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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reshaping the Middle East: UAE Leads the Counter-revolution


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


No. 200/2014 dated 14 October 2014
Reshaping the Middle East:
UAE Leads the Counter-revolution
By James M. Dorsey

Synopsis


The United Arab Emirates backed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt is spearheading a conservative Arab effort to reshape the Middle East and North Africa in their mould, in parallel with the US-led war against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq. The effort targets the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks to preserve the status quo against expressions of political Islam.

Commentary

WAR PLANES from oil-rich Gulf states play a supporting role in the US-led air campaign to counter the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Despite their massive weapons acquisitions in recent years the Gulf states’ participation may make little military difference in the war against the jihadists, but it serves everyone’s political purpose.

It shields the US against accusations that the West is waging war against Islam and the Gulf states and from claims that they are unwilling to play their part in confronting what constitutes first and foremost a threat to regional stability rather than to the homeland security of the United States or Europe. It further allows the Gulf states to project themselves as pro-Western beacons of modernity; the United Arab Emirates in particular milking its deploying of the first woman fighter pilot for all it is worth.

Filling the vacuum

Under the radar, Gulf participation has enabled Saudi Arabia and the UAE to step up their effort to thwart the Muslim Brotherhood, political Islam and its Qatari backers as well as squash hope for political change across the Middle East and North Africa. The Saudi-UAE effort went into high gear with support for last year’s ousting by the military of President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s only democratically elected president, and the withdrawal of their ambassadors from Doha earlier this year. The effort reflects a new assertiveness of Gulf rulers to further goals that the US may not fully share.

Writing on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya network, Saudi journalist Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi noted that the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the UAE has raised the “real possibility that the current power vacuum could be filled… Saudi Arabia and the UAE have always shared similar views on how to tackle problems in the Arab world, including their approach on creating a future free from extremism and terrorism”.

The UAE, long distrustful of the Brotherhood and Qatar, has taken the lead in cementing the Brotherhood’s downfall and countering Qatari support for political change in the region as long as conservative Gulf monarchies remain ring-fenced. UAE warplanes operating from bases in Egypt are believed to have in recent months launched several attacks on Islamist forces associated with the Brotherhood in divided Libya. The attacks supported rogue Libyan general Khalifa Haftar who is known for his opposition to the Brotherhood.

According to Middle East Eye, the UAE supported efforts of ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to use his erstwhile Houthi rebel opponents to derail political transition in Yemen as well as President Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s government in which the Brotherhood-aligned Islah Party is represented. Saleh is believed to have worked through his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, a former commander of Yemen’s Republican Guard and the country’s ambassador to the UAE. Houthis, a Shiite Muslim sect, last month effectively took control of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, and have since agreed to join the Hadi government as its dominant force.

Gulf differences

Ironically, Saudi Arabia, unlike the UAE an implacable ideological and political opponent of Shia Islam, has been caught in a Catch-22 situation. The Saudis suspect the Houthis of having ties to Iran. Yet, the Houthis oppose the Muslim Brotherhood that was influential in the Yemeni government until the Houthis invaded the capital Sana’a. If that were not complicated enough, Saudi Arabia would like to limit the degree of change in Yemen, a country on its border that is slated to join Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). GCC foreign ministers have warned that the Houthi advances threatened regional stability and demanded the restoration of government authority in Yemen.

The counter-revolutionary Gulf strategy has opened a window on potential differences not only between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain on the one hand and Qatar on the other but also within the conservative counter-revolutionary camp itself. Beyond apparent tactical differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Bahrain, virtually a Saudi outpost, joined the Saudis and Emiratis earlier this year in withdrawing its ambassador from Doha but has refused to ban the Brotherhood or label it a terrorist organisation.

More fundamentally, the strategy faces potential pitfalls given the fact that the Brotherhood, with the backdrop of almost a century of repression, has proven to be a cat with nine lives and that Arab autocracy has helped produce ever more virulent forms of political Islam as evidenced initially by Al Qaeda and more recently by Islamic State.

Rising from the ashes

In a recent book, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, historian Abdullah Al-Arian documented how the Brotherhood, after being crushed in the 1950s and 1960s by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, rose from the ashes in the late 1970s propelled by a rebellious student movement.

“As we ponder the future of the Muslim Brotherhood—and popular activism in Egypt more generally—it may be instructive to consider the historical precedent for the resumption of activism following a period of severe repression… It is more instructive to examine these movements, not as an alien force committed to the widespread destruction of society, but rather as a natural product of the societies from which they emerge,” Al-Arian said in a recent interview with Jadaliyya. It is a lesson that appears to go unnoticed in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

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

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Les dessous du Qatar bashing (JMD quoted on Orient XXI)

