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, February 26, 2014

The Iranian Nuclear Deal: Rewriting the Middle East Map (JMD in Insight Turkey)

Monday, February 24, 2014

Egyptian autocrats struggle with soccer’s political pros and cons

Zamalek ultras storm stadium in protest against ban on spectators

By James M. Dorsey

An Egyptian government initiative to build more than a thousand new soccer pitches to “keep youth off the streets” against the backdrop of a rising number of clashes between fans and security forces and a likely extension and expansion of the ban on spectators attending matches highlights the opportunities and threats the beautiful game poses for Middle Eastern and North African autocratic rulers.

A youth ministry official told, a news website operated by the US military’s Central Command, that the government was investing $93 million in 1,100 pitches across soccer-crazy Egypt that would be built by the end of this year. An Egyptian Football Association official told the website that the pitches would help produce a new generation of professional soccer players.

The decision to build the pitches came as 25 policemen were injured in clashes with militant soccer fans, a court sentenced 15 other fans to two years in prison for demonstrating without a license in an earlier incident, another court acquitted six security officials on charges of responsibility for the death of 83 protesters during the 2011 popular revolt that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in which fans played a prominent role, and world soccer body FIFA censored the government for interference in the affairs of one of the country’s soccer clubs.

The incidents reflect the dilemma that soccer creates for Middle Eastern and North African autocrats. The pitch offers itself in autocratic countries alongside the mosque as the foremost contested public space that autocrats cannot fully control and are unable to simply shut down. At the same, time it also creates opportunities for them, including the ability to polish their image through association with the region’s most popular form of entertainment, the possibility to distract public attention away from widespread grievances, and at times the chance to manipulate public emotion in their favour.

As a result, the Egyptian government’s effort to promote soccer and use the sport to garner public support amounts to a double-edged sword in an environment in which the return to repressive autocracy following last July’s military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, is undermining the post-Morsi military backed regime’s legitimacy.

Egyptian strongman General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is widely expected to stand for election in forthcoming presidential elections slated for April which he would likely win with a landslide. General Al-Sisi has emerged as a cult figure since he toppled Mr. Morsi whose Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in barely a year in office to become the country’s most reviled political grouping. The military-backed government resigned on Monday in a move that some analysts speculated was designed to pave the way for the presidential candidacy of General Al-Sisi who doubled as defence minister in the outgoing cabinet.

With the military’s banning of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, repressive restrictions on the right to demonstrate and freedom of expression, the killing of some 2,665 protesters since the overthrow of Mr. Morsi and the arrest of thousands more according to human rights activists, the expansion of the crackdown to include not only Islamists but youth who were in the vanguard of the rebellion against Mr. Mubarak, and the emergence of an armed Islamist insurgency, soccer has re-emerged together with universities as  a protest platform.

Like in the days of Mr. Mubarak, soccer evokes deep-seated passions among a majority of Egyptian and gives disaffected youth an opportunity to confront police and security forces, together with the Brotherhood the country’s most despised institutions. Years of confrontation with security forces in stadia and popular neighbourhoods has instilled among militant soccer fans a sense of intolerance towards what they perceive as abuse and mistreatment.

That sentiment is compounded by a widespread belief among the fans who constitute one of the country’s largest civic groups that they have been deprived of the opportunity to realize the goals of the 2011 popular revolt that included a quest for dignity, social justice, greater freedom and an end to corruption.

Fear of the militant soccer fans or ultras has prompted the interior ministry to suspend soccer matches for much of the past three years. Moreover, fans have been banned from attending domestic league matches since the suspension was lifted late last year. Egypt’s worst sporting incident occurred early last year during a brief period in which soccer matches were allowed in the presence of supporters. 74 people, mostly fans of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC, were killed in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

The ministry this month delayed a decision to lift the spectator ban and is considering expanding it to international matches following clashes last week between security forces and Al Ahli ultras. 27 fans and 25 policemen were injured at the end of a Confederation of African Football (CAF) CAF Super Cup match between Al Ahli and Tunisia's CS Sfaxien. The clashes were sparked by the fans’ chanting of slogans against the police and the interior ministry. An unverified video posted on YouTube showed fans beating an officer with a stick.

The ban on spectators is proving in and of itself to be a lightning rod that is compounded by the re-emergence of police and security forces as an unaccountable a law unto themselves. Al Ahli’s Cairo arch rival Al Zamalek SC was fined last month after the club’s militant fans stormed the stadium during a closed door domestic match. “This is a state of injustice and aggression… Those who confront tyranny are captured and killed,” the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant Zamalek support group, said after two of its members were sentenced to two years in prison for wearing a scarf with the words ‘permanent revolution.’

Anger is further fuelled by the refusal of successive post-Mubarak governments to hold security forces accountable for the deaths of more than 1,000 anti-government protesters prior to Mr. Morsi’s downfall as well as the return and rehabilitation of Mubarak era businessmen who were either suspected or indicted on charges of corruption. This month’s acquittal of the police officers was the latest in a string of trials that rights group say failed to hold the country's security forces accountable for demonstrators' deaths.

Said a militant soccer fan in a tone of disgust; “This is Sisi’s Egypt: protesters go to jail and the police can do whatever they want. This is what shaped us under Mubarak. This is what is shaping us now.’

