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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Mounting Israeli-Palestinians tensions reverberate on the soccer pitch

Beitar Jerusalem fans

By James M. Dorsey

Mounting tension between Israel and Palestinians on the occupied West Bank and in East Jerusalem have spilt on to Israeli Palestinian soccer pitches in Israel proper as Israel swings towards ultra-nationalists that make Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu look like the best card in a bad hand.

Israeli human rights and legal advocacy group Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights charged in a petition to the Tel Aviv district court that the Israel Football Association (IFA) was segregating Israeli and Palestinian teams and discriminating Israeli Palestinian players in its Shomron amateur division. Adalah was acting on behalf of Muhammad Lutfi from the Israeli town of Umm al-Fahem, the father of a young Israeli Palestinian soccer player.

In its petition to the court Adalah said the IFA had advised 13 of the 15 Palestinian teams in the division that they were being moved into a division for Palestinians only. The remaining two Palestinian teams would be grouped in a division alongside 12 Israeli Jewish teams, Adalah said. Adalah asserted that the regrouping was sparked by objections by some Israeli Jewish parents against their children playing with Palestinians.

The case was filed in the wake of this summer’s Gaza war during which fuelled anti-Palestinian and ultra-nationalist sentiment in Israel. With Mr. Netanyahu privately anticipating early elections, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party and a proponent of the Israeli settler movement has emerged as a formidable threat to the prime minister. 

Mr. Bennett has threatened to bring the government down by abstaining if not voting in favour of a no-confidence vote in parliament on Monday if Mr. Netanyahu refuses to authorize further housing projects in occupied Palestinian territory. Mr. Netanyahu could waylay Mr. Bennett’s effort by reaching out to religious parties.

The Israeli Palestinian soccer tensions also come amid increasing unrest in Jerusalem with Palestinian youths and Israeli security forces clashing over access to the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. The stealth acquisition by Israeli settlers of properties in Jerusalem’s predominantly Palestinian district of Silwan that sits just under the Temple Mount has further fuelled tension. Jewish residents have moved into the newly acquired properties in the neighbourhood in the middle of the night in a bid to avert Palestinian protests.

In a letter to the parents involved in the court case, the IFA appeared to acknowledge that objections by Israeli Jewish parents had played a role in its decision. ““We will not contradict the desires of the clubs (regarding the divisions), and we will not force a child to play in a league that is not joyful for him/her and that does not help his/her professional development”. The IFA said it was referring to differing playing levels.

“The petition contended that segregation between children based on their national belonging delivers a negative message that Arab teams are unwanted and are not skilled enough to play with Jewish teams. This message is offensive to children and violates their right to equality with Jewish children… the decision of the IFA to segregate the teams, even if only in certain areas, reinforces discrimination and prejudices against Arab citizens of Israel,” Adalah said in a statement.

“Furthermore, the IFA’s decision to not distribute teams according to objective general standards, regardless of national belonging, will strengthen and perpetuate the lack of respect and lack of acceptance of others. This is particularly important in the matter of children’s sports, where it should not only teach children to be successful but to also teach them the values of mutual respect for different people,” Adalah said.

The law suit coincided with the imposition by the IFA of a fine on Israeli’s leading Palestinian team, Bnei Sakhnin, long viewed as a symbol of Israeli-Palestinian co-existence, for engaging in politics by honouring a controversial Israeli Palestinian former member of parliament as well as Qatar. Israel has turned on Qatar because of the Gulf state’s support for Hamas, the Islamist militia that controls the Gaza strip, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The honouring was intended as an expression of gratitude to former deputy Azmi Bishara for arranging funding from Qatar for the club at the height of the Gaza war. Qatar is the only Arab country that does not officially recognize Israel to have openly invested in the Jewish State. Bnei Sakhnin it turned to Mr. Bishara for help after Israel authorities had refused to come to the club’s financial rescue.

Mr. Bishara, a close associate of Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, moved to Qatar in 2007 amid suspicion that he had spied for Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

To be sure, the 15,000 Israeli shekel ($4,000) fine was light against the backdrop of calls by members of Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet, including Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to expel Bnei Sakhnin from Israel’s Premier League.