Les dessous du Qatar bashing

UNE CAMPAGNE ORCHESTRÉE PAR LES ÉMIRATS ARABES UNIS ET ISRAËL

Le dénigrement du Qatar s’est imposé comme un phénomène et une évidence en France, aux États-Unis et ailleurs. L’émirat est vu comme une menace et il est accusé de tous les maux. Si de nombreux reproches peuvent lui être faits à juste titre, il s’agit aussi de se demander pourquoi et qui se cache derrière cette campagne. Car ce sont bien des pays peu recommandables qui financent le Qatar bashing et instrumentalisent ainsi des leaders d’opinion plus ou moins avertis.
Vendredi 3 octobre, le vice-président américain Joe Biden prend la parole au John F. Kennedy Forum organisé à Boston par la Harvard Kennedy School. Évoquant la situation au Proche-Orient et la guerre contre l’organisation de l’État islamique (OEI), il s’en prend avec une certaine virulence à trois pays qui, selon lui, ont soutenu financièrement cette organisation malgré les mises en garde du gouvernement américain. L’Arabie saoudite, les Émirats arabes unis (EAU) et la Turquie sont pointés du doigt, ce qui va déclencher une véritable crise diplomatique entre Washington et ses trois alliés. Dès le lendemain, la Maison-Blanche prend ses distances avec ce propos tandis que Biden fait savoir qu’il n’entendait nullement insulter ces pays, allant même jusqu’à téléphoner à leurs dirigeants — du moins ceux des Émirats et de la Turquie — pour présenter ses plus plates excuses.
Il est difficile de savoir si cette sortie était intentionnelle — ce qui confirmerait l’existence de fortes tensions au sein de la coalition que les États-Unis tentent de mettre en place contre l’organisation de l’État islamique — ou s’il faut l’ajouter à la longue liste des gaffes commises par le vice-président américain depuis l’élection de Barack Obama en 2008. Mais l’un des aspects les plus intéressants de cette affaire est la réaction de certains médias américains comme CNN qui se sont empressés d’inclure le Qatar dans la liste des pays incriminés alors même que le nom de cet émirat n’a pas été cité par Joe Biden. «  Pourquoi le vice-président n’a-t-il pas cité le Qatar  ?  », s’est par ailleurs demandé le membre du Congrès et républicain Michael Mc Caul alors qu’il était interrogé par Fox News. Il faut rappeler que ce Texan membre de la Chambre des représentants fait partie des personnalités qui tirent à vue sur l’émirat, affirmant haut et fort qu’il est au centre du financement du terrorisme islamiste et des activités anti-américaines à travers le monde.

LOBBYING ET COMMUNICATION EFFICACES

Il faut dire que le Qatar bashing bat son plein depuis début 2013 aux États-Unis. Longtemps hors des radars, l’émirat incarne désormais la figure de l’allié jouant un double jeu. DuWashington Post à CNN en passant par des médias moins intéressés par l’actualité internationale, les dossiers spéciaux et autres enquêtes à charge sur le Qatar se multiplient. Comment expliquer cette tendance quand on sait que Doha, via ses organismes publics, n’a pas été avare de publicités payantes et autres sponsorings dans les médias américains  ? La réponse est venue début septembre du New York Times. Selon ce quotidien, plusieurs pays mènent une intense action de lobbying contre le Qatar avec, à leur tête, les Émirats arabes unis. Ces derniers ont engagé une entreprise de relations publiques, Camstoll Group, fondée en novembre 2012 par d’anciens fonctionnaires du Trésor américain. La principale figure de cette agence est Matthew Epstein, un néoconservateur qui était en charge au milieu des années 2000 du dossier des sanctions à l’encontre de l’Iran. Pour un montant de 400 000 dollars par mois, Camstoll Group a donc entrepris de «  briefer  » journalistes et parlementaires à propos du rôle que jouerait le Qatar dans le financement des groupes terroristes dont le Front Al-Nosra, réputé proche d’Al-Qaida, en Syrie.
Pour les Émirats arabes unis, il s’agit d’isoler le Qatar sur la scène internationale en lui faisant payer son soutien, en général, au mouvement des Frères musulmans, et, en particulier, à la présidence éphémère de Mohamed Morsi en Égypte. Ce dernier est d’ailleurs accusé d’avoir livré des documents confidentiels au Qatar en échange d’un pot-de-vin d’un million de dollars. Les Émirats arabes unis reprochent aussi à Doha d’accueillir un trop grand nombre d’activistes membres de la confrérie et même d’avoir soutenu en sous-main la création d’une branche des Frères musulmans à Abou Dhabi et à Dubaï.
À cela s’ajoute une féroce compétition qui ne dit pas son nom afin de se hisser à la position de premier centre économique, financier, culturel et religieux du Golfe. Si le Qatar a obtenu l’organisation de la Coupe du monde de football de 2022, Dubaï a emporté celle de l’exposition universelle de 2020. Entre le Qatar et les Émirats arabes unis, «  pays frères  » si l’on en croit les déclarations officielles, le différend n’est donc pas uniquement politique. Il relève d’une question de leadership régional.