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mounting workers’ deaths increase pressure on Qatar, FIFA and Asian countries

By James M. Dorsey

A mounting number of reports of deaths of foreign workers in Qatar increases pressure on the Gulf state and world soccer body FIFA to urgently address their security and working conditions. While the reports leave questions unanswered they also point to lax efforts to ensure that workers are not exploited by corrupt middle men and human resource managers and are mentally and physically prepared for work in high summer temperatures and often sub-standard conditions.

Pressure mounted this week with the first confirmation that high death rates are prevalent not only among Nepalese workers in Qatar – the focus of international trade unions and human rights groups until now – but also in other communities. The Indian embassy in Doha reported that more than 500 Indian workers had died in Qatar in the last two years. Indians account for 22% of the estimated 1.2 million workers in Qatar – a number that is expected to increase substantially as work begins on infrastructure exclusively related to the Gulf state’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

The Qatari committee responsible for delivery of stadiums and other World Cup-related infrastructure had hoped that its release last week of a 50 page document setting out standards for the living and working conditions of foreign workers would counter widespread criticism and repair significant reputational damage already suffered by the Gulf state. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and Amnesty International welcomed the document as a step forward but noted that there was much more that Qatar needed to do, including address the issue of its kafala or sponsorship system, which severely limits workers’ rights and makes them dependent on the whim of their employers.

The longer it takes Qatar to address fundamental issues, the more international criticism of its labour environment will fester, and the more difficult it will be for Qatar to achieve a key goal of its hosting of the World Cup and its overall investment in sports: the creation of the kind of soft power it needs to compensate for the fact that it will never have the hard power to defend itself.

Similarly, festering criticism will make it increasingly difficult for FIFA to argue that as a sports association it lacks the power to force Qatar to implement the kind of change trade unions and human rights groups are demanding. FIFA has so far insisted that depriving Qatar of its hosting rights is not an option. There is no guarantee that FIFA can maintain that position in the absence of fundamental change.

To be fair, Qatar has gone considerable length to address the issue by engaging with multilateral and non-governmental international organizations; setting improved standards for workers and looking at ways of cutting out corruption, abuse out of the migration cycle particularly in the recruitment phase; and ensuring proper adherence and policing of existing rules and regulations. The Qatari labour ministry said this week that it had significantly hiked its number of inspectors, had sanctioned 2,000 companies last year and another 500 since the beginning of this year for labour law violations and taken steps to improve workers’ access to healthcare and their ability to file complaints.

Yet there are steps Qatar could take even without addressing the kafala system as well as demands that workers have the right to freely organize and bargain collectively that could significantly alter the country’s political and social structure. These include making the standards for workers’ living and working conditions set out by the committee responsible for delivering World Cup infrastructure mandatory in Qatar as a whole. 

So far, only the Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy and Qatar Foundation have issued updated workers’ charters. While these were drafted in close cooperation with the labour ministry, which has echoed in statements much of their language, those standards have yet to be formally adopted for the country as a whole fully  embedded in legislation.

Greater transparency would also help Qatar counter criticism. This would include detailing the kind of labour law infringements for which companies were sanctioned, what those sanctions entail and what steps are being taken to address the issue.

Given Qatar’s financial resources, it could take its efforts to rid the recruitment system of corruption by helping primarily Asian countries supplying labour prepare workers for employment in the Gulf state and ensure that they are physically and mental fit for working in harsh temperatures – a responsibility the supplier countries have failed to shoulder.

While the number of workers’ death reported so far is unacceptable and likely to rise, it remains unclear how many of those were work-related although that is likely to be a majority. Workers often do not have a precise understanding of the conditions they will be working in nor do they undergo a proper health check before their departure.

In addition, Qatar has yet to crack down on the practice of citing a heart condition for a workers’ death even if it involved a work-related incident because that entails less bureaucracy and allows companies and authorities to fend off investigations and post-mortems.

Recent high-profile cases of professionals, including soccer players, who were banned from leaving the country for lengthy periods of time because of labour disputes and the travails of an American family accused of responsibility for the death of their adopted daughter highlight not only problems associated with kafala but also with Qatar’s legal system as a whole.

Addressing these issues and taking further steps to improve workers’ conditions would help Qatar demonstrate that it is serious about change but will not make the issue of the kafala system or workers’ political rights go away. Qataris are divided with progressives seeing the World Cup hosting as an engine of social, if not political change, and conservatives fearing that Qatar’s system of an enlightened, secretive and opaque autocracy as well as the control of society by Qatari nationals who account for at best 15% of the population is at stake.

That is a discussion Qataris no longer can avoid even if they have yet to realize that the train has left the station. It is one that put the very nature of Qatari politics and society on the table and will resonate not only in Qatar but throughout the Gulf whose systems are similar.    

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Murky Turkish soccer politics mesh with massive corruption scandal

Fenerbahce fans protest

By James M. Dorsey

Always murky, Turkish soccer politics have become even murkier as a politics-laden match-fixing scandal meshes with a corruption investigation that targets Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his closest associates.

Defendants in both scandals – Mr. Erdogan and the management of one of Turkey’s most storied clubs – portray the allegations against them as part of a power struggle between the prime minister and a self-exiled preacher who heads one of the world’s most formidable Islamist movements.