Israeli-Palestinian tension was further reflected in soccer with fans of Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most racist anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim soccer group chanting during a soccer match this week “Jerusalem is ours” and “48,” a reference to the 1948 Israeli-Arab war from which Israel emerged as an independent state. The Beitar fans were responding to a banner hoisted in Bnei Sakhnin’s Doha Stadium during a match immediately after the controversial ceremony which had the words “Jerusalem is ours” inscribed beneath a picture of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites.

Israeli President Reuven Rivkin summed up the mounting tension by saying that “Jerusalem cannot be a city where the light rail, which services all the city’s residents, is attacked in a way that threatens the ability to lead a normal life.” Mr. Rivkin was referring to this week’s ramming of a train station by a Palestinian car driver. A three-month old baby was killed in the incident. It was not clear whether the incident was an accident or an attack by the driver. “Jerusalem cannot be a city into which moving into apartments happens in the middle of the night,” Mr. Rivkin went on to say.

Israeli youths responded to the train station incident with a demonstration calling for revenge. “Arabs, beware! Jewish blood is not valueless,’’ they chanted.

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.

Saudi War With Islamic State Echoes Kingdom’s Own Past (JMD quoted on Bloomberg)

Saudi War With Islamic State Echoes Kingdom’s Own Past

Photographer: Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images
Smoke and dust rise over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the... Read More
When Saudi rulers send warplanes on missions against Islamic State, they’re targeting a group whose theocratic ideology and roots in desert warfare overlap at least partly with the kingdom’s own present and past.
The world’s largest oil exporter has evolved into a mostly urban society in its eight decades of statehood, yet nomadic fighters erupting from the desert in a blaze of religious zeal are still part of its foundation narrative. Today inSaudi Arabia, as in the territory controlled by Islamic State inSyria and Iraq, women must wear black abayas, shops all close during prayer times, religious police enforce Islamic laws and criminals face violent punishment.
Saudi Arabia, like its longtime U.S. ally, sees Islamic State as a terrorist group and has joined the war against it. Yet the jihadists share some common ground with their Saudi opponents, even if that’s outweighed by their differences, and they have sympathizers in the kingdom, according to Gregory Gause, head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University. Some Saudis view the U.S.-led bombing campaign as a Western plot against the Muslim world, and such sentiments have provoked a backlash in the past, especially when U.S. troops were allowed into the kingdom to fight the 1991 Gulf War.
Photographer: Jm Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
A flag of the Islamic State is seen on the other side of a bridge at the frontline of... Read More

‘Same Texts’

Islamic State refers to “the same texts that the Saudi government and official clergy do on religious questions,” and there are “similarities in terms of enforcing public morality,” Gause said. The group’s biggest threat to the kingdom is “its ability to recruit sympathizers within Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi rulers have been trying to prevent their citizens from fighting abroad in Islamist causes since the Syrian war escalated, and the top clerics have denounced Islamic State.
Courts have sentenced more than 30 people to prison this week for conspiring to attack U.S. forces based in Qatar and Kuwait and for supporting the killing of foreigners and government officials in the kingdom, the official Saudi Press Agency said. They included four women said to have encouraged their children to join overseas wars. There have been more than 200 terrorism-related convictions in the past two months.

Militant Movement

The kingdom’s austere form of Islam dates to a 1744 pact between the Al Saud family, now its rulers, and Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, a religious scholar who denounced the practices of the era’s Muslims as impure. Their alliance created a “militant Wahhabi movement” and marked the beginnings of a Saudi state, according to Michael Cook’s 2000 book, “Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought.”
The modern state was founded in 1932 by Abdulaziz Al Saud, the current king’s father, after a campaign of conquest backed by Wahhabi Muslim warriors known as the Ikhwan and famed for their ardor during battle. When the Ikhwan took Taif near Mecca in 1924, they plundered the city for three days, killing an estimated 400 people, Eugene Rogan wrote in “The Arabs: A History,” published in 2009
Saudi religious thought has evolved and “the Wahhabism of today isn’t in favor of the jihadi movement,” said Fahad A. Alhomoudi, the founder of the Western Studies Institute in Saudi Arabia. Islamic State is “more of a militant movement, instead of an Islamic movement,” said Alhomoudi, formerly a professor at the School of Law at Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University.

Dual Threat

Violence combined with an appeal to Islamic theology has marked Islamic State’s rapid advance across Syria and Iraq, where it has declared a caliphate on land it conquered. Promotional videos show the beheading or torture of captives or battle scenes, interspersed with Koranic citations.
This combination means that the Saudis see a dual threat when they look at Islamic State, said Paul Pillar, a former intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Its military prowess is “a possible short-term threat to any established power in the region,” and the jihadist group could also “in the longer term be seen as a challenge to the Saudi regime’s religiously-based claim to legitimacy,” Pillar, now a professor at Georgetown University, said in an e-mail.
Much of Islamic State’s violence has been directed toward Shiite Muslims, as well as Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria, and also toward women, who have been sold as slaves or subjected to forced marriages, Human Rights Watch said.

Offenders Flogged

While they’re not usually exposed to violence, the same groups are regularly featured in human rights reports critical of Saudi Arabia. Saudi clerics such as Mohammed al-Arefe, who has more than 9.5 million Twitter followers, mostly reject Shiite practices and dismiss women’s right to drive cars. Authorities today warned women against pursuing a campaign on the issue.
Other faiths are banned, and practitioners have been arrested by religious police for holding private services in their homes. Offenders can be flogged, or beheaded for serious crimes.
Islamic State and Wahhabi doctrines overlap in “puritanism and xenophobia toward non-Muslims and Shiite,” said David Commins, author of “The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia” and a professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

‘Caliphate Agenda’

A key difference is “the caliphate agenda,” Commins said, referring to the title used by Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The revival of a term used by earlier Islamic leaders suggests a wider ambition to rule all Muslims. “That was never part of Wahhabi doctrine,” Commins said.
Abdulaziz halted his expansion once most of the Arabian Peninsula was conquered, and turned against the Ikhwan, whose main leaders later surrendered to the British. That history underscores another distinction with Islamic State, that between an established power and an expansionist upstart, according to James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
“The House of Saud wants to ensure its grip on power,” and doesn’t seek to expand beyond its borders or “create one unified Muslim state that would be ruled by a caliph,” he said. “Islamic State seeks to topple existing regimes that it views as apostate.”
Saudi Arabia’s current ruler, the 90-year-old King Abdullah, has sought to change the kingdom. He has tentatively promoted women’s role in the workplace since ascending to the throne in 2005 and encouraged thousands of young Saudis to study abroad through a state-sponsored scholarship program.

‘Violence and Compulsion’

Comparing Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State “neglects the gradual but significant cultural change that has taken place since the 1990 Gulf War,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at JTG Inc., a consultancy based in Vienna, Virginia, who has worked for the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
“The Saudis have adopted a more inclusive narrative that tries to bridge the divide with the Shiite minority at home and the followers of other faiths abroad,” Nazer said. Islamic State puts “violence and compulsion at the center of its creed,” while Saudi clerics and writers have joined efforts to “discredit Islamic State’s religious narrative and to expose its heinous crimes.”
The Gulf War triggered an outpouring of criticism by Saudi religious scholars of the decision to let U.S. troops deploy in the kingdom. It was the last time, until this year, that the Saudis publicly sided with the Americans in a major Middle East conflict.

‘Lethal Boomerangs’

Adding to Saudi concerns is the fact that so many Saudi citizens are among the jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq. There are about 2,500 of them in Syria, the New York-based Soufan Group, a security research firm, estimated in a June report. Twelve of 21 Islamic State suicide bombings in Iraq since last month were carried out by Saudis, London-based al-Hayat newspaper said last week.
Jihadists who returned to the kingdom from past wars in Iraq and Afghanistan used skills they learned there to attack Saudi targets. Their appeal was enhanced by the fact that “Islam is essentially republican in spirit and more than skeptical about monarchy,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
“Those who are attracted to movements like Da‘esh are potentially lethal boomerangs against the Al Saud,’’ Freeman said in an e-mailed response to questions, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. ‘‘They consider violence against those with whom they disagree a religious duty.’’
Al-Qaeda also targeted the Al Saud, especially after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Its campaign ultimately failed, because ‘‘the state was strong enough to put them down’’ and rich enough to retain the loyalty of ‘‘the vast bulk of the Sunni population,’’ Gause said.
Islamic State ‘‘is basically the same as al-Qaeda politically and doctrinally, just more successful on the ground,’’ he said. It ‘‘might be a stronger opponent, if it can sustain a state-like entity in the region. That is a big if.’’

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Bahrain rattled by UK court’s opening of door to investigation of torture allegations

By James M. Dorsey

A failed effort by a public relations company representing Bahrain and a UK law firm acting on behalf of Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the commander of Bahrain's Royal Guard and head of its National Olympic Committee, to micromanage media coverage of this month’s lifting of the prince’s immunity by a British court reflects mounting unease in the island state and international sporting associations. The court decision opens the door to a British police investigation into whether or not Prince Nasser was involved in the torture of political detainees that could include three former players for the Bahraini national soccer team.

The five-day long effort by UK-based Bell-Yard Communications Ltd and London law firm Schillings was aimed at forcing this writer as well as The Huffington Post to adopt Bahrain’s narrow and partial interpretation of the court decision. That interpretation involved an inaccurate assertion that no investigation into whether or not Prince Nasser had been involved in torture of detainees could emerge from the court decision, that immunity had not been part of the grounds on which the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had initially refused to investigate, and that soccer players had noting to do with the investigation.

The lawyers and PR representatives appeared particularly concerned about the assertion that  the investigation could involve soccer players presumably because of the implications that could have for Prince Nasser’s Olympic status as well as that of a relative of his, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, the president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency, the prince's number two at the Bahrain Olympic Committee and the island state’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sport.

The UK High Court lifted Prince Nasser’s immunity in a case initiated by several Bahrainis who alleged that they were tortured in the aftermath of a popular uprising in Bahrain in 2011 that was brutally squashed by Saudi-backed security forces. The Bahrainis went to court after the CPS had refused to issue an arrest warrant for the prince on the grounds that his status in Bahrain granted him immunity in the UK. The prosecution said further that evidence submitted had been insufficient to justify an investigation. Because Prince Nasser was not a party to the proceedings, he had no opportunity to respond to the allegations in court.

The lawyers and PR representatives sought to have removed any reference in this writer’s article to a potential investigation or that immunity had played a role in the CPS’s thinking despite the fact that the prosecution in a statement to the court agreed to the lifting of Prince Nasser’s immunity in expectation that the Bahraini plaintiffs would submit further evidence. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said after the court hearing that the ruling opened the door to an investigation and that they would be providing additional evidence.

This writer corrected after publication a factual error in the original story. The story originally reported that an investigation had been opened rather than that the court ruling opened the door to an enquiry.

Nonetheless, in attempting to prevent fair and honest reporting, the lawyers and PR agents contradicted themselves. The attempt to force deletions that would have substantially altered the core of the story occurred despite the fact that Bell’s Melanie Riley had provided to this writer the statement of the prosecution to the court.

The prosecution said in the statement that “in the light of the Claimant’s intention to submit further evidence to the police (who are responsible for investigating the allegations), the Crown Prosecution Service has agreed to state to the police its view that immunity should not be a bar to any such investigation on the evidence currently available.”

Bahraini concern that the possible fallout of the court decision could affect not only Prince Nasser but also Sheikh Salman was evident in an email from Ms. Riley assertion that “there is no relevance to the AFC of yesterday’s proceedings.”

Sheikh Salman, according to information submitted to the prosecution, headed a committee established in 2011 by a decree by Prince Nasser to take measures against those guilty of insulting Bahrain and its leadership. Prince Nasser formed the committee after an earlier royal decree had declared a state of emergency. The royal decree allowed the Bahrain military to crackdown on the protests and establish military courts, according to the information provided to the prosecutor.
Sheikh Salman, a former soccer player who also serves as head of the Bahrain Football Association, is running next year in AFC presidential elections, which if he wins would give him an automatic seat on the executive committee of world soccer body FIFA.

The prosecutor was further furnished with a publicly available video clip in which Prince Nasser called for the punishment on television of those including athletes who participated in anti-government demonstrations. More than 150 athletes and sports officials, including the three national soccer players, were arrested or dismissed from their jobs at the time. Many have since been reinstated.

The failed Bahraini effort to micromanage reporting of Prince Nasser’s case, involving insinuations that this writer’s report was defamatory and demands that their unsolicited correspondence to a US publisher not be reported on, reflects greater sensitivity to image and reputation of Gulf states that also include the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, who stand accused of violations of human and labour rights. All three states have been put to varying degrees under the magnifying glass because of their hosting of major events, including the 2022 World Cup, the 2020 World Expo, Formula-1 races and ambitions to host similar events like the Olympic Games as well as their association with prominent educational and cultural institutions such as New York University and the Guggenheim Museum.

The various states have used different strategies to counter allegations of violations of human and labour rights. While Qatar has by and large engaged with its critics, Bahrain and the UAE have sought to prevent negative reporting by barring critical journalists and academics from entering their country.

Qatar, despite its engagement with human rights groups and trade unions, has not been immune to such tactics. Saleem Ali, a former visiting fellow at the Qatar-funded Brookings Doha Center, told The New York Times that he was advised during his job interview that he could not take positions critical of the Qatari government. At the same time, Qatar has sought to win hearts and minds in the United States with the establishment of Al Jazeera America, part of its global television network, and the expansion in the US of its belN sports television franchise.

Qatar’s strategy backfired when Britain’s Channel Four disclosed that the Gulf state had hired Portland Communications founded by Tony Allen, a former adviser to Tony Blair when he was prime minister, to create a soccer blog that wrongly claimed to be “truly independent” and represent “a random bunch of football fans, determined to spark debate,” but in fact served to attack its detractors.

For its part, the UAE has spent lavishly on public relations engaging, according to The Intercept, a US firm to demonize Qatar because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. The UAE is also suspected of supporting a network of Norway and France-based human rights groups that sought to project the Emirates as a champion of human rights despite crackdowns that have involved political trials denounced by international human rights groups and derided Qatar’s record.

Disclosing the UAE’s efforts to shape reporting in the US media, The Intercept noted that “the point here is not that Qatar is innocent of supporting extremists… The point is that this coordinated media attack on Qatar – using highly paid former U.S. officials and their media allies – is simply a weapon used by the Emirates, Israel, the Saudis and others to advance their agendas.”

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Soccer and militant Islam intersect in incidents across the Middle East

Tunisian soccer player-turned-jihadist Nidhal Selmi

By James M. Dorsey

A successful soccer player near the peak of his career, 22-year Nidhal Selmi died last week a foreign fighter for the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq. His death followed that of Tunisian handball goalkeeper Ahmed Yassin and Ahmed El-Darawi, a former policeman and Islamist parliamentary candidate who arranged soccer sponsorships for the Egyptian affiliate of Dubai telecommunications company Etisalat. Mr. El-Darawi, a supporter of the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq.

The deaths of Messrs. Selmi, Yassin and El-Darawi highlight political Islam’s attraction as a channel for protest, a cry of desperation, or the venting of pent-up anger and frustration-turned-hopelessness. They also spotlight militant Islam’s convoluted relationship to soccer. So does the role militant soccer fans aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood play in mass student protests in Egypt and controversy in Israel over an Israeli Palestinian team that honoured a former Palestinian member of parliament who was accused of aiding Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah.

It was not immediately clear what persuaded Mr. Selmi to give up his promising career as a player for one of Tunisia’s most prestigious clubs, Etoile Sportive de Tunis, as well as Tunisia’s national team. Like Mr. El-Darawi and Ahmed Yassin, a handball goalkeeper, who earlier joined thousands of  Tunisians in Syria and was killed fighting for the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, Mr. Selmi appears to have become disillusioned about prospects for change, appalled by the slaughter in Syria, and convinced that Sunni Muslims were under attack.

The attraction to Syria and Iraq parallels in some ways the left’s pull to the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. Both represent a front line in a global battle. For the left, Spain constituted the frontline against fascism. For Muslims and non-Muslims, Syria and Iraq are the frontline in the struggle against authoritarian brutality committed for some by autocratic regimes like that of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad or for others by jihadists such as Islamic State.

In the minds of many of these fighters on both sides of the divide, the West has supported the brutality by all parties by refusing to enable Syrian rebels to defeat Mr. Assad’s forces and attacking Islamic State, the most potent rebel group opposed to his regime, and backing repressive regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. The perception of an existentialist global battle is further fuelled by sectarianism promoted by key autocratic allies of the US such as Saudi Arabia and the refusal of Arab members of the US-led alliance to distinguish between non-violent and violent expressions of political Islam.

Those perceptions are evidenced by the decision in recent days of Dutch and German bikers to travel to Syria to support embattled Kurds fighting to defeat Islamic State’s month-long attack on the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobani. They are entrenched by the willingness of Western governments to accept foreign fighters joining the Kurds as opposed to the criminalization of those coming to the aid of the Islamic State.

At the same time, Islamic State’s use in its propaganda and recruitment efforts of soccer as well as athletes is in stark contrast to the group’s banning of soccer in areas it controls and its multiple attacks on soccer stadia in Iraq. An Islamic State video earlier this year featured an apparent Portuguese fighter in Syria who was a former French international who had played for British premier league club Arsenal.

The video exploited the physical likeness of a masked jihadist fighter believed to be Celso Rodrigues Da Costa, to that of French international Lassana Diarra who played for Arsenal before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow. Burak Karan, an up and coming German-Turkish soccer star, who was killed a year ago during a Syrian military raid on anti-Assad rebels near the Turkish border appeared at the time in an Islamic State video clip. Jihadists “have finally embraced the idea that nothing can truly be put into perspective today unless it is filtered through the prism of our own fametastic Premier League,” The Guardian quipped in a satirical editorial commenting on Mr. Da Costa’s appearance.

The brutal crackdown in Egypt on students protesting against last year’s military coup that toppled President Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s first and only democratically elected president, further raises the spectre of radicalization as a result of criminalization of all forms of political Islam. A core group among the students is Ultras Nahdawy. The group was formed by militant supporters of storied Cairo clubs Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC that supports the Brotherhood, according to Yasser Thabet, the author of an Arabic-language book on Egyptian soccer.

Ultras Nahdawy’s influence is visible in video clips of the student protests in which protesters much like militant soccer fans jump up and down while chanting and fire off coloured flares and smoke bombs. In a further effort to criminalize what has been in essence peaceful soccer-related protest, a Cairo court is considering a ban of Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of Zamalek that like its Ahli counterpart played a key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak and subsequent protests against military rule.

Ironically, calls for the punishment of Bnei Sakhnin, a Palestinian club in northern Israel and a past winner of the Israel Cup, transcend sectarian lines but also highlight militant Islam’s appeal as a channel of protest. Right-wing politicians have demanded that Bnei Sakhnin be penalized for honouring Qatar that stands accused of supporting Islamists at the beginning of a recent soccer match. The club also honoured Azmi Bishara, a former member of the Israeli Knesset who moved to Qatar after authorities suggested he had been spying for Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Bnei Sakhnin is based in Sakhnin, an Israeli Palestinian town populated by Sunni Muslims and Christians.

Bnei Sakhnin fans sported a banner during the match with the words “Jerusalem is ours” inscribed beneath a picture of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The demonstration occurred as Palestinian youths and Israeli security forces clashed in Jerusalem over access to the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims. It also coincided with a statement by Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon that he was looking to manage not solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Bishara who heads the Doha-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies is widely viewed as a close associate of Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Qatar is the only Arab country that does not officially recognize Israel to have openly invested in the Jewish State. It funded the building of a stadium in Sakhnin several years ago and donated money to Bnei Sakhnin during the recent Gaza war. The Qatari funding came after Israel, according to Bnei Sakhnin, rejected a request for financial assistance.

“Penalties or fines are not sufficient measures for the action of the Bnei Sakhnin team last night,” Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat wrote on her Facebook page. In a similar statement that was likely to fuel a sense of alienation among Israeli Palestinians, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for the expulsion from Israel’s Premier League of Bnei Sakhnin, a team which long stood for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

Mr Lieberman sarcastically suggested that Bnei Sakhnin should consider playing in the Qatari or Palestinian soccer leagues instead. The response to what amounted to a protest by Bnei Sakhnin stands in stark contrast to the velvet glove treatment accorded to Bnei Sakhnin’s arch rival, Beitar Jerusalem, an openly racist, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim team that is only the Israeli squad that refuses to hire Israeli citizens of Palestinian descent.

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 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: 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


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.


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.

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

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

Les dessous du Qatar bashing


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.