Richard Whittall:

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


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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


Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat "Iranian aggression in the region," Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.


The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that "the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness" was equally telling.

"No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don't understand." Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”   

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

"No knee jerk reactions to this - it's very systematic - what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves," a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Eurasia’s Great Game: India, Japan and Europe play to Putin’s needs



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Eurasia’s Great Game is anything but simple and straightforward.

A burgeoning alliance between China and Russia that at least for now is relegating potential differences between the two powers to the sidelines has sparked a complex geopolitical dance of its own.

With India, Japan and Europe seeking to drive a wedge between the two Asian powers, Central Asian states, where anti-Chinese sentiment is rising, are quietly rooting that Asian rivalries will grant them greater manoeuvrability.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi on a visit to Russia this month during which he attended the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, established to attract Asian investment in the country’s Far East, announced a US$1 billion credit line to fund development of the region.

Mr. Modi and Russian president Vladimir Putin also agreed to establish a maritime link between the Far East’s capital, Vladivostok, and Chennai that would reduce transport time from 40 to 24 days.

The connection potentially could serve as an extension of the Indian Ocean Corridor that links India to Japan and the Pacific and competes with China’s pearl of strings, a series of ports across Asia in which China has invested heavily.

In contrast to Mr. Modi, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who has attended the forum since its inception in 2015, did not announce any major deals in response to Mr. Putin’s insistence that “the development of the Russian Far East, strengthening its economic and innovation potential, and raising the living standards of its residents among others, is our key priority and fundamental national goal."

With the trans-Atlantic alliance fraying at the edges, Markus Ederer, the European Union’s ambassador to Russia and one of the EU’s top diplomats, appeared to recognize Mr. Putin’s priorities when he urged the bloc, to engage on a massive scale with Russia on some of the most tricky political and security aspects in their relationship despite differences over Russian aggression in Ukraine and Georgia, human rights and alleged Russian interference in various European elections.

In a memorandum to senior bureaucrats, Mr. Ederer suggested that 5G mobile communications, personal data protection, the Artic, regional infrastructure and the development of joint policies on matters such as customs and standards by the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland, should be topics on the EU-Russian agenda.

Mr. Ederer said that these were areas “where leaving a clear field to our competitors by not engaging would be most detrimental to EU interests.”

He argued that a “pragmatic” move towards “enhanced co-ordination” with Russia was needed to combat “Eurasian competition” as China’s influence grows.

The EU “would have everything to lose by ignoring the tectonic strategic shifts in Eurasia. Engaging not only with China but (also) with Russia…is a necessary condition to be part of the game and play our cards where we have comparative advantage,” Mr. Ederer asserted.

Messrs. Modi, Abe and Ederer see opportunity in what Thomas Graham, a former U.S. diplomat and managing director of Kissinger Associates, describes as Russia’s need for “diversity of strategic partners in the (Far East) to maintain its strategic autonomy (from China) going forward.”

The EU, India and Japan hope to capitalize not only on Russia’s requirement for diversified investment but also Mr. Putin’s need to counter widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in the Far East that has turned against his government at a time that protest in Russia is accelerating and after Mr. Putin’s party this month lost a third of its seats in the Moscow district council.

Public sentiment east of the Urals is critical of perceived Chinese encroachment on the region’s natural resources including water, particularly in the Trans-Baikal region.

A petition initiated earlier this year 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.

Protests further erupted earlier this year in multiple Russian cities against Chinese logging in the Far East that residents and environmentalists charge has spoilt Russian watersheds and is destroying the habitats of the endangered Siberian tiger and Amur leopard.


Underlying the anti-Chinese protests is the lopsided nature of economic relations that Russia scholar Leo Aaron says fits Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin’s definition of colonial trade, in which one country becomes a raw material appendage of another.

“China is Russia’s second-largest trading partner (after the EU) and Russia’s largest individual partner in both exports and imports. For China, the Russian market is at best second-rate. Russia ranks tenth in Chinese exports and does not make it into the top ten in either imports or total trade,” Mr. Aaron said.

He noted that three-quarters of Russia’s exports to China were raw materials and resources as opposed to consumer goods, electronics and machinery that account for the bulk of Chinese sales to Russia.

European, Indian and Japanese efforts to capitalize on anti-Chinese sentiment taps into a deeply embedded vein.

Writing under the pen name P. Ukhtubuzhsky, Russian author Nikolai Dmitrievich Obleukhov warned already in 1911 that “Russians are being displaced by the yellow races who seize commerce, industry, wages, and so on… God guides people. Those nations who protect Good and Truth will be victorious. If Russia, carrying the light of Orthodoxy, faces in Asia the yellow races wallowing in the darkness of paganism, there cannot be any doubt as to the outcome of this struggle.”

Mr. Putin, presiding over a country in economic trouble, can’t create the margins of manoeuvrability that he needs on his own. He hopes that India, Japan and Europe will come to his aid.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture


Thursday, September 12, 2019

Death of female Iranian soccer fans puts FIFA and Asian soccer body in the dock



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

When Sahar Khodayari this week set herself alight in front of a Tehran courthouse, she indicted world soccer body FIFA, its Asian regional group, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and their presidents, Gianni Infantino and Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.

Messrs. Infantino and Al Khalifa have been selective in their support for women’s soccer rights.

Mr. Infantino was in the White House to urge US president Donald J. Trump to endorse equal pay for male and female players on the same day that FIFA expressed regret at the death of Ms. Khodayarí, but did nothing to force Iran to lift its ban on women attending male sporting events.

The statement called on Iranian authorities “to ensure the freedom and safety of any woman engaged in this legitimate fight to end the stadium ban for women in Iran” but failed to exert a price for continued maintenance of the ban.

Dubbed Blue Girl, a reference to the colour of her favourite, storied Tehran soccer team, Esteghlal FC, Ms. Khodayari, put herself on fire after hearing by-standers speculate that the Revolutionary Court could that day sentence her to two years in prison for "openly committing a sinful act by appearing in public without hijab" and "insulting officials."

Ms. Khodayari was charged after being stopped by security in March as she sought to enter Tehran’s Azadi stadium dressed as a man to watch Esteghlal play an AFC Asian Cup match against the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ain FC.

Ms. Khodayari’s disguise is standard practice for activist female soccer fans in a football-crazy country that has the questionable honour of being the world’s only nation to bar women from attending male sporting events.

Saudi Arabia, the only other country that long maintained a similar ban, abolished the restriction in 2017 as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social reforms.

In a wave of outrage on Twitter under the hashtag #Blue_Girl, Iranian deputy telecommunications minister Amir Nazemi thundered: "The death of #blue_girl is a conviction for all of us."

Mulanim, another tweeter, went a step further, pointing fingers at FIFA. “Sahar Khodayari burnt herself to death in protest. When would you actually do something? @FIFAcom #fifawwc,” she tweeted.

Taken together, the two tweets put responsibility on the Iranian government for its discrimination of women and on global and regional soccer governors for allowing Iran to get away with it.

FIFA announced this week that it was sending a delegation to Iran to monitor Iranian moves to allow women to attend World Cup qualifying matches.

The problem is that FIFA has exerted punitive pressure only regarding World Cup matches rather than threatening to ban Iran from all international soccer events if it fails to completely lift the ban.

FIFA’s push on World Cup matches could open the door to a complete lifting of the ban. Past experience, however, suggests that Iran could well treat granting women fans access to World Cup matches as an exception that confirms the rule.

FIFA and the AFC are missing an opportunity to potentially force Iran to lift the ban given that barring Iranian participation in international tournaments would add to the government’s woes at a time that it is struggling to dampen the impact of harsh US economic sanctions designed to persuade Iran to renegotiate the 2015 agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.

The sanctions were imposed last year after Mr. Trump withdrew from the agreement.

Speaking to reporters, government spokesman Ali Rabiei suggested that a threat by FIFA to exclude Iran from international matches could push the country’s rulers over the hump.

The government’s general view is to allow women to enter football stadiums, and infrastructure is needed for women’s presence in stadiums,” Mr. Rabiei said.

Ms. Khodayari’s self-immolation alongside the refusal by an Iranian judoka to withdraw from the 2019 Judo World Championships in Japan on orders of the government sparked a Twitter hashtag, #BanIRSportsFederations, that this month has been used tens of thousands of times.

Taking the call for a ban on Iranian participation in international tournaments and their qualifiers literally, Ali Karimi, a past Asian footballer of the year and top Iranian player opted to lead the way and set an example for FIFA and the AFC.

Mr. Karimi advised his 4.5 million followers on Instagram that he would boycott soccer matches in protest against the ban on women. His post was liked more than 100,000 times in less than 30 minutes.

Amir Etemadi, a liberal activist, seconded Mr. Karimi’s decision, tweeting that “it is time to boycott Iranian sports globally and domestically.”

The , #BanIRSportsFederations hashtag constituted a protest against government interference, a no-no under the rules that govern global sports governance and insist on maintaining a largely fictitious separation of sports and politics.

The online protest was sparked when top-ranking judoka Saeid Mollaei said he feared for his safety because he had rejected a demand to withdraw from the tournament in Japan to avoid the risk of having to face an Israeli athlete.

Mr. Mollaei was spared facing the Israeli after being defeated in the semi-final.

Iran extends its refusal to recognize Israel to barring its athletes from competing against Israelis in international tournaments – a violation of rules governing those competitions.

“State interference in sport competitions is not acceptable. But, somehow IslamicR(epublic). has been practicing it for many years without facing its consequences,” tweeted Iranian sculptor Azin Sadati-Schmutzer.

Said Human Rights Watch: ‘FIFA's long delay in enforcing its own rules means the ban continues and leaves the brave women and girls in Iran who challenge the ban exposed to harassment, beatings and arrests by the Iranian authorities.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Playing politics: Trump and Netanyahu risk sparking nuclear arms race



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani may not be the only one to have welcomed US President Donald J. Trump’s cancellation of peace talks with the Taliban. Probably, so did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the run-up to this month’s Israeli elections.

The cancellation likely reduces fears harboured in recent weeks by Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli intelligence community that the US president may reverse his hardline on Iran and seek to negotiate a resolution of differences with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.

Israeli fears were sparked by Mr. Trump’s repeated expression of interest in meeting with Mr. Rouhani, talks on the margins of last month’s gathering of Group of Seven leaders in Biarritz between French president Emmanuel Macron and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and Mr. Trump’s last-minute pullback in June from launching a military strike against Iran.

Mr. Trump reiterated his willingness to talk to Mr. Rouhani a day after the cancellation and hours after Mr. Netanyahu sought to prove that Iran had been violating the 2015 international agreement designed to curb it’s nuclear ambitions.

The president told reporters that he had no objections to negotiating face-to-face with Mr. Rouhani. “Sure, anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem. We could solve it in 24 hours,” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Netanyahu probably saw Mr. Trump’s firing on Tuesday of his national security advisor John Bolton, one of the Israeli leader’s foremost soul mates in the administration when it came to Iran, as another worrisome sign. 

International Crisis Group Iran expert Ali Vaez voiced Mr. Netanyahu’s worst fears by describing Mr. Bolton’s departure as “an opportunity for de-escalation.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence were likely to draw two conclusions from the cancellation of the Taliban talks.

If Mr. Trump’s withdrawal in May of last year from the 2015 nuclear agreement, despite a consensus that the Islamic republic was abiding by the accord, convinced Iranians that the United States could not be trusted to honour its commitments, cancelling talks with the Taliban has highlighted the risks of engaging with the US president.

As a result, Mr. Rouhani, a strong proponent of the nuclear accord who was weakened by Mr. Trump’s withdrawal and has since been on the defensive against Iranian hardliners, is likely to be even more hesitant to engage with Mr. Trump.

That is what Mr. Netanyahu, betting on Mr. Rouhani’s track record in recent weeks, will count on.

Mr. Rouhani initially last month expressed willingness to meet Mr. Trump without preconditions, but subsequently toughened his position by insisting that the United States first lift harsh economic sanctions imposed on Iran after the US withdrawal from the nuclear accord.

Mr. Rouhani told the Iranian parliament a day before Mr. Trump’s latest overture and on the same day that the US president cancelled the Taliban talks that Iran’s response to American advances would “always be negative.”

The cancellation is also likely to reinforce Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s deep-rooted distrust of the United States.

Mr. Netanyahu and Israeli intelligence are likely to draw a second conclusion from the cancellation prompted by the Taliban’s continued attacks despite peace talks that last week killed a US soldier and 11 others.

Mr. Trump’s declaration that the talks were ‘dead’ raised the spectre of a president reluctant to embroil the United States in further military conflict ramping up operations in Afghanistan to counter anticipated Taliban activity.

In an effort to fortify his perceived, regained advantage and distract attention from setbacks in his electoral campaign, Mr. Netanyahu charged in a short, televised address on Monday that Iran’s ‘duplicitous’ regime had been secretly developing nuclear weapons at a hitherto unknown site near Abadeh, south of the city of Isfahan.

Mr. Netanyahu asserted that Iran had destroyed the site once it realized that Israel had discovered it. Mr. Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, denied the Israeli allegations.

Analysts charged that Mr. Netanyahu was recycling dated information in a blurring of the lines between his electoral needs and Israel’s true security concerns.

“In the way Netanyahu presents things…there is a whiff of manipulation; contrary to what one might understand from his remarks, this was an Iranian violation from the period before the nuclear agreement, which went into effect in January 2015,” said Amos Harel, a columnist for Haaretz newspaper.

In attempting to persuade the Israeli electorate that he is the Israeli leader with the security credentials needed to protect Israel from the likes of Iran, stiffen US resolve to force Iran on its knees, and convince other nations that Iran is the source of all evil, Mr. Netanyahu risks not only escalating tension in the Middle East but also sparking a regional nuclear arms race.

Mr. Netanyahu’s assertions threaten to reinforce Saudi resolve to match whatever advances Iran may make.

Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed oil minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, in his first remarks since being appointed this week, said that the kingdom wanted to push ahead with the full cycle of its nuclear program, including the production and enrichment of uranium for atomic fuel.

Iran in recent weeks has gradually breached the limits set on its enriched-uranium stockpile by the nuclear agreement and installed advanced centrifuges in a bid to force Europe to take effective steps to shield it against the full impact of US sanctions and prevent the collapse of the accord.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in an indication that a regional nuclear arms race could spiral out of control, this month demanded the right for his country to develop a nuclear military capability.

Not to mention that a nuclear arms race could prompt Israel, the Middle East’s so far only, albeit undeclared nuclear power, to enhance its capabilities to maintain its strategic edge.

Said Gulf scholar Luciano Zaccara: “With its ill-advised policies in the Gulf, the Trump administration is not only encouraging a nuclear race in the region…but it is also undermining the international non-proliferation regime…. In the current volatile situation in the Middle East...the lack of a robust non-proliferation agreement will encourage a nuclear race in the region and increase the chances of pre-emptive military attacks that could lead to large-scale war.”

The same could be said for Mr. Netanyahu’s approach.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Monday, September 9, 2019

A bird’s eye view of Asia: A continental landscape of minorities in peril



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Many in Asia look at the Middle East with a mixture of expectation of stable energy supplies, hope for economic opportunity and concern about a potential fallout of the region’s multiple violent conflicts that are often cloaked in ethnic, religious and sectarian terms.

Yet, a host of Asian nations led by men and women, who redefine identity as concepts of exclusionary civilization, ethnicity, and religious primacy rather than inclusive pluralism and multiculturalism, risk sowing the seeds of radicalization rooted in the despair of population groups that are increasingly persecuted, disenfranchised and marginalized.

Leaders like China’s Xi Jingping, India’s Narendra Modi, and Myanmar’s Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi, alongside nationalist and supremacist religious figures ignore the fact that crisis in the Middle East is rooted in autocratic and authoritarian survival strategies that rely on debilitating manipulation of national identity on the basis of sectarianism, ethnicity and faith-based nationalism.

A bird’s eye view of Asia produces a picture of a continental landscape strewn with minorities on the defensive whose positioning as full-fledged members of society with equal rights and opportunities is either being eroded or severely curtailed.

It also highlights a pattern of responses by governments and regional associations that opt for a focus on pre-emptive security, kicking the can down the road and/or silent acquiescence rather than addressing a wound head-on that can only fester, making cures ever more difficult.

To be sure, multiple Asian states, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have at various times opened their doors to refugees.

Similarly, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) disaster management unit has focused on facilitating and streamlining repatriation of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

But a leaked report by the unit, AHA Centre, in advance of last June’s ASEAN summit was criticized for evading a discussion on creating an environment in which Rohingya would be willing to return.

The criticism went to the core of the problem: Civilizationalist policies, including cultural genocide, isolating communities from the outside world, and discrimination will at best produce simmering anger, frustration and despair and at worst mass migration, militancy and/or political violence.

A Uyghur member of the Communist Party for 30 years who did not practice his religion, Ainiwa Niyazi, would seem to be the picture-perfect model of a Chinese citizen hailing from the north-western province of Xinjiang.

Yet, Mr Niyazi was targeted in April of last year for re-education, one of at least a million Turkic Muslims interned in detention facilities where they are forced to internalize Xi Jinping thought and repudiate religious norms and practices in what constitutes the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history.

If past efforts, including an attempt to turn Kurds into Turks by banning use of Kurdish as a language that sparked a still ongoing low level insurgency, is anything to go by, China’s ability to achieve a similar goal with greater brutality is questionable.

“Most Uyghur young men my age are psychologically damaged. When I was in elementary school surrounded by other Uyghurs, I was very outgoing and active. Now I feel like I have been broken… Quality of life is now about feeling safe,” said Alim, a young Uyghur, describing to Adam Hunerven, a writer who focuses on the Uyghurs, arrests of his friends and people trekking south to evade the repression in Xinjiang cities. 

Travelling in the region in 2014, an era in which China was cracking down on Uyghurs but that predated the institutionalization of the re-education camps, Mr. Hunerven saw that “the trauma people experienced in the rural Uyghur homeland was acute. It followed them into the city, hung over their heads and affected the comportment of their bodies. It made people tentative, looking over their shoulders, keeping their heads down. It made them tremble and cry.”

There is little reason to assume that anything has since changed for the better. On the contrary, not only has the crackdown intensified, fear and uncertainty has spread to those lucky enough to live beyond the borders of China. Increasingly, they risk being targeted by the long arm of the Chinese state that has pressured their host countries to repatriate them.

Born and raised in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, Rahima Akter, one of the few women to get an education among the hundreds of thousands who fled what the United Nations described as ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, saw her dreams and potential as a role model smashed when she was this month expelled from university after recounting her story publicly.

Ms. Akter gained admission to Cox’s Bazar International University (CBIU) on the strength of graduating from a Bangladeshi high school, a feat she could only achieve by sneaking past the camp's checkpoints, hiding her Rohingya identity, speaking only Bengali, dressing like a Bangladeshi, and bribing Bangladeshi public school officials for a placement.

Ms Akter was determined to escape the dire warnings of UNICEF, the United Nations’ children agency, that Rohingya refugee children risked becoming “a lost generation.”

Ms. Akter’s case is not an isolated incident but part of a refugee policy in an environment of mounting anti-refugee sentiment that threatens to deprive Rohingya refugees who refuse to return to Myanmar unless they are guaranteed full citizenship of any prospects.

In a move that is likely to deepen a widespread sense of abandonment and despair, Bangladeshi authorities, citing security reasons, this month ordered the shutting down of mobile services and a halt to the sale of SIM cards in Rohingya refugee camps and restricted Internet access. The measures significantly add to the isolation of a population that is barred from travelling outside the camps.

Not without reason, Bangladeshi foreign minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen, has blamed the international community for not putting enough pressure on Myanmar to take the Rohingyas back.
The UN “should go to Myanmar, especially to Rakhine state, to create conditions that could help these refugees to go back to their country. The UN is not doing the job that we expect them to do,” Mr. Abdul Momen said.

The harsh measures are unlikely to quell increased violence in the camps and continuous attempts by refugees to flee in search of better pastures.

Suspected Rohingya gunmen last month killed a youth wing official of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party. Two refugees were killed in a subsequent shootout with police.

The plight of the Uyghurs and the Rohingya repeats itself in countries like India with its stepped up number of mob killings that particularly target Muslims, threatened stripping of citizenship of close to two million people in the state of Assam, and unilateral cancellation of self-rule in Kashmir.

Shiite Muslims bear the brunt of violent sectarian attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Malaysia, Shiites, who are a miniscule minority, face continued religious discrimination.

The Islamic Religious Department in Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, this week issued a sermon that amounts to a mandatory guideline for sermons in mosques warning against “the spread of Shia deviant teachings in this nation… The Muslim ummah (community of the faithful) must become the eyes and the ears for the religious authorities when stumbling upon activities that are suspicious, disguising under the pretext of Islam,” the sermon said.

Malaysia, one state where discriminatory policies are unlikely to spark turmoil and political violence, may be the exception that confirms the rule.

Ethnic and religious supremacism in major Asian states threatens to create breeding grounds for violence and extremism. The absence of effective attempts to lessen victims’ suffering by ensuring that they can rebuild their lives and safeguard their identities in a safe and secure environment, allows wounds to fester.

Permitting Ms. Akter, the Rohingya university student, to pursue her dream, would have been a low-cost, low risk way of offering Rohingya youth an alternative prospect and at the very least a reason to look for constructive ways of reversing what is a future with little hope.

Bangladeshi efforts to cut off opportunities in the hope that Rohingya will opt for repatriation have so far backfired. And repatriation under circumstances that do not safeguard their rights is little else than kicking the can down the road.