To tens of thousands of anti-government protesters mobilized last Sunday by fans of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce Spor Kulubu for the largest anti-government demonstration since last June’s Gezi Park protests on Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the two scandals are expressions of a growing rot in Turkish politics and society. The protesters called for justice not only for Fenerbahce but all of Turkey, expressed support for Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim who is appealing a conviction on match fixing charges, and denounced Mr. Erdogan as a thief.

Like last year’s Gezi Park protests, the largest in Mr. Erdogan’s decade in office in which soccer fans played a key role, Sunday’s Fenerbahce march  reflected growing public anger at a prime minister who has become increasingly haughty and authoritarian. The Gezi Park protests, sparked by government plans to replace a park with a shopping mall, were a precursor for the corruption investigation into public works, zoning and ties between senior government officials and prominent businessmen.

Few doubt that Turkish soccer is riddled with match-fixing and hampered by an incestuous relationships with politics. That was no more evident when two years ago Mr. Yildirim was indicted with 92 others for match-fixing. Mr. Yildirim, who has denied the charges, was sentenced to six years in prison and is now engaged in his final appeal. He could be put behind bars for several years and banned for life from professional soccer.

Fans chanted “Establish a [political] party, Aziz Yıldırım” and “Thief Tayyip Erdogan,” a slogan often heard during Fenerbahce matches even though the club has long been viewed as nationalist. The denunciation of Mr. Erdogan contradicted Mr. Yildirim’s implicit suggestions that the prime minister’s Islamist rival, Fethullalh Gulen, manipulated the court verdicts. Mr. Gulen, who heads a global educational empire and owns some of Turkey’s most influential media, is believed to have significant sway in Turkey’s judiciary and police force.

A battle two years ago between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gulen over how to handle the match fixing scandal effectively amounted to a struggle for control of Fenerbahce, the crown political jewel in Turkish soccer because of its tens of millions of supporters.  

“As I said from the very beginning, the court case regarding match-fixing in Turkey is a political case, and the ruling of this case has also been made politically. I do not respect or recognize this court,” Mr. Yildirim said last month after losing his first appeal. Fenerbahce issued a press release this week peppered with quotes of Mr. Erdogan’s pointing the finger at Mr. Gulen’s alleged control of the judiciary.

“We would like to declare to the global public opinion; the only truth lying before Turkey in the aftermath of this operation which now lacks any sense of legitimacy is that, the right to fair trial, in accordance with the European Convention of Human Rights and the judgments and decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, is a must for all Turkey, and in particular, Fenerbahce Sports Club,” the club said in its statement.

The divergence of opinion on Mr. Erdogan, a Fenerbahce member and former soccer player, between fans and the club’s management reflects the corruption scandal’s rekindling of widespread public discontent that exploded last summer on Taksim Square.

Mr. Erdogan who is serving his third term initially came to office with a record of being clean in a country in which politicians are perceived to be corrupt. He risks, as a result of the latest corruption scandal, losing that aura.

Mr. Erdogan portrays the corruption scandal that has implicated the sons of three ministers and the head of a state-owned bank alongside prominent businessmen with government ties and could embroil the prime minister’s son as a power grab by a state within the state, a reference to Mr. Gulen. The two men joined forces early in Mr. Erdogan’s rule in successfully subjecting Turkey’s powerful military to civilian supervision.

Mr. Gulen’s movement was further instrumental in the initial rise of Turkey’s appeal across the Middle East, North Africa and in sub-Saharan Africa by employing its vast global network to pave the way for Turkish diplomacy and business. Mr. Gulen and Mr. Erdogan have since gradually parted ways as they appealed for support to different segments of conservative Turkish society.

The case of Mr. Yildirim, a defence contractor with long-standing ties to the government, has been enmeshed in politics since day one. Mr. Erdogan drove through parliament a bill that limited punishment for match fixing immediately after the scandal erupted despite opposition from President Abdullah Gul, who like Mr. Gulen, favoured the existing severe penalties. Mr. Gulen was believed to have viewed the match fixing scandal as an opportunity to replace Mr. Yildirim with someone closer to his Cemaat movement.

Three months later Mr. Erdogan got the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to clear Fenerbahce and others of charges of match-fixing. That did not stop the judiciary from pursuing the scandal as a criminal matter. It took however the eruption of the broader construction and public works scandal for Mr. Erdogan to remove prosecutors and police officers whom he believed were associated with Mr. Gulen.

The controversial TFF decision came three months after the soccer body against Mr. Erdogan’s wish rejected a proposal backed by the prime minister that would have shielded clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated. The defeat of the proposal prompted the TFF’s three top officials, including its vice chairman, Goksel Gumusdag, a brother-in-law of Mr. Erdogan, to resign.

Mr. Erdogan’s involvement resembled more recent reports in leaked tapes and statements by journalists about how the prime minister and members of his government regularly pressure editors and reporters to change their reporting to suit the government’s political needs. The prime minister has in recent days also rammed through parliament legislation that gives the government greater control of the judiciary and Internet access.

“The judiciary has been used as a weapon against all the opposition no matter what field of social life is it coming from. Fenerbahce, its members and its fans are protesting against the tricks and the system. Enough is enough. We stand against illegality, a gang-led legal system and anti-democratic establishments,” said a lawyer and fervent Fenerbahce fan.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Qatar unwittingly forces potential improvement of soccer governance

FIFA executive Theo Zwanziger addresses the European parliament

By James M. Dorsey

This is hardly how Qatar would have wanted to do it, but the Gulf state has unwittingly contributed to a potential improvement in the governance of soccer and word sports as a result of mounting controversy over its labour standards. .

The controversy in which Qatar has sought to evade political demands for granting workers full political rights, including the right to organize freely and bargain collectively, by adopting significantly improved standards for their living and working conditions is forcing international sports associations to make human and other rights part of their criteria for awarding in future a country the right to host a mega sporting event.

"We need to rethink this and give human rights a much higher status," Theo Zwanziger,  speaking on behalf of world soccer body FIFA, told a European parliament hearing on Qatar this week.

Mr. Zwanziger’s statement follows last year’s rejection by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) of Qatar’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, in part, according to labour activists, because of workers’ conditions in the Gulf state.

Mr. Zwanziger admitted in his testimony that the plight of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the population of the tiny energy-rich state, had not been a consideration in the awarding three years ago of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

That has now backfired and put both Qatar and FIFA on the defensive. Neither Qatar nor FIFA recognized at the time that the awarding would not only enhance the Gulf state’s prestige but give leverage to activists like the international trade unions which they had lacked prior to Qatar’s successful bid.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has campaigned for the last three years against the kafala or sponsorship system, prevalent not only in Qatar but also other Gulf states, that effectively restricts workers’ freedoms, including travel and the ability to seek alternative employment, and makes them dependent on their employers.

To Qatar’s credit, it has sought to structurally address concerns about material living and working conditions and actively engaged with the International Labour Organization (ILO), a United Nations agency, and human rights groups like Amnesty International.

The Qatari committee responsible for delivering World Cup-related infrastructure this week issued in advance of the European parliament hearing its most detailed workers welfare standards to date yet, a 50-page document to be included in all tournament-related contracts.

Although denounced by the ITUC as too little, too imprecise and failing to address the fundamental sponsorship issue, the standards, if properly implemented and policed, do in significant ways improve workers’ living and working conditions.

In contrast to the ILO and Amnesty, which endorsed the standards as a step forward while insisting that Qatar still has to address the far more invasive and painful issue of sponsorship, Qatar’s relationship with the ITUC has remained acrimonious.

Qatari officials say the trade unions have been far less sensitive to the fact that Qatari reluctance to address those issues are not simply the recalcitrance of an autocracy, albeit an enlightened one. Unlike in other countries where the citizenry accounts for a majority of the population, granting rights of any kind to foreigners raises the spectre of the minority Qatari population losing control of its country, society and culture.

This is not to say that foreigners, and in this case workers, should not have those rights. What it does say however is that change is a far more existential, intrusive and gut-wrenching process   Failure to recognize that risks hardening dividing lines rather than creating an environment in which interests of all parties are taken into account, fears are addressed and the pain involved in fundamental change is eased. By the same token, the ITUC’s hard line ensures that the larger issues that go beyond the immediate living and working conditions of foreign workers remain on the table.

The stakes for all parties are high and perhaps highest for the Qatar. Privately, many Qataris recognize that 
evading the demographic issue is unsustainable even if they don’t know what the solution is.

To be fair, Qatar’s grappling with some aspects of fundamental issues while seeking to evade others has already produced change. In a region governed by autocrats that more often than not refuse to seriously engage with their critics, Qatar has set a precedent with its engagement with international organizations like Amnesty.

Human rights, trade union and media focus on the plight of foreign workers has put fundamental rights firmly on the agenda of international sports associations at the cost of considerable reputational damage to Qatar that threatens its goal of employing sports to acquire soft power. It has made FIFA as much a party pressuring the Qataris for change as are the trade unions or human rights groups.

Depending on proper implementation and policing, significant aspects of foreign workers’ living and working conditions will be addressed. Qatar is also already looking at ways of tackling other equally onerous stages of a worker’s migration cycle, first and foremost the frequently corrupt recruitment process that puts labourers into high debt even before they set foot in the Gulf state.

All of this widens cracks in the door. The trick now is to carry that process forward. To do so, an international division of labour with good and bad cops may well serve its purpose. There is no guaranteed outcome. But the choices that Qatar and ultimately other Gulf states face have never before been posed in starker terms.

Awarding the World Cup to Qatar was “a risk and a chance... (that could) help improve the human rights situation," Mr. Zwanziger told the European parliament.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Workers’ welfare in Qatar: Navigating a minefield

By James M. Dorsey

Qatari organizers of the 2022 World Cup -- in a bid to fend off criticism in the European parliament, convince world soccer body FIFA of progress made in improving conditions of foreign workers, and side line political demands by international trade unions – has issued the Gulf state’s most detailed workers welfare standards to date.

The 50-page document to be included in all World Cup-related contracts was issued two days before a hearing in the European parliament at which FIFA executive Theo Zwanziger is expected to testify on Qatar’s progress.

Qatar has been under pressure by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and human rights groups since winning the World Cup hosting rights to address concerns about the living and working conditions of foreign workers, who account for a significant majority of the Gulf state’s population. Critics noted that the standards do not apply to a majority of vast infrastructure projects that don’t fall under the purview of the World Cup organizers.