UNE STRATÉGIE PAYANTE POUR SES RIVAUX

Le recours aux services de Camstoll Group s’est avéré des plus payants dans la stratégie décidée par les Émirats arabes unis. Se basant sur les informations publiées par le New York Times, le magazine en ligne The Intercept — un titre de First Look Media, la plateforme journalistique créée et financée par le fondateur d’EBay Pierre Omidyar — a publié à ce sujet une enquête très fouillée sur l’impact du lobbying de Camstoll Group à destination des grands médias américains. Rappelant que les Émirats arabes unis ont été, en 2013, en tête de liste des dépenses de lobbying consenties par un pays étranger aux États-Unis (14 millions de dollars), The Intercept a mis en exergue la façon dont Camstoll a réussi à faire passer ses principaux messages. À savoir que le Qatar finance, directement ou indirectement, les groupes terroristes en Irak et en Syrie mais aussi en Libye.
Interrogé par Orient XXI, un consultant en affaires publiques basé à K-Street, la célèbre rue des lobbyistes à Washington, a accepté de livrer son analyse sur ce dossier à condition de ne pas être cité car ayant des clients dans le Golfe. «  Cette campagne est une réussite presque totale, un vrai cas d’école. Les médias, les journalistes qui comptent mais aussi des producteurs, des gens agents éditoriaux et aussi des hommes politiques ainsi que des think tanks conservateurs ont systématiquement été approchés. Matthew Epstein a un très bon carnet d’adresse. C’est un homme introduit qui dispose de relais dans l’administration — y compris dans l’entourage du président Obama. Mais la réussite de cette campagne n’aurait pas été possible si le Qatar n’avait pas déjà une aussi mauvaise image et, surtout, s’il n’avait rien à se reprocher  ».
De son côté, The Intercept note que la stratégie de Camstoll a été de s’appuyer sur les groupes néoconservateurs et les publications pro-israéliennes. Et de rappeler au passage le passé de Epstein qui, avant de travailler au département du Trésor, activait lui aussi dans les cercles néoconservateurs en compagnie de Steve Emerson, une personnalité connue aux États-Unis pour ses diatribes antimusulmanes et anti-arabes, notamment à l’encontre de l’Arabie saoudite.1 À chaque attentat, Emerson a longtemps pointé un index accusateur contre le royaume wahhabite. Aujourd’hui, ses interventions sont toujours aussi abruptes mais il a désormais une autre cible à désigner, en l’occurrence le Qatar.

LA VOLTE-FACE DE TEL-AVIV

L’autre pays instigateur de la campagne médiatique contre le Qatar est Israël, dont les dirigeants, contrairement à ceux des Émirats arabes unis, ont clairement pris position sur ce sujet. Ron Prosor, ambassadeur israélien à l’ONU a ainsi déclaré que Doha était devenu «  un “club med” pour terroristes  » et plaidé pour un isolement international de l’émirat. Il faut rappeler qu’Israël n’a pas admis que le Qatar soutienne le Hamas durant la guerre de l’été dernier et que Khaled Mechaal, le dirigeant de ce parti, ait été accueilli à Doha depuis son départ de Syrie en 2012. Pour les officiels israéliens, l’aide financière allouée par le Qatar à la bande de Gaza aurait servi à financer des actes terroristes et à permettre aux groupes armés de renouveler leurs équipements. On est loin du début des années 2 000 quand Doha était l’une des rares capitales arabes à entretenir des relations quasi officielles avec Tel-Aviv et où les responsables israéliens louaient la modération du Qatar en ce qui concerne la question palestinienne.
Chercheur à l’université de Nayang à Singapour, James M. Dorsay est l’un des rares observateurs à avoir abordé la question du lobbying israélien contre le Qatar. Un lobbying qui s’est notamment illustré par une campagne contre l’octroi de la Coupe du monde de football. Sur son blog consacré au football et au Proche-Orient, l’universitaire cite le cas de deux organisations, Sussex Friends of Israel et Israel Forum Task Force, qui ont appelé à manifester pour le transfert de la compétition à un autre pays. «  Il y a une convergence d’intérêts stratégiques entreIsraël, l’Égypte et les Émirats arabes unis  », relève ainsi le chercheur.
Mais l’offensive médiatique contre le Qatar ne se concentre pas uniquement aux États-Unis. En Europe aussi, notamment en France et au Royaume-Uni, des consultants, d’anciens journalistes reconvertis dans la communication d’influence, incitent leurs anciens confrères à écrire sur le Qatar et ses liens avec le terrorisme, se proposant même de leur fournir des dossiers complets sur le financement des groupes armés en Syrie. Ou bien encore, autre sujet récurrent, sur la pitoyable condition des travailleurs étrangers soumis à la kafala, c’est-à-dire au bon vouloir d’un sponsor qatari. L’auteur de ces lignes a ainsi été approché à plusieurs reprises par divers intermédiaires pour rendre compte notamment des travaux de Global Network for Rights and Development, une organisation non gouvernementale basée en Norvège, prompte à dénoncer — et avec raison — le statut des migrants asiatiques au Qatar mais qui semble ignorer que leur situation est tout aussi inacceptable en Arabie saoudite,aux Émirats arabes unis et dans le reste du Golfe…

