our position,” Mr. Wang told journalists this weekend covering the National People’s Congress.

Former senior Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan noted that “China does not just want its new status recognised as a geopolitical fact; China wants its new status accepted as a new norm of East Asian international relations; a hierarchy with China at the apex. Most countries accept the geopolitical fact; few accept the norm.”

Examples of China’s more aggressive attitude abound while the Kazakh raid suggests that China’s concepts of deference and respect amount to far more than traditional notions of respect. They also provide a potential insight into the values and norms that in China’s view would undergird a new world order.

China’s notion of deference was put on display last September at the Pacific Islands Forum when Beijing’s ambassador to Fiji, Du Qiwen, allegedly demanded the right to speak before Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sosene Sopoaga. The forum’s host, Nauru president Baron Waqa accused the Chinese envoy of being “insolent” and a “bully.”

Both Nauru and Tuvalu, to China’s chagrin, maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.


The summit ended without a final statement because of disagreements between the United States and China. Chinese officials dismissed the report of them having attempted to gain access to the foreign minister’s office as “a rumour spread by some people with a hidden agenda."

In an oped in The Hill Times, an Ottawa-based newspaper, Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to Canada, described as “Western egotism and white supremacy” demands that China release two Canadian nationals arrested in China.

The two Canadians are being held in apparent retaliation for the detention in Canada at the behest of the United Sates of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on charges of having misled banks about the company’s business dealings with Iran.

A series of incidents in the wake of a visit to Sweden last September by the Dalai Lama involving Chinese tourists and a satirical Swedish television show that poked fun at Chinese visitors and excluded Taiwan and parts of Tibet from a map of China drew the ire of the Chinese embassy in Stockholm.

The embassy denounced Swedish police as “inhumane,” decried “so-called freedom of expression,” charged that the tv show “advocate(s) racism and xenophobia outright, and openly provoke(s) and instigate(s) racial hatred and confrontation,” and issued a safety alert to Chinese tourists because of multiple cases of theft and robbery and poor treatment by Swedish police.


The raid in Kazakhstan, like earlier cases such as Egypt’s return at China’s request in 2017 of up to 200 Uyghur students to an uncertain future in the People’s Republic, suggests that Beijing maintains an intrusive, far-reaching definition of its concept of deference and respect.

Kazakh activists charged that the raid was indicative of the kind of pressure applied by China. “Our government doesn’t want to spoil relations between Kazakhstan and China,” said Atajurt’s lawyer, Aiman Umarova.

There was no independent confirmation of assertions that Chinese pressure prompted the raid.

In a video statement, Mr. Bilash confirmed that he was Kazakh police custody and had not been detained “by either the Chinese or Chinese spies”.

Mr. Bilash’s wife, Leila Adilzhan, said she was "afraid our government will give him to China."

That may be one step too far for the Kazakh government given mounting anti-Chinese summit among Kazakhs and public demands that Kazakhstan be more forceful in its standing up to China for the rights of Kazakh nationals and Chinese citizens of Kazakh descent. Kazakhs constitute the second largest minority in Xinjiang after Uyghurs.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Iran and North Korea highlight pitfalls of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

Donald J. Trump’s hitherto failed ‘maximum pressure’ approach to Iran, as well as for that matter North Korea, begs the question what the US president’s true objectives are and what options he is left with should the policy ultimately fail.

In the case of North Korea, it remains to be seen whether the country’s reported rebuilding of a rocket launch site after the US president last month walked away from his summit in Hanoi with Kim-Jong-un constitutes a negotiating tactic or a breakdown. The site was partially dismantled as a goodwill gesture after the two men first met in Singapore last year.

A breakdown coupled with even harsher sanctions that similarly may not do the job risks leaving Mr. Trump with few good options beyond some kind of military operation.

Mr. Trump has so far credibly conveyed his intent of wanting to fully denuclearize North Korea rather than ultimately change its regime, a further indication of the apparent comfort he finds in dealing with at least some autocratic and authoritarian leaders.

The picture with regard to North Korea and Iran is both similar and different.

Iranian resilience backed by key players in the international community determined to salvage the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program could blunt the impact of harsh US sanctions, again leaving the United States with few good options beyond either backing away from its maximalist approach or weighing overt or covert military action.