FIFA publicly joined the fray following reports last fall in Britain’s The Guardian and other media detailing a high death rate among workers and appalling living and working conditions. It demanded late last month that Qatar report progress in addressing the issues in advance of this week’s parliament hearing and next month’s FIFA executive committee meeting.

The ITUC charged in a statement that the Qatari Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy’s Workers’ Welfare Standards “do not deliver fundamental rights for workers and merely reinforce the discredited kafala (sponsorship) system of employer control over workers.”

The union criticized details of the standard but reserved its harshest criticism for the committee’s failure to address the sponsorship system or its more political demands for workers’ rights to form independent unions and engage in collective bargaining.

Qatari officials noted that the kafala system as well as the ITUC’s political demands fall beyond the committee’s authority and were the responsibility of other ministries and government entities. They drew a distinction between the approach of the International Labour Organization (ILO), which was involved in the drafting of the standards, and that of the ITUC. It was not immediately clear if the committee had invited the ITUC to participate in the drafting of the standards.

The ITUC’s political demands cut to the core of Qatar’s political and social existence. The call for free trade unions and collective bargaining challenges the political system in what is an enlightened autocracy. Together with the kafala system which makes workers dependent on their employers for their permits and restricts their freedom to seek alternative employment or travel, those demands raise existential issues in a country in which the citizenry accounts for at best 15 percent of the population.

The ILO and human rights organizations, while sharply critical of the kafala system, have acknowledged that many Qatari rules and regulations go a significant distance in meeting international standards. Qatari officials have admitted in the past that they were lagging in enforcing those rules but note that the labour ministry has in recent months increased its number of inspectors by 30 percent.

Similarly, the impact of the newly issued Workers’ Welfare Standards stands and falls with their enforcement. With only 38 workers working currently working under contracts that fall within the responsibility of the supreme committee, officials say the degree of enforcement will only be evident later this year as work on World Cup-related infrastructure kicks into higher gear. The committee in its document vows that the standards will be “robustly and efficiently monitored and enforced.”

On paper, the standards constitute a significant improvement in shaping workers’ working and living conditions. Following in the footsteps of Qatar Foundation, the state-owned entity, that funds education, science and community development, the standards extensively address the recruitment of foreign workers, which constitutes one of the most onerous segments of the migration cycle.

Workers often arrive in Qatar seriously indebted to recruiters who charge them significant fees for recruitment and passage to the Gulf state. Those fees can include an average kickback of $600 per worker to an employer’s recruitment executive. Qatar Foundation last year enshrined in its charter the principle that a worker should not pay for his or her recruitment.

The committee’s standards demand that a workers’ welfare compliance plan be part of all tender documents. The plan would need to include a template for contracts with recruitment agencies registered with the Qatari labour ministry in a bid to cut out unethical middlemen and combat corruption. The ITUC asserted that the ministry has so far failed to stop the charging of fees even though they violate Qatari law.

The standards further address a host of issues that are at the core of harsh criticism of Qatar that has cost it significant reputational damage. These include assurances that workers’ passports shall not be confiscated by their sponsors; ensuring timely payment of wages; guarantees that workers will not be penalized for filing complaints; a hotline for workers to file complaints; health, safety and security standards; provisions for adequate housing; hiring of a company worker welfare officer; and a four-tier monitoring and enforcement system.

In its statement, the ITUC charged that “not a single change has been made or recommended to Qatar’s laws that deny workers their fundamental rights. No workplace voice or representative is allowed for migrant workers in Qatar. A worker welfare officer appointed by the employer is no substitute for a duly nominated worker representative.” It dismissed the standards as an “old, discredited self-monitoring system which has failed in the past in Bangladesh and other countries where thousands of workers have died” – an apparent reference to Bangladesh’s textile industry that has witnessed multiple incidents as a result of unenforced standards.

Denouncing the standards as ‘a sham,” the union asserted further that the standards provided for only one social worker for every 3500 employees did not provide details of how complaints would be handled or who would manage the hotline; failed to set up a system to record workers’ deaths ensure autopsies; did not express the intention to prosecute contractors for breaches; and made no reference to Qatar’s high summer temperatures.

“Qatar has to change its laws, nothing else will do,” the statement quoted ITUC secretary general Sharan Burrow as saying.

Countered a Qatari official: “This is a significant step forward. It is part of a process to unify standards with other major stakeholders in the country. It contains a lot of positive decisions.”

The question is whether the steps will be enough to satisfy Qatar’s most ardent critics. Most probably little short of abolishing the kafala system will and that entails significant social and political change that cannot be achieved with the stroke of a pen.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Saudi soccer debates broadens over women’s rights and nationalism

Female US Congressional staffers in Riyadh's King Fahd Stadium

By James M. Dorsey

A Saudi debate about the societal role of soccer expanded this week with controversy over a group of female American Congressional staffers being allowed to watch a match in a Riyadh stadium from which Saudi women are barred and a video in which a teacher encouraged his students to chant slogans for a soccer club rather than the national anthem.

The expanded debate hooks into a broader debate about women’s rights in a country that upholds gender segregation; bans women from driving, attending sports matches and forces women’s soccer clubs to operate in a legal and social nether land; and in general provides few sporting opportunities for women. A Saudi student allegedly died earlier this month after officials at King Saud University refused to allow male emergency responders entry to the women only section of the campus to apply first aid.

In the latest twist of the debate on women’s rights, Saudi media quoted female entrepreneurs as saying they were forced to close down shops because their women employees had difficulty finding affordable transport to and from work. With relatively few municipal busses offering separate sections for women, women are forced to either hire a full-time driver or pay for expensive taxis.

The restrictions on women’s sports appear at odds with public opinion. A Saudi sociologist concluded in November on the basis of a survey that the vast majority of Saudis favour granting women the right to engage in sports. The survey conducted by Mariam Dujain Al-Kaabi as part of her master thesis showed that 73.5 percent of the respondents unambiguously endorsed a woman’s right to engage in sports while 21.6 percent felt that it should be conditional.

There are no official facilities for female athletes or physical education programs for girls in schools in the kingdom. Spanish consultants hired to draft Saudi Arabia’s first ever national sports plan were instructed by the government to do so for men only.

Saudi Arabia alongside Yemen was the only Middle Eastern nation that refused last year to sign on to a campaign by the region’s soccer associations grouped in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) to put women’s soccer on par with men’s football.

Human Rights Watch last year accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" as well as a corrupting and satanic influence that  would spread decadence. The clerics warn that running and jumping could damage a woman's hymen and ruin her chances of getting married.

Saudi Arabia in which the beautiful game was legalized only in the 1950s has long had an ambiguous relationship to the sport. The revived debate about women’s rights and nationalism expands discussion in recent days about the role of soccer.

That debate on social media, increasingly the only public space where Saudis can express dissenting views, was prompted by a father’s decision not to send his 10-year old to school for several days after his son’s team, Al Hilal FC (The Crescent), lost a derby with its arch rival, Al Nasr FC, and a You Tube video in which Saudi cleric Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zobaydi derby warned that soccer ‘fanaticism’ threatened to destroy Saudi society.

The decision at the request of Saudi Arabia’s Shura or Consultative Council, a largely toothless body intended to project a sense of popular participation, to allow the female American Congressional staffers to attend a match between Al Nasr and Al Shabab FC revived intermittent efforts in recent years to lift the ban on Saudi women joining their male counterparts as spectators in stadia. ‘The move was aimed at impressing the Americans with the Kingdom’s advanced sports facilities,” the Jeddah-based Arab News quoted a Saudi official as saying.

The granting of permission to the Americans followed a flurry of statements and denials last year about allowing Saudi and/or foreign women into stadia. Such flurries of contradictory statements often are an indication of debate within the inner councils of the secretive, deeply religious kingdom.

Women attend the Saudi-New Zealand match  (Source: Al Arabiya)  

Prince Nawaf bin Faisal, the head of the youth welfare authority that oversees Saudi sports, denied in September that women would be allowed to attend a match between the kingdom and New Zealand. That denial was called into a question by a picture on the website of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television network of a few women and children in the stadium during the game. Prince Nawaf issued his denial in response to an announcement by the manager of Riyadh’s King Fahad Stadium, Sulaiman al-Yousef that foreign women and children would be permitted to watch the match.

The Americans’ presence sparked renewed calls for a lifting of the ban on women attending matches. “Why do the authorities allow foreign women to enter stadiums while they deny Saudi women the same privilege?” asked a commenter who identified himself as Saudi in the Arab News’ online comment section.

“Double standards of the Saudi Government!!,’ quipped Ahmed. ‘Change is unavoidable. Let the foreigners lead the way, take the heat - as long as our national women can follow soon,” added Kolwyntjie. “Welcome to American women but a huge kick for rest of women. It’s shameful really!! It’s like a big slap. One rule is for someone & other rule is for others. That's what I can say!!! Our Religion ISLAM teaches the lesson of EQUALITY!!!!,”said Humanity.

Saudi Arabia’s soccer-related debate was further fuelled by some Saudis expressing outrage at a teacher who encouraged his students in an online video to chant “I am an Al-Nasr fan” instead of singing the national anthem. They called on Twitter on the education ministry to discipline the teacher.

“This teacher cannot be trusted. In this video, he can be seen instilling unhealthy attitudes among students. This is indoctrination,” one tweeter said.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Saudis debate societal merits of soccer

A Saudi father says the defeat of his son's soccer team is a reason to keep him at home

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi parents have joined the country’s clergy in debating the societal merits of soccer in a deeply religious and fundamentalist country, which has long been ambiguous towards what is the kingdom’s most popular sport out of concern that it poses a serious challenge to Islam.

The broadening of the debate on social media, increasingly the only public space where Saudis can engage in discussions and express dissenting views, was sparked by a father’s decision not to send his 10-year old son to school for several days after his son’s team, Al Hilal FC (The Crescent), lost a derby with its arch rival, Al Nasr FC, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. The father said he wanted to spare his son heckling by classmates who support Al Nasr. Al Nasr’s 2:1 defeat of Al Hilal ended Al Hilal’s six year winning streak.

The online debate constitutes one more example of the growing importance of social media in an autocratic country with the world’s largest proportion of Internet users. Increasing online criticism of the kingdom’s ruling Al-Saud family potentially could alter the relationship between the monarchy and its subjects. It has already forced rulers to respond in a bid to prevent widespread discontent from festering further. As a result, social media have emerged as the one space where Saudis can express dissent despite new anti-terrorism legislation that significantly curtails already severely restricted freedom of speech.