JEU DE DUPES

Car la question n’est pas de chercher à dédouaner le Qatar mais simplement de ne pas être dupe de la campagne de communication qui sévit contre lui. Comme le relève si bien la journaliste Elisabeth Dickinson de Foreign Policy, il est évident que l’émirat a une large responsabilité dans le financement non contrôlé voire anarchique — la journaliste parle même d’«  amateurisme  » — de groupes armés sur lesquels Doha n’a jamais exercé de véritable contrôle faute de compétences et de moyens humains et techniques. Mais sa mise au pilori actuelle ne saurait faire oublier que ses voisins ont eux aussi beaucoup à se reprocher. Qu’il s’agisse du financement du salafisme, du droit des étrangers ou même de la propagation d’un discours antichiite qui a fait le lit d’organisations comme celle de l’État islamique, aucun pays membre du Conseil de coopération du Golfe ne diffère intrinsèquement du Qatar. Comme le note un diplomate maghrébin qui connaît bien la région «  c’est partout les mêmes archaïsmes, les mêmes aberrations sociétales et politiques. Il s’agit d’une région qui peine à évoluer vers la modernité réelle et ce ne sont pas des campagnes de communication, aussi coûteuses soient-elles, qui aideront à une vraie transformation  ».
Mais pour l’heure, c’est la communication qui domine. Acculé dans les cordes, pointé du doigt par l’establishment de Washington, le Qatar a décidé de réagir. L’émir, le cheikh Tamim ben Hamad Al-Thani a accepté d’être interviewé par CNN où il a affirmé que son pays «  ne finance pas les extrémistes  ». Une prestation qui n’a pas franchement modifié la perception générale aux États-Unis ou ailleurs. De même, et après plusieurs années de tergiversations, l’émirat a finalement décidé de s’engager dans la bataille d’influence en embauchant le cabinet Portland Communications dirigé par Tony Allen, ancien proche de Tony Blair. Pour l’heure, les résultats demeurent mitigés… James M. Dorsey raconte ainsi que la presse britannique n’a pas eu de mal à faire le lien entre cette société et des blogs apparus sur le net pour défendre la Coupe du monde de football de 2022 au Qatar. «  Les dirigeants qataris ne savent pas faire face à ce genre de crise, raconte un ancien conseiller de Cheikha Moza, la mère de l’actuel émir. Ils sont peu nombreux et ont trop souvent tendance à croire que l’argent permet tout. Là, ils croulent sous les propositions de dizaines de cabinets occidentaux de relations publiques dont certains, cela a été vérifié, travaillent aussi pour les Émirats… Actuellement, le mot d’ordre est plutôt de faire profil bas en attendant que la tempête passe.  » À condition que cette dernière se calme, ce qui est loin d’être garanti, les tensions politiques entre le Qatar et ses voisins n’ayant pas faibli.
1Après l’attentat d’Oklahoma le 19 avril 1995, Emerson avait immédiatement accusé les islamistes, alors que le crime avait été perpétré par un mouvement d’extrême droite américain.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Women’s sporting rights put Saudi Arabia and Iran on the defensive


By James M. Dorsey

The struggle for women’s rights to engage in sports and attend sporting events has commanded increased attention with the hunger strike of a British-Iranian national incarcerated in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, the expected arrival in Saudi Arabia of Australian women fans for the Asian Champions League final, and the rare appearance of Saudi women in an all-male stadium in Abu Dhabi.

The issue of women’s rights also rose on the international sporting agenda with the withdrawal of the Qatari women’s basketball team from the recent Asian Games after they were banned from wearing a headdress. The incident underlined the fact that women’s rights also includes the right to compete with headwear that meets safety and security standards and is culturally acceptable.

In response to the withdrawal, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) said it would next year ease the ban. Soccer paved the way for accommodating religiously observant women athletes with FIFA’s acceptance two years ago of the principle that women were allowed to wear approved headgear.

The increased attention on women’s sporting rights has put Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two Middle Eastern nations that ban women from entry into stadia during competitions, on the defensive and raises questions about the international sporting community’s forcefulness in opposing restrictions that violate fundamental rights. International Olympics Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said after last month meeting Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed Olympic chief Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz that women’s rights was being discussed.

Human Rights Watch last week called on the kingdom to make clear what steps it was taking to ensure that women are included in international competitions and able to participate in sports generally. Saudi Arabia failed to field women athletes at the recent Asian Games after it was forced by the IOC to allow all of two expatriate women to compete in the 2012 London Olympics.

The degree to which Saudi Arabia feels pressured by increasingly unsustainable restrictions on women’s sports was evident in Saudi responses to criticism. Rather than point to the kingdom’s long-standing denial of women’s rights rooted in culture and justified by a puritan interpretation of Islam, Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee, said that Saudi Arabia did not have women athletes who would have qualified for the 2014 Asian Games.

Mr. Al-Mishal however indicated that despite Saudi Arabia’s promise to field women athletes at the 2016 Olympics in Rio Janeiro they would be limited to sports endorsed by a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. The Saudi official said the kingdom was training women to compete in equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery Olympic contest which are "accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia".

Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson dismissed Mr. Al-Mishal’s defence as excuses. “Two years after the London Olympics, the time for excuses is over – Saudi Arabia needs to end its discrimination against women and ensure women’s right to participate in sport on an equal basis with men... Limiting women’s participation to specific sports is yet another example of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to allow women to compete on an equal basis with men,” Ms. Whitson said.

Despite the restrictions, Saudi Arabia has taken small steps towards expanding women’s ability to engage in sports. The country’s Shura Council, a consultative assembly, has urged the education ministry to study the possibility of introducing physical education for girls in public schools. The move could lead to a lifting of the ban on female sports in public schools.