Mr. Trump’s intentions regarding Iran, in contrast to North Korea, are far less clear. Increasingly strident language by the president’s hard-line national security advisor, John Bolton, as well as his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, coupled with the specific changes of Iranian policies that the US is demanding, suggest that regime change rather than reform may be the president’s true objective. It is hard to see how Iran could comply with the US demands without a change of regime.

For now, Iran’s strategy appears to be circumventing sanctions in every way it can, ensuring continued support by Europe, China and Russia, and waiting it out to see whether Mr. Trump gets a second term in the 2020 US elections in the hope that a Democratic president comes to office who would negotiate a return of the United States to the nuclear accord.

“A pressure campaign will only be effective if enough time is dedicated to it. In other words, there are no quick and easy victories, as the North Korean case demonstrates. And attempts to get them will only push the goalposts further away,” said political scientist Ariane M. Tabatabai.

In a twist of irony, carrot-and-stick-backed efforts by international regulators to get Pakistan and Iran to significantly upgrade their legal abilities to counter political violence potentially are proving to be more effective than maximum pressure.

Concern that Pakistan could be blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, compounded by mounting tension with India, prompted Pakistan in recent days to crackdown on long tolerated militant groups.

Blacklisting potentially would have a debilitating impact on Pakistan’s crisis-ridden economy. It would restrict the ability of multilateral organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to aid or lend to Pakistan.

The fact that Iran faces a similar dilemma has sparked intense debate in the Islamic republic about how to deal with FATF demands that it join the watchdog and significantly upgrade its legal anti-money laundering and terrorism finance infrastructure to evade being blacklisted.

Iran’s parliament has so far passed two of four bills required for membership and together with the Expediency and Discernment Council is debating Iranian accession to the Combating the Financing of Terrorism Convention (CFT) and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime or Palermo Convention.

The FATF demands have put Iran between a rock and a hard place.

Iranian ratification of those conventions coupled with FATF membership holds out the promise of more effectively and more quickly than US maximum pressure curtailing Iran’s ability to fund regional proxies.

Failure to comply could significantly increase the pain of US sanctions by prompting those banks and financial institutions still willing to do business with Iran to rethink their positions.
It would also likely restrict the ability of supporters of the nuclear agreement to help Iran soften the impact of the sanctions.
"If you want us to succeed in the talks with Europe, at least the four proposed bills must be ratified," said member of the Iranian parliament, Abulfazle Mousavi.

“By joining, Iranian banks will be under what will be unprecedented international scrutiny. This will make it more difficult, although not impossible, for Iran to transfer money to terror organizations… such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Additionally, Iranian membership in the FATF would weaken the financial strength of the Iranian hard-liners, who have always called for a more aggressive foreign policy in the region,” said Iran scholar Meir Javedanfar.

That is what has fuelled opposition in Iran to acceptance of FATF’s requirements. Hardliners have warned that FATF would effectively impair Iran’s ability to pursue a defense strategy focused on fighting the country’s foreign policy and military battles far beyond its borders and would give US sanctions more bite.

"Joining these conventions will lead to interference with Iran's internal affairs, including financial and economic issues,” said Abolfazl Hasanbeygi, a member of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.

Mr. Hasanbeygi warned that FATF would be the vehicle that the country’s detractors would use to gain access to the workings of Iran's banking and economic system and its flows of funds.

As a result, Iran is at a crossroads more because of the application of a rules-based international and multilateral system than the coercion of punitive sanctions imposed by a world power. In reality, Iran is emerging as a litmus test of the effectiveness of varying forms of global governance.

If Iran “does not comply with the FATF regulations, the whole Iranian banking system could become thoroughly isolated from the global financial system. This means that it would be almost impossible to transfer the country's oil revenue internationally and even into its national economy,” said political analyst Shahir Shahidsaless.

“And if it does comply, it will face complications such as the creation of an FIU, becoming exposed to sanctions as a result of its chaotic banking system, greater difficulty bypassing US sanctions and, finally, risk getting trapped in allegations of financing terrorism,” he added referring to FATF’s insistence that members create a financial intelligence unit that monitors and reports on the funding of political violence.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Walking a Chinese tightrope: Kazakh quiet diplomacy produces limited results



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Tumblr

The Kazakh government, in defense of Kazakh and by implication Central Asian behind-closed-doors diplomacy towards China in the face of mounting domestic pressure, has offered a rare public account of its ability to improve conditions for its ethnic kin caught in a crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan’s detailing of its ability to reduce the number of Kazakhs among the reported one million Turkic Muslims incarcerated in re-education camps comes amid a significant expansion of what amounts to the most frontal assault on Islam in recent history.