The debate on soccer came on the heels of Saudis responding online critically to government plans to provide affordable housing. It also followed a You Tube video in which Saudi cleric Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zobaydi in response to the Al Hilal-Al Nasr derby warned that soccer ‘fanaticism’ threatened to destroy Saudi society. Some 700,000 people viewed the video that focused on a Twitter hashtag adopted by Al Nasr fans that included the words: my team has taken the lead.  "The true leader is the one who competes to memorise the book of Allah," Sheikh Al-Zobaydi said.

In a country in which ultra-conservative and militant clerics have long viewed soccer as a distraction from religious obligations, a nationalist threat to pan-Islamic ideals, and a game of the infidels, Saudis commenting on You Tube and Twitter on Sheikh Al-Zobaydi’s remarks appeared split on the clerics view. While hard core Al Nasr fans accused him of defaming their club, many expressed the kingdom’s ambivalent attitude towards the game.

"Sports fanaticism is one of the illnesses of the modern age," said one tweet. In an interview with the BBC, sports photographer Fahad Almarri defended soccer “as long as it doesn't cross red lines," a reference to religious and family values.

Perceptions of soccer fanaticism have increasingly become a subject of clerical debate in Saudi Arabia, a country that provides few sporting opportunities for women and bans women’s soccer, with religious and political leaders increasingly concerned that the sport could rival Islam, a key pillar of the Al Saud family’s control in alliance with religious leaders.

Concern about the role of soccer even among those religious leaders who support the game in line with the Prophet Mohammed’s advocacy for sport as a means of maintaining a healthy body was evident during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Clerics parked mobile mosques on the back of flatbed trucks and rolled out carpets in front of coffee shops to persuade men to pray at the appropriate time while watching the tournament’s matches on screens.

The clerical debate about soccer also reflects concern that soccer alongside minority Shiite Muslims and relatives of imprisoned government critics could emerge as a focal point of dissent in a kingdom that despite a ban on demonstrations has been struggling to fend off the waves of change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

Concern about soccer was fuelled by a series of assertions of fan activism in recent years. A Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution demanded last year the resignation of Prince Faisal bin Turki, the owner of Al Nasr and a burly nephew of King Abdullah, who sports a moustache and chin hair. A You Tube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly being pelted last year and chanted against as he rushed off the soccer pitch after rudely shoving a security official aside.

The campaign against Prince Faisal followed  the unprecedented resignation in 2012 of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF), the first royal to be persuaded by public pressure to step down in a region where monarchical control of the sport is seen as a political sine qua non.

Prince Nawaf’s resignation led to the election of a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid Alharbi widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer, in a country that views free and fair polling as a Western concept that is inappropriate for the kingdom. Prince Nawaf retained his position as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the senior official responsible for youth welfare that effectively controls the SFF.

Nevertheless, the resignation of Prince Nawaf and the campaign against Prince Faisal were significant in a nation in which the results of premier league clubs associated with various members of the kingdom’s secretive royal family are seen as a barometer of their relative status, particularly at a time that its septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders prepare for a gradual generational transition.

“The Saudis are extremely worried. Soccer clubs rather than the mosque are likely to be the centre of the revolution. Kids go more to stadiums than to mosques. They are not religious, they are ruled by religious dogma,” said Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad, who heads the Gulf Institute.

As a result, authorities in the soccer-crazy kingdom were seeking to reduce soccer’s popularity by emphasizing other sports like athletics and handball in policy and fund-raising, according to sources involved in sports policy.

“They are identifying what talent is available in the kingdom. Football is a participatory sport. They want to emphasize the social aspects of other sports. Football won only one medal in the last Asian Games. They think they can score better in other sports. There are parallel agendas with competition about who gets the visibility,” one source said.

In his letter to the school, the Saudi father suggested that the school would understand his decision to keep his son at home for several days because it was concerned about the well-being of his son.
In response, Gulf newspapers quoted an unidentified student counsellor as warning that growing sports fanaticism could cause educational problems and psychological difficulties. The counsellor said the risk was enhanced by teachers supporting or opposing clubs in class and encouraging debate among students about matches.

Online, Saudis lined up for and against the father’s decision. “We should not blame the father as he is keen on the wellbeing of his son and on avoiding him getting bullied,” said Ahmad. Al Anzi countered that “by supporting this negative attitude, the father is teaching his son how to dodge reality and how to look for excuses whenever there is a situation. This is really terrible and family values are being eroded through sports.”

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Qatar’s sports-focused public diplomacy backfires

By James M. Dorsey

A perceived lack of real progress in the improvement of conditions for foreign labour, aggravated by a Qatari reluctance to engage in public debate beyond platitudes, is undermining the soft power goals underlying the Gulf state’s sports strategy.

The silver lining in the public relations beating Qatar is taking is that it forces international sports associations like FIFA, the world’s governing soccer body, to include issues of labour and other rights in their policy towards hosts of mega events like the 2022 World Cup. That was already evident last year when the International Olympics Committee (IOC) rejected Qatar’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, in part, according to labour activists, because of workers’ material conditions.

FIFA, in its latest response to persistent media reporting on onerous living and working conditions of foreign workers who constitute a majority of the Gulf state’s population and are building vast infrastructure projects some of which are World Cup-related, demanded this week that Qatar report in its progress on improving living and working circumstances.

The report intended to inform testimony in mid-February in the European parliament by FIFA executive Theo Zwanziger, a former German Football Association head critical of the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar.  FIFA, whose executive committee is expected to take up the issue on March 20, needs to demonstrate that Qatar is making true on pledges to improve workers’ conditions and loft words embodied in a series of statements and charters.

“FIFA expects to receive information on the specific steps that Qatar has taken since FIFA President Blatter’s last trip to Doha in November 2013 to improve the welfare and living conditions of migrant workers,” FIFA said in a statement.

In response to a three-year old campaign by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and human rights groups as well as media reporting spearheaded by Britain’s The Guardian, Qatar has pledged to increase the number of inspectors overseeing the implementation of existing rules and regulations. These provisions are widely viewed as meeting international standards despite widespread criticism of the kafala or sponsorship system that significantly restricts workers’ freedom of movement and ability to change jobs.

Qatar has also drafted a number of charters of workers’ rights, the most ambitious of which is that of the Qatar Foundation that, according to people involved in its drafting, seeks to structurally alter a labourer’s migration cycle which involves corrupt middlemen and company human resource officers. The problem is the foundation has never published the charter nor reported on progress it has made in making the migration cycle less onerous.

FIFA’s request for a progress reports follows a report in The Guardian’s Sunday paper, The Observer, according to which 185 Nepalese construction workers died last year as a result of onerous labour conditions. That would bring the number of reported Nepalese deaths over the last two years to 382. Trade unionists have focused on the Nepalese community because it accounts for up to one quarter of Qatar’s two million inhabitants. Nepalese rank among the lowest paid workers in Qatar.

“We are currently in the middle of an intensive process, which is exclusively aimed at improving the situation of workers in Qatar. Ultimately, what we need are clear rules and steps that will build trust and ensure that the situation, which is unacceptable at the moment, improves in a sustainable manner,” Mr. Zwanziger said in a statement.

The public relations beating of Qatar stems from the Gulf state’s apparent inability to draw conclusions from a failed communications strategy ever since winning its World Cup bid. Qatar failed initially to anticipate the criticism of its success driven by questions about the integrity of its bid as well as envy and jealously by those who had unsuccessfully competed against it. It subsequently surrendered the public relations battlefields to its detractors by deciding not to engage in the false hope that criticism would eventually subside.

The result is not only that Qatar is on the defensive but that it has lost significant ground in achieving a core 
goal of its vast investment in sports in general and soccer in particular: the projection of soft power in a bid to compensate for a lack of hard power. Soft power is a key Qatari defence and security strategy based on the realization that it will never have the military strength to defend itself irrespective of what hardware it acquires or the number of foreigners it recruits to populate its armed forces.

Sports is central to a soft power strategy designed to embed and endear Qatar in an international community in ways that would ensure that the world would come to its aid in times of need much like a US-led force expelled Iraqi occupation troops from Kuwait in 1990. Qatar has so far missed the plank with international public opinion associating it more with modern day slavery than with being a cutting edge 21st century nation that is contributing to the global good.

In an apparent decision to take more control of preparations of the World Cup, Qatar’s 33-year old emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamid al Thani, a sports enthusiast and member of the IOC executive committee, downgraded the Supreme Committee that had so far been in charge of organizing the World Cup and created a new body chaired by himself and populated by his appointees to oversee event and operational planning as well as coordination with FIFA.

In many ways, Qatar, Nepal and other labour supplying countries have much to gain from working together to tackle workers’ material living and working conditions. Kanak Mani Dixit, a prominent Nepali journalist and editor of the Kathmandu-based Himal, recently argued that Nepalese authorities and civic groups were co-responsible by allowing abuse to occur.

“The job migrants of Nepal are entrapped not only by the sponsor-manpower nexus but by a neglectful Kathmandu civil society and a government that has floundered all these years when it comes to foreign affairs and the protection of overseas citizens. The Kathmandu discourse on migrant labour is marked by a sense of fatalism—the diffidence explained perhaps by a fear of shaking the honey pot. The Gulf migrants are perceived as the luckier ones, given that the poorest of all cross the open border into the employment sump that is India,” Mr. Dixit wrote.

“While there is little or no possibility of collective bargaining within the labour-receiving Gulf countries at this stage, the sending countries including Nepal—individually and collectively—could cooperate to demand better ‘migration governance’ in the GCC region. It is a delicate task that requires research, diplomatic skill and committed activism—so that the fundamental rights of the workers are protected without exposing Nepali workers to formal or informal bans (as happened with Filipina workers, when Manila sought to raise their base income),” Mr. Dixit said.

\“As a major labour exporter, Nepal must come out of the fog and get involved in the accelerating discourse. Priority in foreign affairs must be given to the relationships with the labour-receiving countries, especially those of the Gulf and Malaysia. We must rise from the wreckage of foreign affairs, including the appointment of incapable political-appointee ambassadors, which has directly hurt the prospects of citizens working overseas,” Mr. Dixit argued, calling for the creation of a ministry for foreign employment.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.