Moreover. authorities last year began licensing private sports clubs for women. Saudi Arabia has further struggled for years with proposals to build separate women’s sections in stadia – a move that has been staunchly resisted by the country’s conservatives. Manal Al-Dabbagh nevertheless became in August the first Saudi woman photographer to be allowed to photograph a soccer match in a stadium.

Writing on CNN’s website, Lina K. Almaeena, a prominent Saudi promoter of women’s sports, noted that Saudi officials have promised enhanced opportunities for women for years. Ms. Almaeena said those promises remained unfulfilled because of “logistical challenges” such as a lack of profession female professionals and adequate space that would ensure that women are shielded from the view of men. As a result, the government has yet to include physical education in the curricula of girls’ schools and enable women to use neighbourhood facilities and train for international competitions.

With the exception of the Equestrian Federation, women are not members of the boards of Saudi sporting associations. The absence of women board members in the case of the Saudi soccer association violates a decision of the West Asian Football Federation that obliges its members to put women’s soccer rights on par with those of men and include women on their boards.

The controversy and domestic battles that women’s sports evokes was recently evident on social media in response to a YouTube video viewed by nearly half a million people. The video showed a rare female Saudi soccer fan clad in traditional all enveloping dress cheering her club, Al Hilal, against the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ain in an Asian Champions League match. The UAE contrary to the kingdom does not bar women from stadia. The woman is seen shouting in frustration at a bad tackle on the pitch. As she shakes her fist in anger, her sleeve rolls up and exposes her lower arm.

Commenters on the video lined up on both sides of the argument with 1,826 dislikes and 969 likes. In support of the woman, one commenter denounced segregation rooted in the kingdom’s adherence to Salafism, a diverse Islamic trend that seeks to emulate life at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors, as the product of “a sick and obsessed mind.” An opponent reiterated that “we do not allow women to have 100% freedom… Most Muslim women agree with this...so I don't understand how most of the world’s women wear tight clothes and walk half naked on the streets and beaches as if it were normal ..! Don’t these women have brothers or fathers???”

A Saudi psychiatrist warned in July that women’s passion for soccer constituted a need to release pent-up energy and imitate others that endangered a woman’s role in a conservative Muslim society.

The issue of women’s stadium attendance will present itself again when Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers meet Al Hilal in the Asian Champions League finals in Riyadh on November 1. Australian media have expressed concern whether female and Jewish supporters would be granted visas for the match. Saudi Arabia has long lifted its restrictions on allowing Jews into the kingdom and has in the recent past facilitated attendance of sporting events by Brazilian and New Zealand women fans when their teams were visiting the country.

The granting of entry to stadia to foreign women supporting a visiting team has sparked heated debate in Saudi Arabia. Controversy erupted in February when a group of female American Congressional staffers were allowed to attend a match in a Riyadh stadium from which Saudi women were barred.

Saudi Arabia’s failure to forcefully act on repeated promises and follow-up on its concession to pressure to field women athletes at the London Olympics like the imprisonment of 25-year old British-Iranian dual national Ghoncheh Ghavami suggests that achieving women’s sporting rights is a lengthy battle. International pressure will likely have to involve more than efforts at quiet behind-the-scenes persuasion.

Ms. Ghavami was charged with spreading propaganda against the Iranian government after she attempted in June with more than a dozen other women to enter a stadium where the Iranian national men’s volleyball team was playing Italy. To be fair, Iran in contrast to Saudi Arabia encourages women’s sports even if it bars women from stadia.

Writing in The Guardian, journalist and author Azadeh Moaveni argued in the case of Ms. Ghavami that international pressure on Iran to adhere to human rights standards would be more effective and “seem less a political tool to batter Iran when it is expedient than a permanent concern” if the Islamic republic’s critics “strive for is consistency, including human rights concerns as part of the ongoing political approach to Iran so that it becomes a fixed expectation in Tehran as well.” That is true not only for Iran but also the struggle for women’s sporting and human rights in Saudi Arabia as well as elsewhere in the world.

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


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Torture investigation of Bahraini prince puts IOC and AFC on the spot (Updated)

Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa

By James M. Dorsey

A possible police investigation into allegations that Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the commander of Bahrain's armed forces and head of its National Olympic Committee, was involved in the torture of political detainees, including three national team soccer players could prove to be embarrassing for the president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and a relative of the prince, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who has systematically refused to condemn the torture and detention of numerous players and athletes in Bahrain.

An investigation if it results in legal proceedings could also constitute a litmus test for the efforts of International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach to persuade international sports governance to recognize the inextricable links between sports and politics. It could raise for the IOC issues similar to those that have dogged world soccer body FIFA since the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

In Qatar’s case FIFA executives have been forced by widespread condemnation of labour conditions in the Gulf state to acknowledge that human rights criteria should be taken into consideration in the awarding of future tournaments. In Prince Nasser’s case the question would be whether human rights should be a criteria for eligibility in international sports governance.

An overruling by the UK High Court of a decision by the UK director of public prosecution that granted Prince Nasser immunity because of his royal status in Bahrain  has opened the door to an investigation, according to defense lawyers in the case. Prince Nasser, the eldest son of King Hamad, is a frequent visitor to Britain in part because of his participation in equestrian competitions. The court ruling followed a bid by a Bahraini national, identified only by the initials FF, to have Prince Nasser arrested on charges of involvement in the torture of those arrested during the Saudi-backed brutal squashing in 2011 of anti-government protests.

Bahrain condemned the court ruling as “an ill-targeted, politically motivated and opportunistic attempt to misuse the British legal system. The government of Bahrain again categorically denies the allegations against Sheikh Nasser. The government reiterates its firm condemnation of torture and recognises its responsibility to investigate any reasonable allegation,” the government said. It denied that the ruling opened the door to a prosecution asserting that “the decision on immunity was academic” as had been “made plain in court today. In short, the situation has not, and will not, change as there is no evidence for the allegations.”

Tom Hickman, a barrister representing FF told the court that the ruling "clears the way for an investigation of the prince and for consent for an arrest warrant to be sought. Further evidence will be submitted to the police in due course,” according to The Guardian.

Melan Riley of Bell Yard Communications asserted on behalf of the government that there is no investigation because there is insufficient evidence to warrant one". Ms Bell said her assertion was based on a statement to the court by the prosecution. In its statement, the prosecution said that it agreed to the court’s view that Prince Nasser would not enjoy immunity “in the light of the Claimant’s intention to submit further evidence to the police.” The prosecution insisted however that the police had “decided not to conduct an investigation on the basis of the dossier of evidence submitted to it.”

Among those arrested who alleged that they had been tortured are three former national soccer team players, including brothers Ala’a and Mohammed Hubail. At the time some 150 athletes and sports executives were either detained or dismissed from their jobs on charges of having participated in the protests. Many have since been reinstated. But Bahrain has since then also detained scores of other players and athletes.

Sheikh Salman has been dogged by allegations that his office identified athletes who were among those arrested. Insisting that politics and sports are separate, Sheikh Salman has denied the allegations. But he has also refused to denounce the alleged abuses of human rights or to discuss the allegations against him. Sheikh Salman has said that there was no reason to apologize to the players because it was an issue for politicians, not his soccer federation despite the fact that a government-endorsed independent investigation concluded that torture had occurred.

The Hubail brothers have accused Sheikh Salman, who also heads the Bahrain Football Association, of abandoning them. Mohammed Hubail said in an interview in 2012 with Associated Press that they had received no apology or compensation from the association for months of alleged mistreatment. “We are his responsibility and people like him should solve the problem, not ignore it. I have a lot of anger. I really miss playing in my team and for Bahrain,” Mr. Hubail said.

Mohammed, Alaa and other sports figures were denounced in 2011 as spies and traitors on state television on the eve of their arrests in a program in which Prince Nasser phoned in to congratulate the show for its denunciation.

video


“Well done, guys. And on your efforts, all of you. And to everyone who stood and proved his loyalty to the Kingdom of Bahrain, leadership and people. And anyone who called for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head. Today, we at the Organization of Sports and Youth have nothing to do with politics and are concerned with sports and brotherly competition. People have involved themselves in matters and have lost the love of their fans. People have entered labyrinths in which they will be lost... Anyone who involved himself in these matters and was part of it will be held accountable. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician, whatever he is — he will now be held accountable. Today is judgment day. May God grant patience and strength to all. Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape… It is known who stood against us. The days will judge,” Prince Nasser said.

When the talk show host reminded his viewers that King Hamad had warned earlier on the day of the broadcast that there would be no forgiveness, Prince Nasser responded, saying: “Well done.”

Sheikh Ahmed Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a brother of Prince Nasser and relative of Sheikh Salman, who was at the time secretary-general of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, defended the crackdown on the athletes and alternatively denied and downplayed the allegations of torture. “You have to defend yourself, you have to protect the law and you have to take decisions on the ground,” Sheikh Ahmed said. He said the crackdown had been “absolutely” proportionate and justified.

Asked about what happened to the athletes once they were detained, Sheikh Ahmed first said: “When they were detained? Nothing.” But pressed about the torture allegations, he added: “We heard many stories how can we say for fact that this happened?”

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

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Soccer fan support for the Islamic State: Protest or a new generation of jihadists?

video

By James M. Dorsey

At face value, a recent one minute video clip on You Tube leaves little doubt about support for the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, among supporters of storied Moroccan soccer club Raja Club Athletic.

The clip released by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) shows fans of the Casablanca club that prides itself on its nationalist credentials dating back to opposition to colonial French rule and its reputation as the team of ordinary Moroccans chanting: “Daesh, Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, and “God is Great, let’s go on jihad.”

The clip appeared to reaffirm the Islamic State’s widespread emotional appeal to youth across the Middle East and North Africa rather than a willingness to actually become a foreign fighter in Syria or Iraq notwithstanding last week’s arrest of nine people in Morocco as well as a Spanish enclave in the country on suspicion of links to the Islamic State and the fact that an estimated 1,500 Moroccan nationals are believed to have joined the group.

The Islamic State despite its brutality and severe enforcement of a puritan form of Islam symbolizes successful resistance for many in the Middle East and North Africa disillusioned by the failure of popular revolts in various countries even though they toppled four Arab leaders; the collapse and/or intransigence of autocratic regimes that fail to live up to their people’s aspirations; the lack of prospects for economic advancement and political change; and the West’s refusal to empower rebel groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as its perceived strengthening of  Assad with its coalition against the foremost opposition to a regime that matches the jihadists in brutality.

“We have a high rate of unemployment. Young people want politicians to think about them… Some of them can’t understand… They are too impatient,” Moncef Mazrouki, the president of Tunisia, the Arab country with the largest number of Arab foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

While Raja Athletic’s management failed to respond to the video on its official website and Facebook page that has more than 1.7 million followers, supporters of the club sought to minimize the clip’s significance. Writing on their Facebook page with its 118,830 likes, supporters quipped: “We are terrorists… Our goal is to bomb other clubs. We do not want land or oil, we want titles” below a mock picture of Islamic State fighters with the inscription, “Raja’s Volunteer Championship.”


The supporters asserted elsewhere on their Facebook page that “we will not start to argue and beg people to believe that this is a sarcastic action and a joke.” Some supporters dismissed the video as a public relations stint. They insisted that they were demanding reform not radical change. To emphasize the point, the supporters posted two days after the appearance of the video an image of Osama Bin Laden with the words: “Rest in Pieces Motherf*****r.”


The Islamic State’s appeal as a symbol for Moroccan youth is rooted in the gap in perceptions of King Mohammad VI.  The monarch, unlike most of the region’s rulers, neutralized anti-government protests in 2011 by endorsing a new constitution that brought limited change but kept the country’s basic political structure in place. As a result, foreign media have described Mohammed VI as the King of Cool. Moroccans however have seen little change in their economic, social and political prospects while journalists and activists face increased repression.

Mouad Belghouat, a prominent dissident rapper better known as Al Haqed, was arrested in May on charges of having scalped game tickets as he was entering a stadium to watch a soccer match. The arrest occurred a day after he had mocked the King on Facebook because he passed a performing group of musicians on his way to Friday prayers. “In Islam, this would be highly disrespectful given the spiritual solemnity of Jumuah prayer, and an even bigger mistake to be made by the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ who claims part of the legitimacy of his rule from his religious status," wrote Moroccan blogger Zineb Belmkaddem at the time.

“Hope for a more democratic Morocco is fading, as the makhzen (the ruling group around the king) went back to relying on its old ways, reassured by the 'success' of its systematic crackdown that is responsible for disorganizing groups of protestors through repression and propaganda. Slowly dismantling the February 20th protest movement over the past years, the regime seems to have learned nothing and has chosen to walk backwards to its dysfunctional comfort zone,” Mr. Belmkaddem added.

Speaking to Freemuse after having served a four month prison sentence, Al Haqed voiced widespread distrust of the government, including law enforcement and the judiciary, as he discussed the pending appeal against his conviction. “I don’t expect very much from the Moroccan judiciary. The Moroccan judge is not independent. The king is the highest authority in the Moroccan judicial process. There are no laws that guarantee that the judge will truly look into a case,” Al Haqed said.

Al Haqed’s music like the chanting of pro-Islamic State slogans reflects growing popular discontent and an increased willingness to challenge the government whom many see as having backed down on its promises for true political and economic reform.

Speaking to The New York Times earlier this year, activist Maouanne Morabit warned that “a major part of the political class refused to discuss in public real issues concerning the ills of our society, namely the role of the monarchy, respect for human rights, the distribution of wealth, and the separation of powers… The kingdom discredited the left, trade unions, civil society and now the Islamists. It will soon face a direct confrontation with the people, and it will no longer have any safety valves.”


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

Thursday, October 2, 2014

US-Led Strikes on IS Militants Could Create More Extremism: Expert (JMD quoted on RIA Novosti)

US-Led Strikes on IS Militants Could Create More Extremism: Expert

Topic: Violence Erupts as Islamic State Rises

US-led strikes on IS militants could create more extremism: scholar at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University
07:18 01/10/2014
Tags: ExtremismairstrikesIslamic StateUnited States
NEW YORK, October 1 (RIA Novosti) – By teaming up with Saudi Arabia and other reactionary governments, the US-led campaign against Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria and Iraq could create more extremism in the region, James Dorsey, a scholar at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University told RIA Novosti.
"The US is reverting to a misguided policy that has spawned more virulent forms of militant Islam, and is thus sowing the seeds of more extremist groups," Dorsey said.
The scholar added that the US-led response is more extensive and fraught with danger than the war on terror that followed 9/11.e-spread discontent and anger, leaving violence and extremism as one of the few, if not the only, option to force change," Dorsey concluded.
The US has teamed up with Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf countries to launch strikes on IS, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL, a sectarian Sunni Muslim mil
"The policy focuses on military rather than political solutions and promotes status quo regimes whose autocracy chokes off opportunities for the venting of widitia of more than 30,000 fighters that controls swathes of Sunni-majority areas on either side of the Iraq-Syria border.
US President Barack Obama says IS can be routed by US-led airstrikes and bolstering Kurds, Iraqis and moderate elements of Syria's opposition as ground forces. Critics say he lacks reliable allies, is over-reliant on air-power and has no strategy for ending Syria's civil war.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

War against Islamic State: Sowing seeds of more extremist groups


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No. 190/2014 dated 30 September 2014
War against Islamic State:
Sowing seeds of more extremist groups
By James M Dorsey

Synopsis


The US-led war against the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, is sowing seeds for the sprouting of yet more extremist groups. In doing so the US is reverting to a misguided policy that has spawned more virulent forms of militant Islam.

Commentary

The US-led international response to the Islamic State’s advances in Iraq and Syria is more extensive and fraught with danger than the war on terror declared by President George W Bush in the wake of the 9-11 attacks on New York and Washington. It is a response that contains the seeds of continued failure in confronting terrorism and threatens to give rise to groups that may be even more extreme than the Islamic State, hard though that may be to imagine.

Bush concluded within weeks of the 9/11 attacks that Al Qaeda was as much a product of US support for autocratic Arab regimes as it was the result of politically bankrupt Arab leaders. His acknowledgement amounted to an admission of failure of a US policy designed to maintain stability in a key geo-strategic and volatile part of the world.

A decade later, discontent with failed regimes produced popular revolts that toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Elsewhere in the region, mass protests erupted in Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Bahrain’s minority Sunni rulers brutally suppressed a Shia uprising. Egypt’s transition was routed with a military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Syria is in its fourth year of a bloody civil war that has fuelled the rise of the Islamic State, a jihadist group that makes Al Qaeda look like a lesser evil.

Multiple problems

The problems with the US-led military offensive against the Islamic State are many. For one, it turns Clausewitz’ definition of war as an extension of diplomacy on its head. It reduces what is at its core a political problem that requires a political solution coupled with a military effort to contain the Islamic State to a military problem in which politics is an afterthought.

The emphasis on a military solution moreover goes beyond restoring the principle of endorsement of repressive regimes like those of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt that are regressive and/or supportive of ideologies akin to that of the Islamic State, promoters of sectarianism, and among the worst offenders of human rights. It reinforces perceptions among many Sunni Muslims that the West first turned a blind eye to the killings in Syria and now is undermining what is left of credible resistance to the Syrian regime. Those perceptions are rooted in US expansion of its offensive in Syria to include Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group aligned with Al Qaeda that is wholly focused on defeating the Syrian regime but opposed to the Islamic State.

The Obama administration’s alignment with the Middle East’s counter-revolutionary forces and targeting of groups other than the Islamic State risks identifying the US  with efforts by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to target political Islam as such. The three Arab nations earlier this year cracked down on non-violent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. They have since called for an expansion of the campaign against the Islamic State to include non-violent expressions of political Islam. The US alignment prevents it from adopting a policy that would seek to contain the Islamic State militarily while focusing on removing the grievances on which the group feeds. It is a policy that is destined to at best provide a band aid for a festering wound.

Saudi and UAE efforts to target political Islam as such were articulated earlier this year by former British prime minister Tony Blair. Blair argued against “a deep desire to separate the political ideology represented by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood from the actions of extremists including acts of terrorism.” He acknowledged that it was “laudable” to distinguish “between those who violate the law and those we simply disagree with” but warned that “if we're not careful, they also blind us to the fact that the ideology itself is nonetheless dangerous and corrosive; and cannot and should not be treated as a conventional political debate between two opposing views of how society should be governed.”

On that basis, it is hard to see why Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of Islam that is the well spring of much of contemporary jihadist thinking, does not top the list of ideologies that are “dangerous and corrosive.” Saudi Arabia, like the Islamic State, was born in a jihadist struggle that married Islamist warriors led by an 18th century jurist Mohammed Abdul Wahab, with the proto-kingdom’s ruling Al Saud clan.

A wake-up call

The rise of the Islamic State is a watershed, a wake-up call for many in the Arab and the Muslim world desperate for change. It has fuelled a long-overdue debate among Arabs and Muslims about the kind of world they want to live in.

In an essay earlier this month entitled ‘The Barbarians Within Our Gates,’ prominent Washington-based journalist Hisham Melhelm wrote: “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism — the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition — than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago… The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays — all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism, both in its military and atavistic forms.... The jihadists of the Islamic State, in other words, did not emerge from nowhere. They climbed out of a rotting, empty hulk — what was left of a broken-down civilization.”

For his part, Turki al-Hamad, a liberal Saudi intellectual, questioned how Saudi religious leaders could confront the Islamic State’s extremist ideology given that they promote similar thinking at home and abroad. Writing in the London-based newspaper Al Arab, Hamad argued that the Saudi clergy was incapable of confronting the extremism of groups like the Islamic State “not because of laxness or procrastination, but because they share the same ideology."

Neither Melhelm nor Hamad are Islamists. Yet, they reflect widespread soul-searching among Islamists and non-Islamists across the Arab world. Theirs is a debate that predates the rise of the Islamic State but has been pushed centre stage by the jihadists. It is a debate that is at the core of tackling the root causes on which jihadists groups feed. It is a debate that threatens to be squashed by a policy that focuses on military rather than political solutions and promotes status quo regimes whose autocracy chokes off opportunities for the venting of wide-spread discontent and anger, leaving violence and extremism as one of the few, if not the only, option to force change.

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

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