Kazakh transparency is balanced by the government’s efforts to limit civil society pressure on the governments of both Kazakhstan and China to rollback Chinese efforts to severely restrict religious freedoms and alter the practice of the faith in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country.

The crackdown that China says has helped it counter militancy and separatism in Xinjiang puts on the spot not only Central Asian nations with their ethnic and cultural links to Xinjiang but also Muslim and Arab countries.

In the most recent development, Chinese authorities have removed public Islamic and Arab symbols in Xinjiang as well as the neighbouring province of Gansu, home to non-Turkic Hui Muslims, a community that long prided itself of having adopted a form of Islam that had ‘Chinese characteristics.’

The moves, part of what China has termed an anti-halalization campaign, threatens to put out of business small entrepreneurs like butchers and restaurant owners that cater to a Muslim community that adheres to Muslim dietary and personal lifestyle laws.

The moves suggest that the crackdown is about more than alleged Uyghur militancy and separatism.

By providing a degree of transparency, the Kazakh government is not only defending itself against domestic criticism but also providing a justification for the Muslim wall of silence that has been only breached intermittently.

On a visit to Beijing last month, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman took that justification to its extreme by seemingly endorsing the crackdown with his statement that China had the right to undertake "anti-terrorism" and "de-extremism" measures.

Addressing parliament this week, Kazakh foreign minister Beibut Atamkulov said the government’s quiet diplomacy had ensured that the “number of Kazakhs in these (re-education) camps decreased by 80 percent.”

It remained unclear whether Mr. Atamkulov was referring to Kazakh and dual nationals or also Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent, He said that China had last year detained 33 dual nationals, 23 of whom were returned to Kazakhstan, suggesting that he was not speaking about the vast majority of Kazakh ethnic kin who have been detained and only have Chinese nationality.

Numbering approximately 1.5 million, ethnic Kazakhs are the second largest ethnic minority in Xinjiang after Uyghurs.

The minister said the government had received more than 1,000 enquiries about people reportedly detained in China and was “working on these issues case by case.”

Mr. Atamkulov’s ministry announced in January that China agreed to allow some 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to renounce their Chinese citizenship and leave the country.

It was not clear whether the Chinese decision applied to former re-education camp inmates or only Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent who qualify for Kazakhstan’s existing repatriation program.

A former re-education camp employee, Sayragul Sauytbay, who fled to Kazakhstan told a Kazakh court last year that she was aware of some 7,5000 Kazakh nationals and Chinese of Kazakh descent being incarcerated.

Atajurt Eriktileri, a Kazakh group that supports relatives of people who have disappeared in Xinjiang, says it has documented more than 10,000 cases of ethnic Kazakhs interned in China. The Xinjiang Victims Database says it has collected some 3,000 testimonies of prisoners and their families, half of which are from ethnic Kazakhs.

Gulzira Auelkhan, a 39-year-old Chinese citizen of Kazakh descent who spent 15 months in two re-education facilities before being transferred to work at a glove factory for a far below minimum wage, credits her husband’s lobbying of the Kazakh government on her behalf and publicizing of her plight for her release and ability to join him in Kazakhstan.

Eager not to provoke the Chinese, Mr. Atamkulov was careful not to criticize the crackdown. He acknowledged, however, that “there are questions regarding people of Islamic faith” but insisted that China has its own internal policy."

Kazakh policy appears to demonstrate the ability of quiet diplomacy to achieve at best limited results. The government’s figures suggest that it is able to intervene only in cases of Kazakh nationals, a small fraction of Kazakhstan’s ethnic kin caught up in the Chinese crackdown.

By responding to cases of Kazakh nationals, China enables the Kazakh government to maintain its public silence in the hope that the government can manage mounting domestic pressure and hold steadfast.

That could prove to be a risky bet.

Ms. Auelkhan is living proof of the risk. She was warned when released that her relatives who remain in Xinjiang, two daughters and her elderly parents, would suffer consequences if she chose to speak out once she was in Kazakhstan.

“I know how awful these camps are, and I want the world to know about them. In Kazakhstan I can speak about this, so I am doing it on behalf of those still trapped in Xinjiang,” she says defiantly.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title and a co-authored volume, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa as well as Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa and recently published China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom