Richard Whittall:

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

Middle East Eye: "

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The issue of Arab Jews: Manipulating a Justified Cause

RSIS presents the following commentary The issue of Arab Jews: Manipulating a Justified Cause 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. 202/2012 dated 31 October 2012

The issue of Arab Jews:
Manipulating a Justified Cause

By James M. Dorsey

A recent United Nations conference on the rights of Jews forced to flee Arab countries in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel focuses attention on a long overlooked consequence of the Middle East conflict. It also complicates the revival of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.


THE PLIGHT of Palestinians uprooted and driven out of large chunks of historic Palestine to make way for a Jewish state lies at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That epochal dispute dominated policies towards and perceptions of the Middle East for much of post-World War Two history.

Efforts to achieve a definite resolution have foundered, but have produced a de facto status quo that serves the interests of two key parties to the conflict: Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip. Neither truly wants the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, preferring instead a long-term ceasefire that would allow for economic growth in the hope that time will gain them a strengthened negotiating position.

Battle of narratives

This month’s brief flare up of Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel and Israeli counterstrikes hardly detracted from this understanding. On the contrary the attacks enabled Hamas to burnish its credentials as a resistance movement and fend off criticism from more militant Palestinian factions that accuse it of having gone soft and allowed Israel to project it as a continued terrorist threat, maintain its refusal to formally do business with Hamas and ensure that the peace process remains in a deep coma.

To further undermine the centrality of the Palestinian issue that has been significantly diminished  by the wave of popular revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as well as the split between Hamas and the Al Fatah-led Palestine Authority on the West Bank, Israel supported by Jewish leaders is equating Palestinian rights with those of Arab Jews who once lived in the Arab world but were forced to leave their homelands. It is a move perceived by Palestinians and even a minority of Jews as a cynical manipulation of a justified cause.

The Israeli move adds one more dimension to the Palestinian-Israeli battle of narratives that has served to camouflage the real intentions of Israel and Palestinian leaders since the inception of an Palestinian-Israeli peace process. It is part of a larger campaign that aims to reduce, if not delegitimise Palestinian rights by opposing Palestinian efforts to upgrade their status at the United Nations and calling for the dismantling of UNWRA, the UN agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees. The move further seeks to mend chinks in the armour of US public support for Israel.

At the core of the battle of narratives lies a definition of rights that has allowed both parties to ensure that peace negotiations do not produce the kind of painful compromises on both sides needed to achieve a definitive resolution of their deep-seated conflict.

Like everything else that is on the negotiation table, the solution to the plight of Palestinian refugees as well as that of Arab Jews is evident to all. Palestinians would get an independent state of their own alongside Israel and be compensated for losses suffered in territories that are part of the Jewish state. Similarly, Arab Jews would be compensated for their losses. Few, if any, Palestinians are likely to want to physically return to Israeli rule and even fewer Arab Jews would opt for a return to their ancestral homelands.

Devil in the details

Nevertheless, the devil is in the details. Palestinians would settle for compensation and a state of their own but     insist on doing so on the basis of an Israeli recognition of their right to return to their ancestral homes. Such recognition would amount to Israeli acknowledgement of Palestinians being the original owners of historic Palestine. In effect, it would deny Israel’s narrative that it represents the resurrection of the Jewish state in lands that always belonged to the Jews.

To reinforce that narrative and reject the Palestinian right of return, before raising the rights of Arab Jews Israel has insisted in recent years that Palestinians upgrade their recognition of Israel’s right to exist by acknowledging its right to exist as a Jewish state – a demand that transcends accepted diplomatic protocols. In doing so, it prepared the ground to use Arab Jewish rights as a tool to further undermine Palestinian demands for recognition of their right to return, by rejecting Palestinian suggestions that Arab Jews too should have the right to return to their Arab countries of origin rather than Israel.

The Israeli effort to portray the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as one of competing refugee claims also serves to counter Palestinian efforts to upgrade their United Nations observer status to that of a non-member state as well as a rupture in crucial American Christian support for Israel. Palestine Authority officials are confident that the UN General Assembly will next month vote in favour of the upgrade. Israel is likely to argue that Palestinian rights cannot be viewed independently of those of Arab Jews.

As Palestine pushes for recognition, leaders of the Presbyterian Church this month urged US Congressional leaders to reconsider aid to Israel because of its alleged violations of human rights. In seeking to shift the conflict’s paradigm, the Israeli focus on Arab Jewish rights calls into question the emphasis on the Palestinians of one important faction of the bedrock of US support for Israel.

Palestinian issue at stake

The campaign for recognition of the rights of Arab Jewry could not come at a more politically opportune moment for Israel. It reinforces pro-Israeli support in Congress to limit the definition of a Palestinian refugee to those who were physically displaced when the Jewish state was created in 1948. The definition would deprive a majority of Palestinians born after the founding of Israel of any possibility to put forward a claim. It coalesces with proposals in Congress to equate Arab Jewish rights to those of Palestinians.

At the bottom line, the absence of a credible peace process has created a vacuum in which the very definition and importance of the Palestinian issue is at stake. It is a process in which Israel is benefitting from an Arab world that increasingly is preoccupied with either regime survival or post-revolt transition, a deeply divided Palestinian polity, and an international community that mistakenly believes that Palestine has taken a permanent backseat to more pressing issues such as Iran and the calls for political change.

Palestine may well for now be on the backburner; it is however unlikely to remain there.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.
Click here for past commentaries.
Find us onFacebook.
Due to the high number of publications by our RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS), RSIS maintains a separate subscription facility for the Centre. Please click here to subscribe to the Centre's publications.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Politics overshadow African championship final

Al Ahly militants

By James M. Dorsey

Next week’s African Championship League final between crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC and Tunisian title defender Esperance Sportieve de Tunis is as much a battle of the titans as it is a struggle for the future of Egypt.

At stake in the November 4 match in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria's Borg El-Arab Stadium, the first leg of the finals, is not only the African championship title but also a gamut of highly political issues, including the need for reform of law enforcement; the role of police and security forces in ensuring security in stadiums; the relationship between the club, its players and its fans; the right of fans to attend matches; and the campaign to remove associates of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from soccer and eradicate corruption.

The match will be the first to be played by Al Ahly in front of its fans who have been banned from the few international and domestic matches that their club has played since professional soccer in Egypt was suspended eight months ago after 74 Al Ahly fans were killed in Port Said in a politically loaded brawl. The aftermath of the brawl looms large with militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened fan groups known as ultras opposing a resumption of professional soccer as long as those responsible for the incident are not held accountable and the supporters’ political demands have not been met.

The last time Esperance played in Cairo in April 2011, two months after the ousting of president Hosni Mubarak, militant supporters of Al Ahly rival Al Zamalek SC stormed the pitch in what amounted to a reclaiming of the stadium from the security forces, Egypt’s most hated institution because of their role in enforcing the Mubarak regime’s repression. The storming marked the beginning of a post-revolt campaign by the militants, Egypt’s second largest civic group that played a key role in the protests that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office, against the military and the law enforcement forces of the interior ministry. The campaign demanded the removal of Mubarak era officials and an end to corruption.

The militants known as ultras have booked a string of political victories in recent months in which they have attacked the offices of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), Al Ahly’s training ground and the premises of media organizations. They have prevented a lifting of the ban on domestic soccer, ironically supported by their archenemy, the security forces who fear renewed clashes in the stadiums, the scene of years of often violent protests in the run-up to the demise of the Mubarak regime. A string of Mubarak era officials have been forced to resign or withdraw their candidacies for office and the Illegal Gains Authority has banned the chairman of Al Ahly, Hassan Hamdi, from travel and frozen his assets on suspicion of corruption.

The militants are further demanding justice for their 74 dead colleagues before professional soccer matches are resumed. They are frustrated with the slow progress in legal proceedings against 74 people, including nine mid-level security officers, accused of involvement in the Port Said brawl that is widely believed to have been an attempt that got out of hand to punish the militants for their role in the popular revolt and to cut them down to size. The militants also want the security forces to be deprived of their responsibility for security in the stadiums and want to see the initiation of a process of reform of the police force.

A leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Essam El-Erian, this month publicly backed the militants, saying he agreed that premier league soccer should remain suspended as long as the group that brought President Mohammed Morsi to office is battling its political opponents. "The Ultras were one of the most powerful forces to participate in last year's revolution. The Premier League will only resume after the final whistle is blown on this political match, which I hope ends in a draw," Mr. El-Erian said in a tweet. Mr. El-Erian was referring to divisions over the drafting of a new constitution and the judiciary’s failure to hold accountable officials responsible for the death of protesters during last year’s anti-Mubarak protests.

The interior ministry threw down a gauntlet last week when it announced that 15,000 Al Ahly fans would be allowed to attend the match against Esperance. The ministry’s decision came as players and fans held rival demonstrations for and against a lifting of the ban on soccer.

Players and fans clashed in early October in front of a Cairo hotel where Nigeria’s Sunshine Stars were staying in advance of a game against Al Ahli. The Al Ahli militants said they wanted to ensure that the Nigerian team made it safely to the match. Four police officers and 13 Al Ahly fans were injured last week in a clash between security forces and militants in front of a television station.

It was not immediately clear whether the militants would use the match against Esperance to press their demands or would boycott it in line with their opposition to a resumption of soccer. The militants exempt international matches from their rejection of a lifting of the ban on domestic premier league soccer. They have also agreed to the resumption in late November of matches in Egypt’s lower leagues.

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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Revolt in the Middle East: Arab monarchies next?

RSIS presents the following commentary Revolt in the Middle East: Arab monarchies next? 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. 200/2012 dated 24 October 2012

Revolt in the Middle East:
Arab monarchies next?
 By James M. Dorsey


The ever sharper sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East constitutes the Achilles heel of Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. They have been resisting political reforms and seeking to insulate themselves from the wave of popular protests that have swept the region for the past two years.
ARAB MONARCHS pride themselves on having so far largely managed widespread discontent in their countries with a combination of financial handouts, artificial job creation, social investment and in the cases of Jordan and Morocco, some constitutional reform. Yet, in the shadow of the escalating civil war in Syria, it is monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan that are on the cusp of the region’s convoluted transition from autocracy to more open political systems.

To be sure, the situations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan differ substantially from one another. Yet, individually and taken together they feed the worst fear of monarchs and their Western backers: a successful popular revolt in one monarchy will open the door to serious challenges to autocratic royal rule in the rest of the region’s mostly energy-rich monarchies. And underlying the differing circumstances is a deeply felt sense of social, economic and political disenfranchisement of the people that fuels the discontent in all three nations.

Playing the sectarian card

A 26-year old Shiite in the Eastern Province, the oil-rich heartland of Saudi Arabia, has come to symbolise the threat to the kingdom’s ruling family. Khalid al-Labad, who was on a wanted list because of his willingness to protest in a country that bans all demonstrations, was killed last month by security forces as he sat on a plastic chair in front of his house in silent protest in the rundown town of Awamiya. Two of his teenage relatives also died in the attack. Their death brought to 16 the number of people killed in the last year in clashes between protesters and security forces.

As in Bahrain last year before the ruling family opted for the sectarian card and brutally cracked down on calls for reform, protesters in the Eastern Province are only calling for equal opportunity in employment, an end to religious discrimination, as well as the release of political prisoners, and not the departure of the ruling Al Saud family.

In Bahrain, the minority Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy succeeded in temporarily crushing mass protests by the majority Shiites and driving them out of the capital Manama. However the frustration and anger in Bahrain continues to bubble to the surface in protests mostly in villages on the Gulf island more than a year after the Saudi-backed crackdown. Two teenaged Shias killed in recent weeks symbolised the popular unrest.

The deaths of the teenagers highlight the failure of Bahrain and Saudi rulers to recognise that their protests were rooted in an increasing unwillingness to accept discriminatory domestic policies and attitudes fuelled by the demand for social, economic and political dignity sweeping the region, rather than the product of agent provocateurs sent by predominantly Shiite Iran. Their deaths also highlights the rulers’ failure to learn the lessons of the revolts last year that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen and the resilience of Syrians in confronting a regime whose brutality overshadows anything the Middle East and North Africa has witnessed in the last two years. Brutality no longer intimidates, it fuels dissent and the resolve to defy it.

Like in Bahrain where the crackdown has produced even deeper resentment, investment in housing and other social projects in the Eastern Province has done little to quell anger that increasingly is turning violent. Protests are staged virtually every weekend in Awamiya and other towns in the region.

Benefit of the doubt

At first glance, resource-poor Jordan, although economically weaker than the Gulf states and far more threatened by multiple conflicts on its borders, has a marked advantage compared to either Saudi Arabia or Iran. It has no significant Shiite population, no ability to blame its domestic woes on an Iranian bogeyman and a monarch who has nominally embraced the notion of reform and refrained from calling in the security forces in responding to expressions of dissent.

Yet, Jordan this month witnessed the largest demonstration in demand of political and economic reform and an end to corruption since the eruption in December 2010 of mass demonstrations that swept across the region from the Gulf to the Atlantic coast of Africa. Jordanian King Abdullah’s failure to truly address widespread concerns among both the tribal and Palestinian components of his population is reflected in the appointment of its fourth prime minister in 20 months. So is his insistence to hold elections in January on the basis of an election law that prompted the resignation earlier this year of one of his prime ministers, rather than responding to popular calls for true electoral reform.

Nonetheless, King Abdullah, like his namesake in Saudi Arabia, continues to enjoy the benefit of the doubt; an asset Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah has wasted. “Our regime is good at talking about reform. As for reform itself, it still has a long way to go… there is still hope. In our monarchical system, reform is possible, and we have a history of reform that we can build upon,” said Jordanian activist Zaki Bani Rashid in a commentary in The Guardian earlier this month.

The facts on the ground decry the notion that Middle Eastern and North African revolts threaten republics rather than monarchies. That is true only if monarchs leverage the one real asset they have as opposed to the republican leaders who have so far been deposed: a degree of legitimacy that persuades the disgruntled to give them the benefit of the doubt provided they truly address real concerns rather than hide behind security forces.

Bahrain is a revolt in waiting calling for regime change; Saudi Arabia is heading for a similar fate in its economically most vital eastern region while Jordan has taken the first step but not the second on the road to reform.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Click here for past commentaries.
Find us on Facebook.
Due to the high number of publications by our RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS), RSIS maintains a separate subscription facility for the Centre. Please click here to subscribe to the Centre's publications.

Beyond the Pitch: World soccer’s political battles (WSG v JMD)

Anto of Beyond the Pitch and Change FIFA’s David Larkin discuss starting at minute 28:45 in this broadcast “the ongoing case of Mohammed Bin Hammam with the AFC in crosshairs, how this case could be a flashpoint that can be exploited by both Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini given their political connections and motivations as 2015 comes into view. We explore why Mohammed Bin Hammam is such an important figure, what his case tells us about sports governance and sporting justice inside football and how journalists such as James Dorsey are becoming shocking casualties throughout this process as football continues to subvert the concept of transparency by controlling information and shooting the messenger, even threatening them with legal action over sources.”

The broadcast was posted as world soccer body FIFA suspended Mr. Bin Hammam for another 45 days pending an investigation into charges that he last year bribed Caribbean soccer officials to secure their support for his electoral challenge of Sepp Blatter’s FIFA presidency. Mr. Bin Hammam was earlier suspended for 90 days after the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) overturned FIFA’s banning from involvement in soccer for life of the Qatari national. The former FIFA vice president has also been suspended as president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) pending an investigation into his financial and commercial management of the group.

In a statement, Mr. Bin Hammam’s lawyer Edmund D. Gulland denounced FIFA’s extension of its suspension on the grounds that the soccer body had provided no justification for the measure. “The basic tenet of law is that a person is innocent until proven guilty after a trial conducted according to due process. The situation that Mr Bin Hammam is facing is even more bizarre - a man who has prevailed in a trial by an independent legal body continues to be punished in an arbitrary manner…. The reasons for FIFA’s actions are of course political. Mr Bin Hammam stood against Mr Blatter in the presidential election. And he stood on a ticket of reform and restructure – wanting not only an ethical organisation, but one whose power was more devolved from the centre. So he was a threat not only to Blatter but also to the FIFA administration in Zurich. He has also made repeated calls for Blatter’s conduct in the Presidential elections to be examined,” Mr. Gulland said.

Mr. Gulland’s assertion that the worst corruption scandal in FIFA’s 108-year old history is in part political may indeed ring true. Anto and David Larkin’s discussion on the podcast offers interesting perspectives and insights and no doubt the blame in FIFA and regional soccer organizations goes round with Mr. Bin Hammam’s case serving as the tip of the iceberg and a potential monkey wrench to force long overdue reform and restructuring. That, however, does not take Mr. Bin Hammam and his associates off the hook of having to answer publicly a series of questions raised in part by an internal AFC audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) earlier this year.

The first 28 minutes of the podcast offers a fascinating discussion of “how racism has become yet another key political wedge issue that can be used as currency in the battle for control and commerce rather than a real instrument for change” as well as “how even FIFA and (European soccer body) UEFA continue to fail the anti-racsim and anti-discrimination efforts worldwide, essentially undermining the process for change because the monopoly of administrators in the game show little to no regard for people of colour, minorities or even the cause for women, working on a perverse calculus where even the press is used as tool for collecting cheap political points.” The podcast also looks at how UEFA president Michel Platini “is positioning himself and UEFA for his bid for the FIFA Presidency.”

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, October 20, 2012

AU returns the Middle East and Africa’s most abused stadium to soccer

Al Shabab gunmen in Mogadishu Stadium

By James M. Dorsey

In a sign of improved security in Somalia, African Union (AU) troops will return Mogadishu Stadium, the most abused sports facility in a region with a history of battered stadiums, to the Somali Football Federation (SFF).

The AU decision highlights the recent, significant setbacks suffered by Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist militia that banned soccer alongside bras, music, movies, moustaches and gold fillings during the years that it controlled large chunks of football-crazy Somalia, including the stadium.

It also celebrates the SFF’s leading role in resisting Al Shabab’s austere lifestyle based on an interpretation of Islamic law that is contested even in jihadist circles and successful campaign to win back child soldiers by offering them a future in soccer.

The return follows a meeting in the stadium earlier this week between commanders of the African Union peacekeepers in Somalia (AMISOM) and SFF officials led by secretary general Abdi Qani Said Arab.

“In December 2010 we held the first edition of regional football tournament in more than 20 years and that tournament had yielded positive results in terms of disarming child soldiers, creating friendship among people and spreading football throughout the country,” Mr. Arab said after the meeting.

Mr. Arab was referring to an SFF campaign backed by world soccer body FIFA and local businessmen under the slogan ‘Put down the gun, pick up the ball” that threw down a gauntlet for the jihadists by luring child soldiers away from them.

"However difficult our situation is, we believe football can play a major role in helping peace and stability prevail in our country, and that is what our federation has long been striving to attain. Football is here to stay, not only as game to be played but as a catalyst for peace and harmony in society," said Shafi’i Moyhaddin, one of the driving forces behind the campaign, in an interview last year.

Mahad Mohammed was one of hundreds of children the association assisted in swapping jihad for soccer, the only institution that competed with radical Islam in offering young populations a prospect of a better life.

“People were afraid of me when I had an AK-47; now they love and congratulate me. I thank the football federation, they helped me. I just drifted into being a soldier; it is hard to say how it happened. Some friends of mine ended up being fighters and they used to tell me that it was a good and exciting life and much better than doing nothing or being on the streets. After I spent some time doing that, I understood that it wasn’t like that at all and I was happy to get out.” Mahad said.

The SFF hopes to host in December a soccer tournament for the first time in more than two decades in the 70,000-seat stadium that was built with Chinese aid in the 1970s and once was the region’s largest sport facility.

The tournament would symbolize Somalia’s fragile retreat from the brink following a string of military defeats by Al Shabab at the hands of the African peacekeepers and Somali military. Al Shabab last month lost control of its last urban outpost but still has a foothold in southern and central parts of the country. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud became in September the first Somali president to be elected by parliament and inaugurated since the country slipped into civil war in 1991.

Mogadishu stadium, occupying strategic ground in the northern part of the city, has since been controlled by a host of militias, including Al Shabab which used it for training and public executions until last year when the AU established its command headquarters in the facility.

As a result, the facility topped the list of abuse of stadiums that bear the scars of the battles fought on their terrain in a swath of land stretching from the Gulf to the Atlantic coast of Africa in which militants and autocrats use stadiums for their own purposes.

In Iraq, deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's sadistic son Uday humiliated national soccer team players in Baghdad’s Stadium for the People when they failed to perform. US and Iraqi forces discovered mass graves in several Iraqi stadiums since the overthrow of Saddam.

Syrian security forces have in the last 20 months herded anti-government protesters into stadiums in Latakia, Dera’a and Baniyas. The use of the stadiums evoked memories of the government's 1982 assault on the Syrian city of Hama to crush an earlier uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in which at least 10,000 people were killed. A 1983 Amnesty International report charged that the city’s stadium was used at the time to detain large numbers of residents who were left for days in the open without food or shelter.

Christian militia men responsible for the 1982 massacres in the Beirut Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla to which Israeli invasion forces turned a blind eye converted a local soccer pitch into their staging ground.

Egyptian stadiums were for years the venue of pitched battles between security forces and militant soccer fans who refused to concede control of a space they considered their own to a regime they increasingly saw as brutal and corrupt.

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.

Friday, October 19, 2012

World Cup qualifier: A battle for Iranian women’s rights

Fatma Iktasari second from left) and Shabnam Kazimi (second from right) defy ban on women (Source: 

By James M. Dorsey

When Iran beat favourite South Korea this week in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, it was not the only battle being fought in Tehran’s Azadi stadium. So was the fight for the right of women to attend soccer matches in the Islamic Republic.

Fatma Iktasari and Shabnam Kazimi, dressed in the men’s clothes they wore to disguise themselves and illegally enter the stadium to watch the match, showed the victory sign in a picture published on an Iranian blog after the match. They were posing together with male friends and an Iranian flag.

A poem accompanying the picture read:

“Heroes, warriors

Dream one day of a workshop with the kids in the ‘freedom’ gym

The name ‘Iran’ did not vanish until the moment of victory and yelling

The days of Good Hope to India

My people even a little bit happy, happiness experienced once again

I was glad that we were always on their side.”

The two women’s act of defiance like an earlier apparent willingness by the Iranian soccer federation to allow women into stadium for Asian Football Confederation (AFC) championship matches this summer sparked significant debate on Iranian social media networks with many participants praising the two women’s courage.

Their protest highlighted the schizophrenic conditions of women’s soccer in the Islamic republic where women, properly dressed in line with Islamic precepts, are allowed to play soccer in front of all-women audiences but are banned from entering an all-men stadium as spectators.

The protest also revived an effort in the middle of the last decade by women soccer fans to defy the ban by dressing up as men. The campaign was depicted in Offside by filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is currently serving a six year jail sentence for “creating propaganda against the Iranian republic.” Mr. Panahi, a key figure in Iran's cinematic New Wave movement, was further banned from film making, travel and speaking to the media for a period of 20 years.

Offside described the fictionalized arrest by police of six young women and girls who smuggled themselves dressed as men into Tehran's stadium to watch Iran's national team play Bahrain. A more recent movie, Shirin Was A Canary, recounts the tale of a girl who is expelled from school for her love of soccer

The campaign waged albeit by a small group of women prompted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to lift the ban in 2006 in a move that was overruled in an early public disagreement between the two men.
Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani argued at the time that "women looking at a man's body even if not for the sake of gratification is inappropriate.”

Some sources close to the Iranian government believe however that Mr. Khamenei may as yet relent on the issue of women’s attendance at soccer matches in advance of next year’s presidential election. “Given the economic situation, Khamenei needs to give social groups something,” one source said.

Solmaz Sharif, the founder of Shirzanan, an on-line Farsi-language women’s sports website created after she was refused a license to establish a magazine, highlighted in a recent commentary in The Huffington Post the inherent contradictions in Iranian policy after the women’s volleyball team was allowed to compete in front of mixed gender audience at the London Olympics.

“Although the Iranian government has permitted some women's teams to participate in international competitions, it greatly restricts their participation in domestic games. For instance, no men are allowed to watch women's games in Iran. This raises a few questions about the intentions of Iranian sporting officials: If it is "Islamic enough" for women to play in front of global audiences, then why they can't play in Iran? And such international participation doesn't meet Islamic requirements, did the Iranian government merely agree with it to avoid international pressure?” Ms. Sharif wrote.

Hopes were dashed this summer when contrary to expectation the AFC failed to impose its standards by insisting that women would be allowed into the stadium to watch AFC Under-16 Championship matches that were being played in Iran.

The hopes were sparked when AFC Director of National Team competition Shin Mangal was quoted by Shiite news agency Shafaqna as saying that "so far as AFC is concerned, there should be no sex discrimination regarding the presence of men and women at stadiums."

The AFC said it had received assurances from Ali Kaffashian, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation (IRIFF) that it would comply with AFC regulations. The AFC quoted Mr. Kaffashian as saying at the drawing of the groups for the tournament that the IRIFF is “fully ready to follow all the requirements and instructions from AFC.”

The Iranian soccer boss repeated his position in remarks to Iranian reformist newspaper Sharq. In an editorial the newspaper said "the youth championships could create a great change in Iranian football. They are an excellent opportunity."

An estimated 1,000 women in a rare instance were allowed last year into the Azadi stadium to commemorate the death of Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender who became in his last days an outspoken critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s economic policy.

The ceremony turned into an anti-Ahmadinejad protest with the crowds shouting “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” “Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning.”

In late 1997 in Tehran, some 5,000 women stormed the stadium in protest the ban on women to celebrate revolutionary Iran’s first ever qualification for the World Cup finals. The protest erupted barely a month after the election of Mohammed Khatami as president at a time of anticipated liberalization. Men and women danced in the streets together to blacklisted music and sang nationalist songs as they did six months later when Iran defeated the United States.

“In terms of freedom of expression, soccer stadiums are nearly as important as the Internet in Iran now. The protest is more secure there because the police can't arrest thousands of people at once. State television broadcasts many matches live and the people use it as a stage for resistance. They're showing banners to the cameras and chanting protest songs which is why some games are broadcast without sound now,” says an Iranian sports journalist.

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.

Divided AFC blasts Bin Hammam’s ‘intimidation tactics’

Mohammed Bin Hammam

By James M. Dorsey

Acting Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Zhang Jilong in an uncharacteristic outburst has accused the group’s suspended president Mohammed Bin Hammam and his lawyer, Eugene Gulland, of adopting “intimidatory tactics” in his battle to defeat charges of bribery, corruption and financial mismanagement.

Sources close to the AFC said Mr. Jilong’s public attack on Mr. Bin Hammam, who has also been suspended as world soccer body FIFA vice president, followed a barrage of emails and other communications in which the Qatari national allegedly threatened and intimidated AFC executive committee members and staff. The sources said Mr. Bin Hammam had no right to contact individual AFC officials and should direct any communication’s to the group’s legal department.

Mr. Bin Hammam is under investigation by the Malaysian police as well as the AFC and FIFA. Mr. Gulland, in an email to this reporter, rejected Mr. Jilong and the source’s charges.

Mr. Jilong charged in a letter dated October 17 that Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Gulland’s “plan is intimidate and create technical legal issues and objections in the hope that the more serious allegations of secret commissions, bribery, corruption and other wrong-doings are never exposed to the light of day.”

The acting AFC chairman also rejected charges that the AFC’s investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam was riddled with conflicts of interest or that he had at any time benefitted personally from the disgraced official’s support. Mr. Bin Hammam reportedly asserted in a letter dated October 8 that he had made payments to Mr. Jilong. Mr.Bin Hammam first made the assertion in a meeting last month in London with FIFA investigators.

“Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Gulland do not want the Asian Football Confederation to consider the evidence that now exists and for which Mr. Bin Hammam must answer. The immediate task I believe is that we must all agree to allow our independent Judicial Bodies to hear the evidence and decide the case against Mr. Bin Hammam. We can then take the next steps in our journey of re-building the Asian Football Confederation,” M. Jilong said.

“Accordingly, AFC is investigating whether there are sufficient legal grounds to file an ethics violation against Mr. Gulland to stop improper legal defence tactics intended only to interfere with the independent functions of the AFC Judicial Bodies,” Mr. Jilong went on to say.

Mr. Bin Hammam was first banned for life in July of last year by FIFA from any involvement in professional soccer after the group’s ethics committee found him guilty of bribing Caribbean soccer officials to secure their vote in his failed electoral challenge to Sepp Blatter’s presidency. The ban was overturned by the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) on the grounds of insufficient evidence in a ruling that stressed that it was not declaring Mr. Bin Hammam innocent and that urged FIFA to present a properly investigated case.

Mr. Bin Hammam was this summer again suspended by FIFA and the AFC after an independent auditor’s report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) charged that he had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account and questioned the terms and negotiation procedure of a $1 billion master rights agreement (MRA) with the Singapore-based World Sports Group (WSG). The PwC report also raised questions about $14 million in payments by a WSG shareholder to Mr. Bin Hammam prior to the signing of the agreement.

A Singapore court at the request of WSG last month instructed this reporter to reveal his sources for his reporting on the report as well as Mr. Bin Hammam’s relationship to the company. A Singapore judge is scheduled to hear on October 30 Mr. Dorsey’s appeal against the ruling.

In an affidavit to the court, Mr. Dorsey asserted last month that he believed that WSG’s legal action was an attempt at “indirectly discovering who within the AFC may have breached their confidentiality and also suppress any well meaning or good intended person from coming forward in the future and is seeking to punitively punish those who may have spoken against them.”

In his letter to AFC members, Mr. Jilong noted that Mr. Bin Hammam was framing his communications as an AFC official. “As an example of this unwarranted interference, I would like to ask that we all stop for one moment and recognize that Mr. Bin Hammam’s communication to you as an AFC Official certainly is a violation of FIFA’s provisional ban against Mr. Bin Hammam. We have referred his actions to FIFA. The provisional FIFA ban which is still valid and has not been lifted was enacted or put in place to prevent Mr. Bin Hammam from participating in association football activities which includes sending letters to the AFC Disciplinary and Appeal Committees,” Mr. Jilong said.

In his email, Mr. Gulland asserted that “a group of AFC officials working with FIFA” was “trying to seize control of the AFC.” As part of that scheme, Mr. Gulland said the officials and FIFA were “trying to take over the disciplinary decision-making machinery in order to make sure that Mr. Bin Hammam cannot return to AFC. They have threatened to bring disciplinary charges against anyone in Asian football who communicated with Mr. Bin Hammam to oppose their tactics.” Mr. Gulland said Mr. Bin Hammam had advised the AFC officials whose actions were “in violation of the law and AFC statutes” that he would take “legal measures to protect his rights if the officials persist in this conduct.”

The dispute over Mr. Bin Hammam has sharply divided the AFC with detractors of the suspended official acting in the name of the group without the knowledge of its most senior officials. As a result, Mr. Jilong in his letter warned that the AFC is at a crossroads.

“We have a simple choice to make in the face of the distractions being thrown in our direction. We can decide to roll up ourselves and do the work such as amending our controlling statutes to put in place comprehensive by-laws and regulations which actually create a system of governance that leads to transparency and accountability. Or, we can ignore the truth and go back to business like it was before while pretending that it is acceptable for one man to assume control of this Football Confederation and run it like it was his own private business,” Mr. Jilong said.

“I believe, I understand and know the direction we must take to get where we want to be – and I believe right now we must stay the course and see the legal process that has been started through to its end. I never asked to become the Acting President or to take on these incredibly difficult problems and responsibilities. But I will not run away from this work either and I ask for your help and support,” he said.

In its report, PwC said that “it is highly unusual for funds (especially in the amounts detailed here) that appear to be for the benefit of Mr Hammam personally, to be deposited to an organization’s bank account. In view of the recent allegations that have surrounded Mr Hammam, it is our view that there is significant risk that…the AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder funds and that the funds have been credited to the former President for an improper purpose (Money Laundering risk)” or that “the AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder the receipt and payment of bribes.”

Malaysian police last month arrested the husband of an associate of Mr. Bin Hammam on suspicion of helping steal documents related to one of the payments to Mr. Bin Hammam from AFC’s head office in Kuala Lumpur.

Mr. Bin Hammam has repeatedly denied all the charges. Mr. Bin Hammam last month reportedly furnished FIFA investigators with his own independent expert's report from London accountants Smith and Williamson into the AFC account that was said to include a line-by-line explanation of all expenditure.

WSG has so far not commented publicly on the PwC report or its relationship or that of its shareholder with Mr. Bin Hammam. However in an August 28, 2012 letter to this reporter WSG that threatened legal action, Group Legal Advisor Stephanie McManus asserted that “PWC are incorrect and misconceived in suggesting that the MRA (master rights agreement) was undervalued. They have neither considered the terms of the contract correctly, the market, nor the circumstances in which it was negotiated,” Ms. McManus wrote.

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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Weakened Ahmadinejad seeks to revive his fortunes with soccer

President Ahmadinejad shakes hands with controversial player Ali Karimi (Source:

By James M. Dorsey

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, following in the footsteps of deposed Arab autocrats, is attempting to polish his tarnished image by associating himself with one of Iran’s greatest passions: soccer.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose economic policies are under attack despite punitive international sanctions and who has seen his power wane in advance of next year’s presidential election, this week paid a surprise visit to the Iranian national soccer team’s training camp in advance of its 2014 World Cup qualifier against South Korea. He went as far during the visit as shaking the hand of Ali Karimi, one of several players who wore green wrist bands during a 2009 international match in protest of alleged rigging of that year’s presidential election which returned Mr. Ahmadinejad to second term in office.

The visit, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s third in recent years, echoed attempts by deposed presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Zine El Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Abdullah Saleh of Yemen to exploit soccer’s prestige in a bid to shore up their popularity in the years before their overthrow in 2011.

In a region in which the passion soccer evokes is only rivaled by that sparked by religion, Iran stands out. "I am not aware of anywhere else with the same passion," said Carlos Queiroz in a recent interview with ESPN.

A passionate soccer player and fan, Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has at times micro managed the politics of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic (FFIR) from behind the scenes, failed in earlier attempts to use soccer to boost his waning popularity. This time round, his attempt got an unexpected boost with world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s announcement that he would be visiting Iran.

“If you believe yourselves, and know that you are among the best players, you will be successful. If you categorize yourselves among the top international teams, you can reach your goal. You know that in terms of skills, we are among the best teams in the world,” Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoted as telling national team players on Sunday.

That however despite this week’s victory against South Korea may be wishful thinking with Mr. Ahmadinejad being his own worst enemy. Iranian soccer analysts believe that Iran’s national team is a shadow of the successful squad the country fielded at the 1998 World Cup as a result of corruption and political interference despite players earning more than their counterparts in Germany’s Bundesliga or the United States’ MLS.

“Fourteen years since Iranian football shined with its golden era in the 1998 World Cup Finals, the sport is steadily trending downhill with corruption in the transfer market and political interference among the main causes… To this day, club directors and even team managers are appointed by political affiliation rather than management skills.

There are few, if any, functional youth systems within the country. Iran’s national broadcaster continually finds spurious reasons to avoid broadcasting domestic fixtures, except for those featuring the government-funded Red and Blue teams of Tehran. On top of that, corruption in players’ transfer contracts is rife; from the league itself to the players and their agents, no party is free from blame and it will take years of healing to reform this broken system,” wrote Niloufar Momeni in a recent commentary on

To be sure, Iranian soccer has not been exempted from US, European and United Nations sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program. Iranian referees have encountered problems getting paid by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for work performed at international matches. The AFC last month found it could not transfer $1 million to the FFIR.

“There is no basis whatsoever for the American Government to black our money. We are a NGO and have nothing to do with politics. We have approached the AFC and several other organizations to persuade the Americans to release our money, which we are desperate to have, to no avail,” FFIR Ali Kafashian was quoted as saying last month.

A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tehran disclosed by Wikileaks described how Mr. Ahmadinejad had at the time sought with limited success in advance of controversial presidential elections to associate himself with Iran’s national team in a bid to curry popular favor. Mr. Ahmadinejad is not a candidate in next year’s election but is believed to be attempting to position an associate.

“President Ahmadinejad has worked hard to associate himself with Iran's beloved national team – ‘Team Melli’ - a tactic that backfired in March when he was accused of ‘jinxing’ the team, which suffered a last-minute defeat to Saudi Arabia just after Ahmadinejad entered the stadium.  That event, coupled with an unexpected loss by the national wrestling team with Ahmadinejad in attendance earlier in the year, set off a firestorm of SMS messages and internet jokes holding the President personally responsible for the teams' defeats,” the cable said.

Earlier, Mr. Ahmadinejad went as far as trying in 2006 to lift the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadiums, but in an early public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Soccer represents for autocrats like Mr. Ahmadinejad a double-edged sword that both offers opportunity and constitutes a threat. The funeral last year of a famous Iranian soccer player in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Tens of thousands reportedly attended the ceremony for Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender and outspoken critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad. In a rare occurrence, some 1,000 women were allowed to be present during the ceremony.

Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” in a reference to Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April to task for Iran’s gaping income differences and budgetary measures which hit the poorest the hardest. The mourners also shouted "Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning" and "Mr Nasser, rise up, your people can't stand it anymore".

Following in the footsteps of Arab autocrats confronted with mass protests, Iran last year suspended professional soccer matches temporarily to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests.

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, October 16, 2012

Royal bid for AFC presidency unlikely to succeed

Royal bid for AFC presidency
unlikely to succeed

A member of Bahrain’s royal family, head of the Bahrain
Football Association (BFA) Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa,
is campaigning to become the next president of the
Asian Football Confederation (AFC), courting yet more
controversy for the region’s soccer establishment. The position
has been vacant since Qatar’s Mohammed Bin Hammam was
suspended in May 2011, and investigations into his wrongdoings
are ongoing, as are questions over Qatar’s winning bid for the
2022 World Cup (GSN 930/7, 929/9).

Sheikh Salman, a grandson of Bahrain’s late ruler Sheikh
Salman II Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa who ruled from 1942 to
1962, has been accused of heading a committee that looked at
photographs of anti-government protests to identify Shiite
athletes taking part. Some 150 athletes were targeted, and
among those detained were two of the island’s most prominent
football players, Aala and Mohammed Hubail. Mohammed
was sentenced to two years in prison, but was later released.

The BFA denied any wrongdoing, and Manama probably hopes
that a win for Sheikh Salman could help redress its tainted
reputation. But observers suggest the AFC will look away from
the Gulf, fearing further embarrassment. “There are a lot of
people who feel that he would not be the person they would
want to represent the AFC, certainly not an AFC that comes
out of a crisis,” said James M Dorsey, author of the blog The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a close observer of the
AFC. He said China’s Zhang Jilong, currently interim AFC
president, had a much better chance of winning.

Ultras force indefinite suspension of Egyptian soccer league

Ultras clash with supporters of President Morsi
By James M. Dorsey

A decision to indefinitely postpone the lifting of an eight-month ban on professional soccer in Egypt constitutes a milestone in an increasingly successful campaign by militant fans to root out corruption, force reform of the country’s hated security forces and ensure that senior officials responsible for the deaths of supporters and protesters are held accountable.

The decision by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) constitutes a major victory for the highly-politicized, street battle-hardened fans or ultras, the country’s largest civic group after the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, in a tug-of-war with the police and security forces, the country’s most despised institution because of its role in enforcing repression under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

The decision, at least for now, signifies that years of vicious street battles between the ultras and the security forces have partly shifted from stadiums and streets to politics. The indefinite postponement prompted by a veto on a resumption of soccer by the security forces intent on undermining the ultra’s increasing street-based power and concerned about further tarnishing their image in potential clashes with the fans comes after the lifting of the ban was twice delayed in recent weeks and the ultras’ successful campaign against Mubarak-era soccer officials.

It also comes amid mounting criticism of the government’s failure to hold officials accountable for the deaths of some 850 people during the 18 days of last year’s mass anti-government protests that forced Mr. Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office and the killing of 74 supporters of crowned Cairo club Al Ahly SC in a politically loaded brawl in February in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

More than a 100 people were injured on Saturday in clashes between supporters of President Mohammed Morsi and critics, including ultras, angered by the acquittal of 24 people on charges of having participated in the Battle of the Camels during last year’s protests. The ultras played a major role in those protests and served as their defense force against security forces and thugs who attacked the protesters on camels and horses.

Mr. Morsi’s attempt to recover ground backfired when he this weekend had to back down on his firing of the prosecutor general in the case, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, who defied his order to relinquish his post and be dispatched to the Vatican as Egypt’s ambassador. The president’s defeat highlighted the difficulty he is likely to encounter in seeking to reform the judiciary, which supported the military during its rule in the 17 months following Mr. Mubarak’s resignation and Mr. Morsi’s election in July, as well as the security forces.

The ultras have vowed to prevent a resumption of soccer, suspended since the Port Said incident, as long as those responsible for the worst incident in Egyptian soccer history have not been held accountable. Only nine mid-level security officers are among 74 people standing trial in a slow moving legal process for their role in what many Egyptians see as an attack that was designed by the police to teach the ultras a lesson and cut them down to size.

The ultras have in recent weeks stormed the EFA headquarters several times, attacked Al Ahly’s training ground and targeted media whom they accuse of complicity in support of their demands that also include the withdrawal from office of Mubarak-era EFA and club officials, an end to corruption, depriving police and security forces of their responsibility for security in stadiums and a reform of the police.

The ultras’ campaign has split the soccer community with clubs hurting financially as a result of the suspension, players worried about their jobs and Mubarak-era officials concerned about their careers. Players and supporters earlier this month held rival demonstrations in front of the sports ministry in favor and against a resumption of professional soccer.

The EFA’s newly elected president Gamal Allam, has vowed to improve relations with the ultras – a tough task that may have been slightly eased by the indefinite postponement of a resumption of professional soccer. That task is further complicated by the fact that Mr. Allam is widely viewed as being close to Mubarak associate Hani Abou-Reida, who was forced by the ultras, emboldened by their successes and the power of the street, to withdraw from this month’s race for the soccer body’s presidency,

Besides forcing Mr. Abou-Reida, a member of the executive committee of world soccer body FIFA and a close associate of disgraced FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam, to withdraw, the ultras also forced former Al Ahly goalkeeper Ahmed Shobeir to drop his candidacy for the presidency and sparked an investigation of Al Ahly chairman Hassan Hamdy. The Illegal Gains Authority this month froze Mr. Hamdy’s assets and banned him from travel on suspicion that his wealth stemmed from corrupt dealings. Egypt’s prosecutor also announced that he would investigate financial irregularities in the 2006 African Cup that was organized by the EFA.

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, October 15, 2012

Qatar’s love affair with France consummated with soccer

French football team Paris Saint-Germain has recently signed a record sponsorship deal with Qatari National Bank. This deal is only a part in a long-term strategy designed by Qatar to forge national identity with sports as a key-pillar, says journalist and blogger James M. Dorsey in this article that takes a look into the Qatar-France relationship.

15 October 2012
PSG owner Nasser al-Khelaifi (middle) recently recruited Zlatan Ibrahimovic (left) to the team. Photo by Flickr user jeanfrancios_beausejour 
When Qatar six years ago first nibbled at acquiring Paris St. Germain (PSG), its interest reportedly evaporated because of the violence of PSG’s fans and the fact that two of the club’s key stakeholders, Canal Plus which accounted for much of its revenues through its purchase of Ligue 1 broadcast rights, and the City of Paris that owns Parc des Princes, PSG’s home stadium, felt queasy about signing a deal with a non-democratic ruler.
The unease on both parts evaporated, according to French media reports and sources, when four years later then French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Qatar’s crown prince, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, and European soccer body UEFA president Michel Platini to the Elysée Palace for a lunch attended by Sebastien Bazin, the European representative of PSG’s majority American owners Colony Capital. The lunch, the media reports and sources said, was designed to salvage the financially troubled club at a time that it was haemorrhaging an estimated €20m a year. It crowned several months of efforts by Mr. Bazin to rekindle Qatari interest in the financially troubled club.
A three-way deal
On the table, the reports and sources said, was a three-way deal: Qatar would acquire PSG and step up its already substantial investments in France, Mr. Platini, a member of world soccer body FIFA’s executive committee would vote in favour of Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup whose son has reportedly since gone on to be legal advisor to Qatar Sports Investment; and Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera television network would have an opportunity to buy a stake in France’s Ligue 1 broadcast rights.
Mr. Sarkozy “was very interested in the dossier. He was keen because these people wanted to invest in France, but also because he’s a (PSG) supporter,” then Elysée spokesman Franck Louvrier was quoted as saying.
The deal spotlights economically troubled France as a prime example of how Qatar leverages its financial clout to its commercial and political advantage with business ventures as well as joint diplomatic initiatives in what amounts to a love affair with France based on a concerted effort by the French to woo the gas-rich Gulf state that started when Mr. Sarkozy was still interior minister.
Qatari holdings in France
To cement the relationship, the French parliament passed a bill in 2009 that granted a capital gains tax exemption to Qatari companies on property they own in France. An appendix to the bill stresses the "very strong" and "privileged" relations between France and Qatar, based on "the wish of the Qataris to diversify their alliances and their partnerships so as not to depend exclusively on the United States".
Qatari holdings in France include significant real estate properties, including the controversial restoration of 17th century Hotel Lambert in Paris; the equally controversial investment of millions of euros into the promotion of economic activity in France’s depressed and neglected suburbs through small and medium-sized enterprises; sponsorship of Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, France's most famous horse race; the acquisition of PSG and the club’s €100 million sponsorship deal with Qatar National Bank ; as well as investments in major French companies, including Total oil group, construction firm Vinci, Veolia Environment and Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), the world's largest conglomerate of luxury products and French art.
Qatar also has an approximate ten per cent stake in Lagardere Unlimited, the French media company that owns 70 per cent of World Sports Group (WSG), the Singapore company linked to disgraced former FIFA vice president and Asian Football confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national. (For the record, WSG has initiated legal proceedings to force this reporter to reveal his sources for his reporting on the company, which it alleges is defamatory).
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Qatar’s ambassador to France, Mohamed Al Kuwari, explained Qatar’s interest in France, saying that “you invest in France, you build partnerships and you go elsewhere, to Africa, to Asia. We are looking for strong partners like Total, Vinci, Veolia.” Moreover, he said, that France, like Qatar, “has an independent policy, plays an important role in the world, diplomatically and politically.”
Al Jazeera warms up to 2022
The three-way deal served both French soccer and Qatar’s stated-owned global broadcaster, Al Jazeera, best known for its coverage of the Middle East and North Africa. With Orange opting not to bid for the French league’s 2012-2016 tender, income from broadcast rights, the financial lifeline of French clubs, was likely to drop with Canal Plus left as the only expected contender. That changed with Al Jazeera’s entry into the fray. Its purchase of French broadcasting rights for €300 million ensured that revenues remained at levels to those comparable in recent years.
The deal allowed Al Jazeera to burnish its sports credentials ahead of hosting the World Cup in 2022 as part of a broader effort by the Gulf state to project itself. It also expanded Al Jazeera’s franchise in a country that had no real sports-only channel in preparation for a time when pan-Arab broadcasting is likely to be overshadowed by local and national television stations that have emerged as a result of a more liberal media environment in the region. The franchise adds to Al Jazeera ownership of the exclusive broadcasting rights in the Middle East for Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A as well as the 2018 Russia and 2022 Qatar World Cups.
Moreover, Al Jazeera this year launched belN in the United States with an English and a Spanish-language channel in a bid to cash in on America’s growing appetite for soccer, start promoting its hosting of the World Cup a decade from now and persuade reluctant American viewers and cable providers who long viewed the broadcaster as an Al Qaeda mouthpiece to start watching its news coverage. The Spanish channel will feature Latin American soccer alongside Spanish and Italian matches.
Controlling soccer rights is a key tool
Al Jazeera’s aggressive coverage of the popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa in line with Qatari foreign policy and its reshaping from the outset of the Arab media landscape through its mix of relatively independent reporting and free debate sets it apart from most other state broadcasters in the region. Nonetheless, with long-standing popular discontent exploding into anti-government protests on the streets of Arab capitals, controlling soccer rights is a key tool in a football-crazy part of the world.
"We are going to look at all the opportunities in Europe. We are going to study each market one by one, and if there is room for another channel, then we will go,” said Nasser al-Khelaifi, director of Al Jazeera Sports who also is head of PSG.
Mr. Al-Khelaifi’s hope that PSG would win the French title this year has been dashed but that need not prevent the club from achieving his goal of competition in the Champions League within three years, a goal of equal significance for Al Jazeera, the world’s fastest growing broadcaster in terms of audience.
Qatar like the United Arab Emirates sees sports in general and soccer in particular as a way to enhance its international prestige, punch internationally above its weight, build sports as an economic sector that enhances tourism and makes it a key node in the world’s sports infrastructure and create leverage for further business opportunities. Qatar has gone however a step further by identifying sports as a key pillar of a national identity it is trying to forge. In an uncertain world, the strategy constitutes a sophisticated development of a long-standing Gulf policy that seeks security by embedding the region’s states with small populations as key players with multiple friends into the core of international relations.
An expert on Qatar who requested anonymity argues that “Qatar needs all of this to survive. It needs to be everywhere to compensate for its geo-political vulnerability. It doesn’t have the means to pursue a long-term strategy by implementing itself abroad or through its investment policies. They are handicapped by their own demographics,” he said referring to the fact that Qatari nationals account for approximately 20 per cent of Qatar’s population of 1.7 million. As a result, he says, “Qatar is projecting itself as the global center of the Arab world and a 21st century center of the Islamic world.” 
 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.