Said human rights advocate Ewelina U. Ochab: “It is easy to turn a blind eye when the atrocities do not happen under our nose. However, we cannot forget that religious persecution anywhere in the world is a security threat to everyone, everywhere.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Challenging the word order: Erdogan wants right to develop nuclear weapons



By James M. Dorsey

A podcast version of this story is available on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, Spreaker, Pocket Casts, Tumblr, Patreon, Podbean and Castbox.

Brinkmanship may be his trademark, but Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to provoke the ire of the international community by launching a nuclear weapons program. Yet, his demand that Turkey have the right to do so highlights the fracturing of the rules-based international order as well as changing regional realities.

Mr. Erdogan’s questioning of the international order may well reflect unspoken thinking of other regional leaders in a world in which the United States has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia; unilaterally walked away from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran; and countries like China and Russia are willing to sell nuclear technology as well as arms with fewer, if any, safeguards.

Add to that the international community’s failure to prevent Pakistan and North Korea from becoming nuclear powers and its double standards in looking the other way for decades as Israel developed an unacknowledged arsenal of its own.

US withdrawal from the agreements with Russia and Iran are but two examples of a far broader breakdown in adherence to international, law, norms and procedures fuelled by US President Donald J. Trump’s disdain for key pillars of the US-led, post-World War Two order.

Mr. Trump has walked away from the Paris accord on climate change as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and cast doubt on US commitment to multiple other multilateral arrangements, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union and the Group of Seven that brings together the West’s largest economies.

America’s rivals, China and Russia, as well as Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have countered US unilateralism with calls for a strengthening of multilateralism albeit one in which they can use the arms trade to leverage their geopolitical weight, and/or fight wars with absolute disregard for the human consequences, and brutally repress minorities of any stripe, ethnic, religious or political.

Mr. Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has emboldened others backed by Russia and China, including Mr. Erdogan, to more aggressively challenge the existing order and more blatantly violate its underpinnings.

To be sure, Mr Erdogan’s recent insistence on the 100th anniversary of the Sivas Congress, which laid the groundwork for an independent Turkish republic, that it was unacceptable for nuclear-armed countries to prevent his country from developing nuclear weapons makes, at first glance, perfect sense.

Turkey lives in a neighbourhood pockmarked by violent conflict in which arms race is the name of the game. If that were not enough, Turkey is surrounded by real and would be nuclear powers with the international community applying double standards.

Gulf states, two of which, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have no love lost for Turkey, are among the world’s biggest military spenders.

Israel, another Middle Eastern nation with which Turkey is at odds, sees military and technological supremacy, as the core of its defense strategy and has long hinted but never publicly confirmed its nuclear capability.

Pakistan, a nuclear power locked into escalating tension with India over Kashmir, bristles with weaponry.

Iran, despite strident denials, is suspected of wanting to be a nuclear power and having the capacity to become one, particularly if it ultimately ditches the 2015 international agreement.

An Iranian spokesman said this weekend that Iran had begun using an array of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium in violation of the nuclear deal in a bid to force Europe to effectively challenge harsh US sanctions.

The Iranian move heightens the risk of a nuclear race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, believed to be putting preliminary building blocks in place, making no bones about its willingness to match any nuclear capability that Iran may acquire.

Mr. Erdogan’s demand for the right to develop nuclear weapons is as much a response to regional and global developments as it is an opportunistic effort to bolster the Turkish leader’s troubled bid to position Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world.

That ambition is complicated by a minefield of differences with the United States over Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian anti-aircraft missile system and Russia over the Russian-Syrian military campaign in Idlib, war-torn Syria’s last rebel stronghold.

Demanding the right to develop nuclear weapons serves Mr. Erdogan’s purpose even if doing so may not. Domestically, it allows Mr. Erdogan to project himself as a leader who fights for what Turkey thinks should be its rightful place in the international pecking order. Globally, it is a way to exploit challenges to an international order that Mr. Erdogan sees as holding his country back.

Says Turkish author and journalist Kaya Genc who describes Mr. Erdogan as an angry, yet patient politician: “It has taken him 16 years to forge what he calls ‘the new Turkey,’ an economically self-reliant country with a marginalized opposition and a subservient press… Erdogan’s great challenge over the next decade…will be to convince voters that his mixture of anger and patience is still a model to follow, that his formation story can continue to inspire, and that only his unassailable ability can steer Turkey to safety. Erdogan will no doubt do everything in his power to succeed at this daunting task.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture