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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Soccer match to test Egypt’s shift from street to parliamentary politics

Egyptian military patrols soccer match (Source: Reuters)

By James M. Dorsey

Egypt is testing with a partial lifting of a ban on fans attending soccer matches whether the country after 18 months of political volatility, including violent protests before and after last year’s ousting of president Hosni Mubarak that led to the republic’s first free elections, has finally returned to a more peaceful resolution of political and moral issues.

An interior ministry decision to allow a limited number of fans, who played a key role in the protests before and after the toppling of Mr. Mubarak constitutes a political victory for newly elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The ministry has in recent week resisted calls for a resumption of professional soccer matches in the presence of fans by members of the Morsi government, including sports minister El-Amry Farouq, and the government appointed acting head of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA).

The ministry suspended professional soccer and banned fans from matches in February in the wake of a politically loaded soccer brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said that left 74 militant soccer fans dead. It has since insisted that the suspension and the ban could only be lifted once cash-strapped soccer clubs had introduced proper security infrastructure and stringent security measures in Egyptian stadiums.

In an apparent softening of its position, the ministry this week said it would allow some supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, who are among the country’s most politicized, militant, well-organized and street battle-hardened fans, to attend an African Champions League game in Cairo against Ghana’s Berekum Chelsea.

In doing so the ministry appears to agree with scholars Eduardo P. Archetti and Amilcar G. Romero who almost two decades ago asserted that “football does not only reflect society or culture but is part of the way that a society models some of its central existential, political and moral issues.”

Fan behaviour on Saturday will serve as an indication of whether Egyptian society is shifting from street to parliamentary politics and the backroom horse trading associated with it. Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow at the end of 18 days of mass protests was followed by more than a year of street agitation and repeated vicious street battles between security forces and militant youth and soccer fan groups in which scores were killed and thousands injured.

The EFA has called on supporters of Zamalek to be on their best behaviour to ensure that they do not endanger next month’s planned resumption of premier league games. The matches are expected to be largely played in military stadiums.

Authorities are apprehensive following the storming of a pitch earlier this month in neighbouring Tunisia in which 22 police officers were injured. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) has expelled Etoile Sportieve du Tunis from the African club championship as punishment for the incident. Zamalek fans invaded the pitch last year in the first post revolt Egyptian-Tunisian encounter.

EFA spokesman Azmy Megahed said that the soccer body was relying “on Zamalek fans to display sportsmanship and send a message to the world that Egypt is safe. That match will also pave the way for the resumption of domestic football ahead of the league’s launch on 17 September."

Scholars who have studied violence in stadiums caution that violence is as much dependent on fan behaviour as it on attitudes and perceptions of security forces. Much of the violence in recent years in Egyptian stadiums and the clashes in the last 18 months were the result of deep-seated fan animosity towards security forces who are widely viewed as having brutally enforced the Mubarak regime’s repression. Calls for a reform of the Egyptian police and security forces have so far remained unheeded.

To the protesters and the militant soccer fans, defeating the police amounted to defeating what School of Oriental and African Studies professor Salwa Ismail  described as “fear and the culture of fear that continuous monitoring, surveillance, humiliation and abuse have created.” To ordinary Egyptians, the state represented by the security forces in the words of London School of Economics and Political Science historian John Calcraft is “in the detention cells, in the corrupt police stations, in the beatings, in the blood of the people, in the popular quarters.” 

Messrs. Archetti and Romero, describing Argentinian soccer violence noted that “the police in the stadia … are perceived not as neutral and shallow actors but as central and active participants. To resist and to attack the police force is thus seen as morally justified.” For their part, “the police came to define the fans as a political enemy. Stadiums were then converted into political arenas,” the two scholars said, warning that fan groups had evolved into well-trained fighting organizations.

Egypt’s militant soccer fans demonstrated their skill in the years of stadium battles in the run-up to Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow and the street battles since. By limiting the number of fans that will be allowed to attend Saturday’s African championship match, chances are the game will proceed peacefully. The threat of soccer violence is however likely to remain acute as long as the Morsi government does not move to reform the security forces and hold them accountable for their actions.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

FIFA investigates: World Cup host Qatar in the hot seat


By James M. Dorsey

Three major investigations into corruption in global soccer are putting the credibility of major soccer associations and World Cup 2022 host Qatar to the test and could challenge the Gulf state’s successful bid as well as a massive Asian soccer rights contract.

World soccer body FIFA’s newly-appointed corruption investigator Michael Garcia announced this week that he would investigate the controversial awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar as well as the 2018 tournament to Russia. FIFA Independent Governance Committee head Mark Pieth concluded earlier that the awarding of two the events had been “insufficiently investigated."

Allegations of impropriety in the awarding of the two events at the same FIFA executive committee meeting in December 2010 persist fuelled by the demise of FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, who stands accused of corruption and bribery. Mr. Bin Hammam is but one of several FIFA executive committees who have been forced out of office in the last two years because of corruption charges, sparking the worst scandal in the world soccer body’s 108 year-old history.

Speaking in a German television interview, Mr. Garcia said that the conduct of FIFA president Sepp Blatter would also be part of the inquiry. Mr. Blatter is widely viewed as having failed to put world soccer’s house in order so that the current scandal could have been avoided. "The more important the person involved is, the more important it is to examine them as well," Mr. Garcia said.

Mr. Blatter admitted in February that Qatar had colluded with Spain and Portugal to trade votes for their respective 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids in violation of FIFA regulations in effect contradicting an earlier investigation by the world soccer body that denied that there had been a vote swapping deal. “I’ll be honest, there was a bundle of votes between Spain and Qatar. But it was a nonsense. It was there but it didn’t work, not for one and not for the other side,” Mr. Blatter. Mr. Blatter was never called to account for his statement or his seeming endorsement of misconduct.

The investigation of the successful Qatari bid cannot be seen independently of a separate FIFA investigation as well as an AFC investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam’s affairs. Mr. Bin Hammam, despite repeated Qatari denials, was closely associated with the bid, according to sources close to both the world and the Asian soccer body. They said the investigations were likely to call into question the Qatari efforts to distance the Gulf state’s bid from Mr, Bin Hammam.

The FIFA investigation is focused on charges that Mr. Bin Hammam bribed Caribbean soccer officials to support his foiled challenge last year of Mr. Blatter in FIFA’s presidential elections. Mr. Bin Hammam is believed to have had Qatari endorsement of his presidential bid.

The Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS) earlier this year overturned FIFA’s banning of Mr. Bin Hammam for life from involvement in soccer because of the alleged bribery on the grounds of insufficient evidence, but stressed that the ruling was not a declaration of innocence. The court encouraged FIFA to conduct a proper investigation.

CAS justified its ruling in part on the grounds that a report by the Freeh Group owned by former FBI director Louis Freeh that served as part of the basis on which Mr. Bin Hammam was banned consisted of little more than circumstantial evidence.

The AFC has raised questions about the sincerity of its investigation by hiring the group despite CAS’s rejection of its earlier work. The group has been tasked with further investigating the findings of a report by PriceWaterhouse Cooper (PwC) that charged Mr. Bin Hammam had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account and raised questions about his negotiation of a $1 billion marketing and rights contract with Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG), a $300 million contract with the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television network and payments of $14 million to Mr. Bin Hammam by entities belonging to a Saudi businessman with a vested interest in the WSG deal. The PwC report further suggested that there may have been cases of AFC money laundering, tax invasion, bribery and busting of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea under Mr. Bin Hammam’s leadership.

Sources close to the AFC admitted that the Asian soccer body was putting its credibility on the line by hiring the company that CAS had so severely criticized. They said the Freeh Group report was weak because it had received only a limited mandate from FIFA for its initial investigation rather than due to sloppy work.

The AFC investigation further sets the stage for a more AFC exhaustive inquiry into Mr. Bin Hammam’s affairs as well as an independent probe by Malaysian judicial authorities. The Kuala Lumpur-based AFC has until early September under Malaysian law to report that it has on the basis of the PwC report reasonable suspicion of a legal offence.

The WSG master rights agreement (MRA) that according to sources close to the AFC handed the soccer body’s assets embodied in its rights to the company is certain to be at the core of both investigations. PwC questioned the fact that the contract  as well as the agreement with Al Jazeera had been awarded without being putting out to tender or financial due diligence. Sources close to AFC said the contract awarded WSG all the benefits while ensuring that AFC retained the potential liabilities. PwC said the contract failed to give AFC a right to audit WSG’s services or costs. “In comparison with similar-type agreements for other sports, it appears that the current MRA may be considerably undervalued,” the PwC report said.

The report charged further that Mr. Bin Hammam had received in February 2008 $12 million from Al Baraka Investment and Development Co , believed to be owned by Saudi billionaire Sheikh Saleh Kamel. “We understand that the Al Baraka Group may have been a 20% beneficial owner of the WSG group” (World Sport Group) with which the AFC signed a $1 billion master rights agreement (MRA) in June 2009 negotiated by Mr. Bin Hammam,” the report said.

Sources close to the AFC said the soccer body had been advised to conclude a service provider rather than a master rights agreement with WSG. This would have allowed the AFC to retain control of its rights, determine how they are exploited and enabled it to continuously supervise the quality of services provided by WSG. It would have also guaranteed that the AFC rather than WSG would have been the contracting party with broadcasters and sponsors and would have insulated the soccer body from any risk should WSG ever default, the sources said. They said the contract was out of sync with other international sports bodies that had shifted years ago from rights to service provider agreements.

The sources said the WSG agreement was further detrimental to AFC’s interests because it failed to precisely define what commercial rights were being granted. As a result, the sources said, AFC had effectively surrendered its treasure, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the soccer body to explore potential opportunities with third parties.

The sources said the contract put WSG in the driver’s seat with no oversight or transparency. They said WSG determined which AFC officials would be members of the committee that oversees WSG’s execution of the agreement. AFC further failed to insulate itself from any damages that could arise from WSG actions, the sources said. They said the made AFC increasingly dependent rather than enabling it to develop commercial and marketing expertise of its own. They suggested further that contract gave WSG rather than the AFC control of monies emanating from the agreement.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Egyptian politics after Mubarak - JMD on CNA

Egyptian politics after Mubarak

A year after former Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak was ousted, unhappiness remains widespread as Egyptians continue to protest against the slow reforms under the military rule.Recent bouts of violence in the country have raised questions about its path to democracy.
Dr Fahed Al-Sumait, Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute and Mr James Dorsey from S Rajaratnam School of International Studies with more insight.

The Arab Revolts: Impact on Central Asia

RSIS presents the following commentary The Arab Revolts: Impact on Central Asia by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 161/2012 dated 27 August 2012

The Arab Revolts:
Impact on Central Asia

 By James M. Dorsey  


The rise of Islamist forces in the complicated post-revolt transition in the Middle East and North Africa may have an impact on post-Soviet states in Central Asia, that are still struggling with transition to democracy or have yet to experience popular revolts.


Two years ago, the scenes in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek resembled those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the last 18 months. Mass anti-government protests demanding an end to autocratic rule toppled the country’s ruler despite attempts by security forces to squash them. The protests paved the way for presidential elections contested by a former prime minister under the ancient regime and a host of Islamist and non-Islamist candidates.

The Kyrgyz voters chose their former prime minister, Almazbek Atambayev as Central Asia’s first democratically elected president. Two years later Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the long outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was elected president of a post-revolt Egypt. Though the results may be different the elections represent two sides of a fundamental issue that both Central Asia and the Middle East and North Africa are grappling with: the rise of religious parties in their politics and public life.

Decades of neglected discontent in the Middle East and North Africa erupted in December 2010 in Tunisia, sparking a wave of popular revolts that has toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, fomented a civil war in Syria and has other Arab leaders scrambling to avoid being next.

Discontent is similarly simmering in the Central Asia region where half of the population is below the age of 30, and the constituent countries are largely ruled by former Soviet Communist Party bosses who became the presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan upon the demise and breakup of the Soviet Union. With countries like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan ranked among the world’s worst violators of basic freedoms, the region is feeling the impact of the revolts in the Arab world.

However, Central Asia’s sustained suppression of regime critics, including Islamists, and its efforts to severely curtail expressions of religion is bucking the trend towards a greater public role for religion seen in West Asia, such as the success of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and the rise of Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa as well as the growing influence of Christian evangelists in the United States.

A combustible mix

At a recent inter-faith meeting in Kazakhstan, a Christian participant was quoted by The National newspaper of the United Arab Republic as saying: "The removal of religion from the society also removes the values of the society. The atheist societies of the 20th century failed and were swept away. Faith is a natural desire of a human being. Societies that do not recognise this are not realistic. They will fail as well."

The suppression of Islamist forces in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union serves not only to maintain autocratic rule in most of the newly independent states but also as a mechanism for as long as it lasts to preserve stability in a  region that shares a long border with Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran where the confluence of religion and politics has produced a combustible mix.

Several of the Central Asian republics have experienced cross border attacks by Islamic militants, Uzbekistan is home to the jihadist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Tajikistan is still coping with the aftermath of a five-year civil war. A leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), Tajikistan foremost opposition group, was recently killed and another has disappeared in the rebellious province of Gorno-Badakhstan.

Polishing tarnished images
Nonetheless, the fate of autocratic leaders in the Middle East and North Africa holds  a cautionary lesson for Central Asian leaders whose raison d’etre is maintaining repressive autocratic powers despite economic mismanagement and widespread corruption. Some, like Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov see soccer as a way to polish their tarnished image, a tactic that bought deposed Arab leaders time but ultimately failed.

Karimov last year ordered authorities to build new stadiums, open new football schools, and expand training opportunities for players and referees. The Uzbek leader hoped to capitalize on the fact that a Uzbek club won the Asian Football Cup last year as well as an earlier success of the country’s Under-17 youth team. To cement his attempt to steal the show, Karimov persuaded Spanish giant Real Madrid to open a soccer school in Tashkent.

The moves did little to counter discontent, particularly among soccer fans frustrated with corruption in the sport. Clashes among fans have taken the regime by surprise. In Guzar, it took security forces a day to restore order after soccer riots that spilled into the town itself. Similar incidents have erupted in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. Celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Uzbek soccer have repeatedly been postponed because of delays in the completion of Tashkent’s showcase 35,000-seat Bunyodkor stadium amid fears that fans were unlikely to show the necessary enthusiasm.

Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s only middle-income country, last year experienced its first suicide bombing and several lethal attacks on police officers as a result of a crackdown on religion and a deteriorating economy. Discontent in the volatile Fergana Valley recently spilled into the streets of the Uzbek city of Andijan, where hundreds were killed during mass protests in 2005.

In breaking with its Central Asian neighbours, post-revolt Kyrgyzstan, like post-revolt Arab states,has allowed Islamist parties and groups to operate openly in a bid to take the sting out of their bite. The experience of Turkey shows that giving Islamists space has produced what many see as a model for the Middle East and North Africa and perhaps for Central Asia too.

The rise to power through the ballot box of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia is forcing them to focus on their country’s economic problems and to demonstrate their ability to reach out to secular and non-Muslim groups. While the jury is still out in Egypt and Tunisia, nonetheless, it strengthens the basis for international pressure on Central Asian autocrats to loosen the reins and move towards greater transparency and accountability. If that comes about it might well be the most lasting impact of the Arab revolts on the post-Soviet states of Central Asia.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist covering the Middle East for over 30 years.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Reinstituting Egypt’s Premier League: A Political Tug of War

Port Said riot: 74 dead (Source: Reuters)

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian security authorities, reluctant to lift a seven-month old ban on professional soccer, are considering testing the waters by allowing a limited number of fans to attend a closed door African championship match scheduled to be played in Cairo next month.

The move would constitute a small victory for Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in his tug of war with the country’s security establishment. Mr. Morsi recently scored an important win by changing the top guard of the armed forces and successfully grabbing executive and legislative power from the military.

The battle for the lifting of the ban on professional soccer that has financially hurt the football industry severely and allowing fans back into the stadium is a litmus test of Mr. Morsi’s ability to impose his will on the unreformed interior ministry and its police and security forces, the country’s most distrusted institution because of its role as enforcers of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime.

Officials of Mr. Morsi’s government have so far unsuccessfully pushed for a resumption of professional soccer with the attendance of fans who played a key role in the toppling of Mr. Mubarak. The officials as well as the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) are calling for the Premier League to kick off on September 16, but have yet to get interior ministry approval. The ministry this week agreed however to allow the Super Cup final between crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC and ENPPI to be played on September 8 behind closed doors and to admit some fans to an African Championship League match between Al Ahly arch rival Al Zamalek SC and Ghana’s Chelsea Berekum.

The military, the interior ministry, government officials, soccer executives and militant soccer fans have in recent weeks been locked in a complex dance focused on the security authorities’ refusal to lift the ban imposed in the aftermath of the death of 74 fans in February in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

Egypt’s military rulers are employing the security-inspired sustained ban on soccer as a tool to undermine radical, highly-politicized and street battle-hardened soccer fans who emerged as the North African country’s most militant opponents of the armed force’s grip on politics and proponents of security service reform in the walk-up to Mr. Morsi's presidency.

Their concern has been reinforced by last week's clash in Tunisia between security forces and soccer fans in which 22 policemen were injured that followed the throwing of smoke bombs and the storming of the pitch by fans of Etoile Sportive du Sahel unhappy with their team’s poor performance against Esperance Sportive du Tunis. The incident has sparked calls for the banning of Tunisian fans from soccer matches.

The Egyptian effort to side line soccer as a national past time is in stark contrast to ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s use of the game to enhance his image and distract public attention from politics. It also counters Mr. Morsi, who has vowed to free soccer and sports in general from corruption and political interference and sees the resumption of professional soccer as a sign of Egypt's return to normalcy after 18 months of volatility.

The government recently installed a new EFA board tasked with organizing within 60 days elections in the soccer body. Three competing lists – members of the Mubarak-era board, Islamist players and independent reformers – are campaigning for the election.

The interior ministry has so far refused to lift the ban on soccer imposed in the wake of the Port Said incident as long as enhanced security, including electronic gates, airport-style scanners and security cameras have not been installed in Egyptian stadiums.

While not unreasonable, the demand ignores the fact that security forces stood aside during the brawl in Port Said in what was widely believed to be an effort to teach a lesson to the militant soccer fans that got out of hand. It also fails to take account of the fact that the military and the government have refrained from reforming the interior ministry and its security forces.

That is not going unnoticed in a post-revolt environment in which the public is no longer distracted from politics. Media focus on Mr. Morsi rather than soccer contrasts starkly with the Mubarak era when, for example, the media at the regime’s behest focused on the beautiful game rather than the sinking of a ferry in which 1,100 people died. Public sentiment at the time blamed government corruption for their deaths.

“The balance is being reset,” Egypt Independent recently quoted American University of Cairo political scientist Emad Shahin as saying.

As a result, the debate about soccer is as much about politics as it is about sports. It is a debate that is likely to be fought out politically rather than on the pitch. However, failure to resolve the issue politically risks fans demanding reinstitution of soccer and their right to attend matches on the street rather than at the negotiating table.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Monday, August 20, 2012

Identity politics shape Middle Eastern and North African soccer

Hany Ramzy: The exception that confirms the rule

By James M. Dorsey

Hany Ramzy returned to Egypt from this month’s London Olympics a soccer hero and a model in a country and a region in which identity politics rather national identity often governs the beautiful game.

A Coptic Christian and one-time legendary national soccer team captain in a squad whose former national coach Hassan Shehata established Muslim piety as a criterion for membership equal to skill, Mr. Ramzy, the coach of Egypt’s Olympic soccer team, symbolizes what is possible as well as the immense problems Middle Eastern and North African nations have in coming to grips with their ethnic and religious minorities.

Popular uprisings in the past year in countries like Syria and Bahrain have turned sectarian as are protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and the fallout of the insurgency in Syria in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq that have sectarian or ethnic overtones. Soccer teams across the region in Iran, Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan, Egypt, Algeria, Palestine and Jordan are often as much about sports as they are about identity.

Mr. Ramzy led his team to the quarterfinals in London against the backdrop of a popular revolt that forced president Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office and 18 months of political volatility and violence. In one incident last October, 28 people, mostly Copts, were killed and 212 injured when security forces and the military attacked demonstrators protesting against the demolition of a church in Upper Egypt.

“Egypt’s participation in the Olympics could not be more symbolic of the role sports plays as a means to regain national pride and social unity,” said journalist Mustafa Abdelhalim in an analysis published by Common Ground that was as much about hope as it was about reality.

To be sure, Copts play in Egyptian premier league teams as do Kurds in Iraqi squads, Palestinians in Israel, Berbers in Algeria and Azeris in Iran. Mr. Ramzy is credited with Egypt’s winning of the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations championship. And the Egyptian national team has no doubt abandoned its religious discrimination under its current coach, American Bob Bradley.

Yet, major teams in the region, including Traktorsazi in the Iranian province of Eastern Azerbaijan, Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar Jerusalem in Israel and Jeunesse Kabyle in Algeria as well as the national teams of Iraqi Kurdistan and Palestine are key tools in projecting national or sectarian identities. So are the at times violent protests of their supporters.

Mr. Ramzy, one of the few if not the only Coptic Egyptian national team player in past decades, is the exception that proves the rule in a country in which the Coptic Church has its own Copts-only soccer league believed to include hundreds of clubs and some 10,000 players. Mr. Ramzy is believed to owe his success to a significant extent to the fact that he earned prestige by being hired by various European teams, including Neuchâtel Xamax, Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern.

“In Egypt, there is a problem that many people don't even consider. This problem relates to not allowing the Copts to play in the national teams of sports, especially soccer which is the most popular game in Egypt. Marginalization of young Copts by the Football Association and the administrations of Egyptian clubs resulted in having no Coptic players in the core teams. Youth teams have very few Copts and they are laid off as soon as they reach certain age and never take the chance to promote,” says Safwat Freeze Ghali, writing on the website of Copts United.

Charging that soccer discrimination against Copts encourages discrimination by Muslims and anger and hate among Copts, who account for some 10 per cent of all Egyptians, Mr. Ghali speaks out of personal experience.

“I suffered from this problem with my son who was born in 1995 and has a great talent in soccer. Many people have said so after they saw him playing. My son then started in a small club, but never took a chance to play. His coach treats him so badly and his colleagues make fun of his Christian name. His coach told him: I won't let you touch the ball (play in the team) and never ask me why! We got fed up and I took him to a bigger club and they liked him very much and promised to recruit him but they never did. Then, I moved him to another club where they liked him too, but when the coach knew his name (a Christian name), he said: We'll see, later!,” Mr. Ghali wrote.

Under the leadership of Hassan Shehata, a legendary pro-Mubarak coach who resigned last year after leading Egypt to three successive African titles, the unwritten rule was that only practicing Muslims could join the national team. Players prayed before games for God’s intervention and offered up prayers of thanks for goals and victories. To join the team, players had to pass a religious a pious behaviour litmus test alongside demonstrating their soccer skills. “Without it, we will never select any player regardless of his potential,” Mr. Shehata, who dumped a talented player for visiting a nightclub rather than a mosque, was quoted as saying. “I always strive to make sure that those who wear the Egypt jersey are on good terms with God.” Mr. Shehata’s statements and policy sparked furore but no change.  

At the time, it apparently never occurred to Mr. Sheheta that his righteous squad may have lost its critical 2010 World Cup qualifier game because God loves Algeria and its team too. It seemingly also never occurred to world soccer body FIFA to stop a dangerous trend in its tracks. Imagine what would happen if other national teams had follow Egypt’s example; if England had insisted that its players worship in the Church of England; Italy made Catholicism the team’s central tenet; Germany booted all Turkish Muslims off the field;  Japan played only Buddhists; and Israel declared itself a Jewish team for a Jewish state and exiled its Arab players. Not to speak of the limitations it would put on recruiting top players.  

“In June 2012 London’s Wembley Stadium was the site of a ‘faith and football’ day that united students from Muslim, Christian and Jewish schools. This event was planned by the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), a UK-based organization dedicated to building relationships between people of all faiths, and the UK Football Association, which officially oversees the sport in the country. Egyptians could replicate this example by creating nationwide leagues to promote intergroup and interfaith cooperation. These teams could include anyone who wants to participate in the sport and make Egyptians’ shared interest in sports a tool for a more inclusive society,” suggests Mr. Abdelhalim.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Soccer weaves a thread through Syrian rebels and Assad forces

Fawwaz al Assad's soccer club website: Bashar without the thugs

By James M. Dorsey

Soccer, never distant from Middle Eastern politics, weaves its own thread through the brutal battle for the future of Syria, wracked by the Arab world’s most protracted and most bloody revolt against autocratic rule to date.

If Syrian nation youth team goalkeeper Abdelbasset Saroot symbolized for much of the past 17 months the resilience of peaceful protest in the besieged and battered city of Homs, soccer similarly goes to the heart of the shabiha, the irregular, civilian-clad, armed groups blamed for many of the atrocities believed to have been committed by forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

In a fascinating account of the history of the shabiha, whose designation derives from the Arabic word for ghost, Syrian Comment, traces the origins of these criminals to members of the Assad family as well as young, desolate Alawites in northern Syria who saw their escape from poverty and humiliation in becoming wealthy and prestigious on the back of smuggling of banned luxury goods from Lebanon and involvement in soccer.

Witnesses as well as opposition and human rights groups hold the shabiha responsible for a host of atrocities over the past 17 months, including the killing of 21 peaceful protesters in Latakia in March 2011, another 21, a month later in Homs and scores of demonstrators in May 2011 in Banias, Jableh, and Latakia. Shabiha are further accused of conducting a scorched earth campaign in northwestern Syria, burning crops, ransacking houses, shooting protesters and according to The Washington Post raping women. Shabiha are also believed to have committed the massacre in May of this year in Houla, a region north of Homs in which 108 people, including 49 children, were killed and in June in Al Qubair in which 78 people, many of them women and children died.

While the term shabiha has come to mean thugs rather than ghosts in Syria, the associated verb, shabaha, describes a goalkeeper, a shabih, jumping into the air or going airborne to stop an opponent’s attack, according to Syrian Comment. The shabih jumps and saves whether he was the soccer goalkeeper or the smuggler who enabled his clients to jump in status with the goods he provided.

Fawwaz al-Assad, a cousin of Bashar’s, who is widely viewed as the original shabih who rose to control the lucrative port of Latakia and its adjacent smuggling route, started as a fervent supporter of the city’s Tishreen soccer team before becoming its president. Syrian Comment recalls Fawwaz driving in “his big Mercedes” a demonstrative loop around the Al-Assad stadium before sitting on a chair in a fenced off area track reserved for players and coaches to watch a match.

“Always Fawwaz would have few words with the referee before the game also. In one very famous incident Fawwaz took his gun out and let out some shots. The game was between Hutteen and Tishreen and a forward scored on an offside goal for Fawwaz’ team Tishreen. The referee in that famous incident changed his mind after the gun shot to claim the goal in favor of Fawwaz’ team. That made Fawwaz happier and he let out more shots. Fawwaz was a real bully and acted like one,” Syrian Comment reported.

Fawwaz is largely credited in given the word shabih in Syria the meaning of thug rather than ghost. The European Union put Fawwaz and his brother Munzir, who ranks with Fawwaz among the original shabiha but remained on the background, on its sanctions list in May for alleged involvement in "the repression against the civilian population as members of the shabiha".

If Fawwaz inspires fear and disgust, Abdelbassat represents inspiration and resilience. A celebrated national soccer team goalkeeper, singer of revolutionary folk songs and cheerleader of the uprising in Homs, Abdelbassat has set a model that has been followed by other soccer players and athletes. Soccer national team goalkeeper Mosab Balhous is believed to be dead after his arrest a year ago on charges of harboring a ‘terrorist gang’ and ‘taking money to instigate unrest’.  Silver medal winner in the 2004 Athens Olympics Nasser al-Shami is reportedly recovering from wounds he suffered when a sniper fired at him in Hama.

Lulu Shanku, a Syrian national team player returned to his Swedish premier league team Syrianska disgusted with the corruption in Syrian soccer and the intimidation of players by the Assad regime. In some ways, he may have jumped from the fire into the frying pan. Power within the Swedish team is believed to rest with Ghayath Moro, an Assyrian who left Syria in the 1970s and a former Syrianska board member, who now serves as its unelected head of security. Former club board members and officials say that Mr. Moro, a mechanic and failed gas station owner, had close ties to members of Soderatalje’s criminal underground including Bülent Özcan Melke Aslanoglu, the fugitive brother of the club’s coach Özcan Melkemichel.

Aslanoglu disappeared after the killing in a struggle for underground power of Lebanese-Assyrian Syrianska rival Assyriska goalkeeper Eddie Moussa, widely seen as an act of revenge for the criminal dealings of his brother, Danny. “How much of Syrianska’s rise was funded by crime money is the million dollar question. That was probably more the case until the team became more successful,” said Eric Niva, one of Sweden’s top investigative sports reporters.

Replying to a question posed to Mr. Shanku in an interview in May about the fate of Mosab Balhous, Mr. Moro charged that “Mossab disappeared because of one of the gangsters against the regime.” Using terminology employed by the regime, the Syrianska official denounced Syrian protesters and rebels as “gangsters” and accused the United States, Israel and Al Qaeda of waging war against Mr. Assad. “It has been a year and three months now. It is clear that the people want Assad,” Mr. Moro said. He asserted that Syrian forces had captured 12 French and some 25 Turkish generals who had been supporting the rebellion, but could produce no evidence or reporting to back up his claim.

Pakistani The News reporter Naveed Ahmad quoted in late July acclaimed Syrian athlete Yasser Nasrullah as saying in the besieged city of Aleppo where he joined the rebel Free Syrian Army and shouldered a rocket-propelled grenade: “Over the last one year, the only popular sport for the youth has been raising slogans against Bashar Al-Assad and his allies while the regime played game of bloodshed. “I always dreamed of gold, silver and bronze medals but now I score Russian-made tanks and artillery,” he said, claiming to have already knocked out more than 20 Syrian tanks.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Arab Spring Revisited: From Mass Protests to Local Revolts

RSIS presents the following commentary The Arab Spring Revisited: From Mass Protests to Local Revolts by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at

No. 156/2012 dated 16 August 2012
The Arab Spring Revisited:
From Mass Protests to Local Revolts
 By James M. Dorsey

The push for change in the Middle East and North Africa, dominated by the bloody civil war in Syria, has morphed from mass anti-government protests in the capitals into a wave of smaller, political and socio-economic protests often in the outlying towns, that could lead to a second round of anti-regime demonstrations in countries that have so far managed to control widespread discontent.
Televised pictures of mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as well as in Tunis, Tripoli and Sana’a have been replaced by scenes of bitter military battles in Syria’s main cities and towns. However, the impression that the wave of peaceful protests that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen has lost momentum is deceptive.

A wave of smaller, more local protests in outlying towns suggest a radical shift in the Middle East and North Africa: a once relatively docile, cowed population is applying a new assertiveness, a sense of empowerment acquired from the initial success of the Arab revolts to push demands for reform. They focus their objective on holding their governments accountable for creating the political conditions that will bring jobs and achieve economic growth and demonstrate that popular discontent continues to boil across the region in both pre-and post-revolt countries.

Revolts in waiting

Bahrain remains a second popular revolt-in-waiting. Last year’s Saudi-backed brutal crackdown drove protesters from Pearl Square in the capital Manama into the villages where smaller groups of demonstrators clash with security forces almost daily. Security forces used teargas and birdshot earlier this month to disperse protestors in three different locations outside the capital. Some 45 people were injured and 40 arrested. The protests are fuelled by the government’s failure to enact reforms that would put an end to the discrimination of the majority Shiite population and engage seriously in talks with the opposition.
Confrontation in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia has intensified as the government cracks down on protesters demanding an end to discrimination of the predominantly Shiite population by a Wahhabi regime whose puritan interpretation of Islam views them as heretics. Earlier this month, masked gunmen shot and wounded a border guard while a policeman and an armed protester were killed when a security patrol came under heavy gunfire. Activists are preparing for another mass protest in the region a month after a prominent opposition cleric was shot while being arrested.

While protests in the Gulf are fuelled by sectarian resentment and demands for the rights of the stateless, demonstrations in much of the rest of the region focus on labour, economic and social issues as well as corruption. They range from post-revolt Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen to Jordan, Algeria and Morocco that have so far fended off popular revolts. The wave of protests often predates the mass demonstrations of the past 18 months, but has gathered pace as a result of the popular uprisings  as well as the global economic crisis.

Activists and trade unionists in Morocco, where the king initially took the wind out of the sails of the protest movement by initiating constitutional change and holding elections that produced an Islamist-led government, demonstrated this month in the capital Rabat and other cities against rising fuel prices, continued corruption by the ruling elite and the government’s perceived failure to address social grievances.  Earlier, similar protests in outlying towns like Taza in the northeast of the country, were brutally repressed by security forces. Achieving economic growth is likely to prove difficult given that Morocco’s agriculture-based economy imports its wheat and energy and markets them at subsidized prices while facing reduced exports to and remittances from Europe as well as an expected drought. As a result, addressing this year’s economic demands could prove more difficult than meeting political demands last year.

Caught by surprise
Similarly, a tacit understanding between Algerian soccer fans and security forces that allowed the fans to raise their grievances as long as they were contained in the stadiums is becoming increasingly fragile, arousing fears that the protests could at any time spill back into the streets of Algiers and other cities. Discontent over lack of water, housing, electricity and salaries pervades the country, sparking almost daily protests inside and outside the stadiums and clashes with security forces. A quarter of the Algerian population lives under the poverty line and unemployment is rampant. Protests earlier this year in Laghouat and other oil and gas cities, symbolic of simmering discontent, have gone viral in social media.

A general strike has paralyzed the hometown of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi whose self-immolation in December 2010 sparked the wave of Arab protests, to back  demands that the government resign for failing to alleviate poverty, which they claim has worsened since the ouster last year of President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali. In Jordan, protests by tribal groups, long viewed as the bedrock of the royal family, sweep the countryside on a weekly basis, targeting King Abdullah and demanding political and economic reform and an end to corruption. In Egypt, despite a law to suppress labour strikes decreed last year by the military council, the number of protests and strikes has increased since the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak. Workers across Yemen have stormed government and commercial offices to demand reform and the dismissal of allegedly corrupt managers.

The world was caught by surprise when Bouazizi changed the course of history. Governments, intelligence agencies and the media failed to see the tell-tale signs of mass protest in the making. The writing on the wall is still there. A University of Amsterdam report just published warns: “Although the Arab Spring is still in its early stages and optimism is prevalent (at least among some pundits), there are nevertheless certain developments ongoing that could be described as alarming. Prolonged political instability and the lack of economic progress could have adverse consequences for both the Arab world and the West, not only in terms of economic interests but also in terms of security.”

While the civil war in Syria dominates the news the wave of protests and strikes in the smaller cities of Arab states along the Mediterranean to the Gulf foretells a groundswell of mass demonstrations and revolts that seriously threaten the security of the regimes across the Middle East and North Africa.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist covering the Middle East for over 30 years.

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Can football unite Muslims and Christians in Egypt?

By Mustafa Abdulhalim

During the 2012 London Summer Olympics each country cheered for the success of their athletes, but in Egypt this hope went beyond simply winning. For a country with many societal divides, sports – particularly football – can strengthen social cohesion and national identity. 

Egypt’s participation in the Olympics could not be more symbolic of the role sports plays as a means to regain national pride and social unity. Egypt’s Olympic football team was coached by Hani Ramzy, the Coptic Christian player who led Egypt to victory in the 1998 Africa Cup of Nations championship. Despite divisions between Egyptians that have been evident in recent sectarian clashes in many parts of the country, there was unanimous support for the country’s Olympic team. Although Ramzy is the only Coptic Christian on the team, Egyptians praised his work and his team, especially after Egypt qualified for the Olympic quarter-finals with a 3-1 win over Belarus. 

Football clubs are spread across Egypt and the sport has the potential to help bridge the gap between Muslims and Copts. However, before this unity can be achieved Egyptians must first acknowledge the social divisions evident in the country’s sporting leagues. Only then can they realize the sports potential to bring diverging groups together.

Hassan Shehata, a Muslim and the former coach of the Egyptian national football team, once said he selected his players for Egypt’s team on the basis of their “religiosity and piety.” The statement caused a massive furor and was taken as a pretext for not including a single Coptic player on the national football team. The Coptic Church, however, has its own football league, open only to members of the Coptic community. The example of religious diversity provided by the recent Olympic team should be replicated nationally.

Egyptians should create sporting leagues across the country in which participation is based purely on skill and not an athlete’s religious or sectarian affiliations. By playing, watching and supporting sports together, the two religious communities could share a mutual and healthier national spirit rather than continue to be divided by group affiliations. 

We should think of sports as a common language to bring people together. Everyone in the country can use them to communicate, building a relationship based on shared experience.
This is not a revolutionary idea. 

In June 2012 London’s Wembley Stadium was the site of a “faith and football” day that united students from Muslim, Christian and Jewish schools. This event was planned by the Three Faiths Forum (3FF), a UK-based organization dedicated to building relationships between people of all faiths, and the UK Football Association, which officially oversees the sport in the country. 

Egyptians could replicate this example by creating nationwide leagues to promote intergroup and interfaith cooperation. These teams could include anyone who wants to participate in the sport and make Egyptians’ shared interest in sports a tool for a more inclusive society.

Sports lessons that promote intergroup unity in schools should be given priority. Everyone should be given a chance to compete for a spot on the national teams, regardless of whether their name is Mohammad or George. Sadly, there are presently few examples of interfaith football teams in the country. 

Though these possibilities may seem ambitious and idealistic in the current context there are many such examples in Egypt’s history. 

In 1998, Ramzy, an Egyptian Copt and the current coach of Egypt’s Olympic team, scored a goal for Egypt in the championship game of the Africa Cup of Nations. After scoring the goal he traced a cross on his chest in a common Christian gesture of prayer to thank God. When Hazem Imam, Ramzy’s Muslim teammate, scored a second goal he knelt down in prostration, expressing gratitude through prayer. As they celebrated their victory, with Ramzy carrying Imam on his shoulders, not a single member of the team or the audience cared who was a Muslim or a Copt at that moment.

Although the Olympics have ended the spirit of the games should continue. Egyptians need to believe in a future that is inclusive and encompasses all citizens. That’s where sports come in. 

Mustafa Abdelhalim is an award-winning journalist who works for Al-Ahram and the BBC. This article originally appeared on Common Ground News Service.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Turkish soccer club pioneers new funding strategy

By James M. Dorsey

A top football club from the Turkish hinterland is cementing the Turkey’s economic shift away from the commercial capital of Istanbul to the Anatolian inland with plans to increase revenue by building a hydroelectric power station in a country with growing energy demand and no oil or gas reserves of its own.

Trabzonspor, which is competing in this year’s UEFA Europa League, has added power to funding strategy that traditionally depended on ticket sales and the merchandising of club shirts and scarves The innovative strategy was developed in advance of the European soccer body’s imposition in 2014 of financial fair play rules that will bar clubs from being funded by wealthy owners, according to the Financial Times.

The project could well spark other major European clubs to think out of the box about how they will fund themselves once the new UEFA rules kick in and merchandising and sponsorship prove insufficient, particularly for the purchase of high-priced players.

The legendary club received this month government approval for a 28 megawatt plant in the hills above Trabzon, the Black Sea city it helped make famous and that is known for its fanatical football fans and hot-blooded residents who pick a fight first and think later, according to the Financial Times. The plant is expected to cost up to $50 million and gross annual revenues of $10 million. Trabzon is considering building a smaller, second plant.

Trabzonspor chairman Sadri Sener, a local construction magnate, expects the hydro plant to benefit from the mountains surrounding the city and its usually high annual rainfall. “The club needs a guaranteed source of income, and we have the ideal conditions for hydro power,” the Financial Times quoted a Trabzon club official as saying.

Energy is a booming market in Turkey that grows by eight per cent a year. The government projects that it needs to increase installed capacity by 45 per cent from 55,000MW to  80,000MW in the next eight years to be able to meet demand.

Trabzonspor’s move into energy prepares it not only for the introduction of UEFA’s financial fair play rules but also for concerns that Turkish soccer runs the same risk of economic difficulty that the country faces. Turkey got a taste of the risks when external funding tightened last year because of the global financial crisis and the country’s currency devalued more than had been predicted.

“Turkey’s declining success in football can be mapped to economics,” a Renaissance Capital research note said early this year.

Like the economy, Turkish soccer “imports almost all their best players from abroad, and exports (only) one or two good players every year” incurring high levels of debt to attract stars, the note said. It said Istanbul clubs like Fenerbahce, Besiktas and Galatasaray operated as commercial companies that eschew competitiveness for profit.

Renaissance Capital cautioned that buying expensive but old has-beens such as former Real Madrid stars Roberto Carlos and Gut boosts merchandising, but does not add real quality to a team. The focus on sales rather than soccer performance produces the ills many Turkish companies face:  complacency and reduced competitiveness.

The proof is in the pudding. Turkey’s top Istanbul clubs have dominated the country’s soccer for decades, but failed twice in a row recently to win the Turkish league or qualify for the Champions League. The poor performance mirrors a trend in Turkish economic development as growth shifts from the country’s economic capital to Anatolia.

Trabzonspor alongside Bursaspor, among Turkey’s recently most successful teams, hail from the inland. Renaissance Capital pointed to a further trend in line with the economy: Bursa and Trabzon boast trade surpluses while Istanbul accounts for 60 per cent of Turkey’s trade deficit.

To be sure, the similarities between the economy and soccer are not absolute. In some way, Turkish soccer is more in line with its European counterparts than the economy is. Turkish soccer economics mirror those of European clubs that operate on the basis of high debt levels to import rather than export talented players.

The model in contrast to the Turkish clubs has often translated into performance for their European counterparts. One reason is that Turkish clubs have not seen the kind of influx of foreign investment, particularly from the Gulf, from which teams like Manchester City and Paris St. Germain have benefitted. Nonetheless, in contrast to the Turkish economy and most European clubs, Turkish soccer thanks to domestic demand has so far not faced problems accessing funds.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Desert Growth: Football in the UAE

Desert Growth: Football in the UAE

By John Ray
A camera pans over a half empty and fully solemn Old Trafford. Mother’s are talking to their kids, lone men are checking their blackberries, and half time is drawing to a close. The Emiratis and Uruguayans jog out in their respective red and black and blue and white kits. The South American side is replenish with top European talents; Edinson Cavani, Luis Saurez, and Gaston Ramirez all hail from the small landlocked country on the River Plate. Cavani in particular has been tagged by Aurelio de Laurentis, the president of his club, Napoli, as the 100 million Euro man. That exorbitant number would far exceed the market price of the Emiratis, whose team is largely composed of unknown variables, hidden by the limited extent of scouting networks in the desert. In the middle of Old Trafford, their captain, number 10 Ismail Matar, receives the ball with elegance, places the ball on his right foot, looks at the oncoming keeper, slides the ball to the right, and places the ball in the lower left corner, crowning the wonderful ball from Abdulrahman. The unacquainted commentators seem surprised at the quality of his technique, which surely a product of the growing football training facilities of a country that has gone football crazy. 4,655 miles away an oil field cooks in the sun, new buildings are erected, and a round ball is kicked. Football has quickly become a headline in the United Arab Emirates.
Academies and schools have started to pop-up across the country. In the past 3 years alone new schools from Inter-Milan, Manchester United, and Manchester City have all taken in crops of local tutelages. The infrastructural development might seem to be rapid, but for Matar the growth has been a long time coming. He appeared on the football world’s radar as a 20 year old when he won the Golden Ball at the 2003 Fifa Youth Championships in the UAE. It was the first major tournament the country had hosted. Receiving that honor meant that his performance was ranked above well-known names like Andres Iniesta, Fernando Cavenaghi, and Nilmar, European clubs, namely Chelsea, came shopping, but his club Al-Ain would never release him. In an eye-opening interview with Ashley Hammond of the Gulf News, Matar said “I don’t look to the past because you can’t return back there, I focus on the future and I’m thankful for what I’ve achieved. I don’t know if I had a chance to play abroad, but I always believe in myself and that’s the most important thing.”
He’s takes a less conciliatory approach towards the new crop of talent coming up in the country, suggesting that they also “have that quality to play in Europe”, but that they need to work on their drive to succeed as footballers abroad because “nobody will help you over there, you have to depend upon yourself. It’s not like how they deal with us here, whereby if you don’t work nobody will question you”
“Call me Ishmael.” That first line from the narrator of Moby Dick is one of the most famous sentences in literature and proves to be an aptly symbolic name Matar. The name reflects the Islamic tradition of the oil state; Muhammad is, after all, a descendent of the lineage of Ismail (eldest son of Abraham), but also reflects the enrapturing effect of oil on the country, as seen in Herman Melville’s iconic work, Moby Dick. The interview with Matar seems to portray him as a narrator of change in the UAE, he came too early to be “the one”, but he was still the first and that experience matters.
The dream of the United Arab Emirates as a football power has been similar to Melville’s whale, the beacon to which the countries sporting billionaires are flocking. The recent, swift, and rude debacle of Malaga’s sheikh, Al-Thani, pledging to run from the club he poured a quick €100 million into must have been a PR nightmare for the other owners at Paris St. Germain and Manchester City, who have, to this point, been the definition of stable. The Manchester City group, led by Khaldoon Mubarak and Sheikh Mansour, have not only elevated their football team to the upper echelons of Europe, but they have also become invested in the surrounding area, implementing “The Eastlands Community Plan”, and, in doing this, have tried to make the UAE a visible actor towards positive change and better business in Manchester. They are certainly at least raising suburban property values, now they just need to bring in some restaurants for Tevez.
The shift towards a visible asset like football is inline with the broader movement (exhibited by the massive growth of Abu Dhabi and Dubai) of the country’s elite to diversify their assets and investments in order to ensure that their family’s power extends well beyond their ever-depleting oil reserves. The UAE is the 116th largest country and has the same population as New York, it is also one of the top-20 countries in terms of trade. Some consider the country’s capricious and extravagant spending to be…well…capricious and extravagant, but it is much more calculated than one would initially think. Dutch disease, over-dependence on one resource, has been the death of many a country, but it will not fell the United Arab Emirates. Over the past 10 years, attempts at diversification have reduced the value of oil and gas to only 38% of the economy and analysts predict that aluminum, steel, iron, and textile production will surpass their energy income in the next 50 years. They have appropriated their material wealth to the hope of growth, and no other industry makes this more obvious than football.
It is now two weeks after the Uruguay and UAE match and one of the team’s biggest stars, Omar Abdulrahman, is at Manchester City’s Carrington training ground, trialing for Roberto Mancini’s side. The player affectionately referred to by teammates as “Noodles” represents the new wave of extremely talented Emiratis and the country’s football chiefs have a decision to make: Will they let their domestic players leave to experience greater pastures and increase exposure for the quality coming out of the country? Or will they keep them in the United Arab Emirates and try to grow the domestic league? There seems to be no easy answer to this question, but the arrival of stars like Raul and Asamoah Gyan seems to suggest that football will not be disappearing anytime soon.
Perhaps Paul Shepard was speaking to the future of football when he proclaimed, “the desert is the environment of revelation”?
John Ray is a football writer and a student at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, who authors the blog,