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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

UN fires shot across Qatar’s bow

By James M. Dorsey

The United Nations’ senior official responsible for migrants, in a shot across Qatar’s bow as officials predict imminent far-reaching labour reforms,  has called on the Gulf state to abolish its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system and enshrine its lofty promises in law.

The timing of the publication of UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants François Crepeau’s report on Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, suggests that the Gulf state’s trade union, human rights and UN critics are unlikely to accept anything less than the abolition of the kafala system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

Qatar, which has engaged with critics who demand that it be deprived of its right to host the tournament if it fails to adhere to international labour standards, has suggested that it will shortly announce radical reform of its controversial labour system. The reforms stop short of abolishing kafala but would transfer sponsorship from employers to the government, allow workers to change jobs after serving proper notice, and ease the issuing of exit permits.

Criticism of Qatari labour conditions has emerged as the foremost threat to Qatar’s to efforts to use the World Cup to build soft power amid suggestions that an investigation by world soccer body FIFA into allegations of wrongdoing in Qatar’s successful World Cup bid is unlikely to produce seriously incriminating evidence.

Qatar sees sports in general and soccer in particular as a key defence and security tool that will earn it the soft power it needs to compensate for its lack of hard power. With a citizenry of only 250,000 Qatar realized with the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that it would not be able to defend itself no matter how many weapons it acquired or how many foreigners it drafted into its armed forces. Kuwait at the time was able to marshal the international community to come to its aid and expel Iraqi forces from the Gulf state.

Mr. Crepeau called in his 22-page report for abolition of the kafala system; adherence to international human rights and labour standards; integration of binding commitments to respect the rights of migrants in all commercial contracts; a robust system for oversight of suppliers and subcontractors; and ensuring that migrant workers are not charged fees for their recruitment and are granted exit permits ‘unless there is a justified reason not to do so.’

He further urged the home countries of migrant workers to regulate recruitment agencies in order to guarantee ethical recruitment in compliance with international human rights and labour standards, ensure that recruitment agencies do not charge migrants fees and that workers are prepared for work in Qatar, and that inter-government agreements safeguard workers’ rights.

“The recruitment process for migrants needs to be further formalized in order to prevent exploitation and legislation must be enforced in order to ensure their rights are respected. The kafala (sponsorship) system, which links a work permit to a single employer, is a source of abuse and exploitation of migrants and should be abolished,” Mr. Crepeau said.

At the same time, the UN official recognized that Qatar’s demography – foreign workers constitute the majority of the population in a country in which Qatari nationals account for only 12 percent – means that reform of the labour system is likely to entail social and political change that could have a ripple effect across the Gulf.

Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy issued in February a 50-page document it says will be part of any World Cup-related contract that enshrines much of what Mr. Crepeau is demanding. The document like principles adopted by Qatar Foundation are however only binding for contracts issued by the two organizations. The government has yet to make those principles nationally binding by enshrining them in law.

Some Qatari officials and analysts suggest that could happen as part of the Gulf state’s planned overhaul of the kafala system.

The government in advance of the overhaul has been seeking to convince the country’s business community which has been reluctant to endorse reform.

It has also announced a series of May Day-related activities, including a “walkathon” in the Industrial Area where many migrant workers are housed in which officials and workers would participate “to create awareness about work place safety” and a conference on the protection of workers’ rights in Qatar under the patronage of Prime Minister and Interior Minister H E Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani. At the same time, Qatar is using soccer to forge hitherto non-existent social links between Qataris and the country’s migrant labour and expatriate majority.

The events and initiatives, designed to show that Qatar is serious about labour and social reform, are however unlikely to impress the Gulf state’s critics who want to see change legally enshrined and properly monitored and enforced.

Qatari media reports suggested that the business community’s resistance to reform was focused on the possible easing or abolition of exit permits that employees need to obtain from their employers before leaving the country.

“The private sector strongly resists any changes to the system, particularly exit permit rules, arguing that their interests need to be protected by the state as 85 percent of the country’s population comprises foreigners, and most businesses are run by them,” The Peninsula reported.

Businessmen fear that expatriates who often run their operations and have access to company funds would be tempted to skip the country with those funds if the exit permit system were abolished. The businessmen note that they would have little legal recourse given that Qatar has few extradition treaties with other countries. Some businessmen suggested they may be willing to endorse reform if the government were willing to shoulder the risk.

“I understand the pressures. But we should not be the ones to run the risk for what is ultimately a government responsibility,” one businessman 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.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

World Cup sparks change as soccer puts chink in Qatari segregation

Workers Cup 201

By James M. Dorsey

Qatar is employing soccer to put a significant first chip in the Chinese wall that segregates its minority citizenry from its majority foreign labour and expatriate population.

The move that Qatari officials say is one of the undertakings they made in their successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup constitutes a first tentative step by a Gulf state towards some form of integration of non-nationals in a region largely populated by states in which citizens account for only a small percentage of the population.

The step breaks with a regional policy that was designed to give foreigners no illusion that their welcome was limited to the period of their contract and discouraged integration and inter-action with Qatari nationals to prevent them from sprouting roots.

For Qataris, it involves embarking on a risky and scary road that many recognize as necessary and unavoidable but nonetheless may unleash dynamics they no longer will be able to control and that could force fundamental changes in the social and political structure of their society.

The move, involving a Workers Cup in which 24 teams of foreign workers established by their employers, mostly construction companies, could see the Cup’s top clubs play against Qatar’s top league teams in a Super Cup later this year. The Cup that ended this week is in its second year after having been launched with an initial 16 teams.

For Qataris sports clubs, the move has served to dramatically raise spectator numbers in a region where with the exception of Saudi Arabia stadium attendance is historically low.                                                                
Nasser Yaacoubi, marketing manager of Al Ahli Doha, one of Qatar’s top league clubs owned by a member of the ruling Al Thani family and a pioneer of forging sports bridges between Qataris and non-Qataris, has seen his efforts triple stadium attendance. “Everybody likes football, everybody loves the ball. We reached the stage where we realize that there is a huge potential support base that we can tap into,” he said.

In a country in which stadium attendance was at best a couple of thousand, Mr. Yaacoubi, a former player, says 10,152 Qatari’s and non-Qataris attended the club’s most recent league match. That was achieved not only by opening club facilities to non-Qataris, but also by coupling the league game to a back-to-back friendly between the national teams of Nepal and the Philippines, who supply much of Qatari labour.

Qatari officials said initiatives like that of Mr. Yaacoubi were in line with promises they made in the bidding for the World Cup. Qatar pledged in its bid to initiate “a broad set of programs to promote the sustained integration (of foreigners) into Qatari life with football as the fulcrum” that would include “a forum that would connect migrant workers and expatriates with local football clubs and register existing amateur leagues with the QFA (Qatar Football Association)” as well as funding for equipment, facilities and leagues. Qatari officials said amateur leagues like those associated with universities and schools were now open to all residents irrespective of nationality.

The undertakings coupled with massive criticism by international trade unions and human rights groups in the wake of its winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup has forced Qatar to seriously address an existential problem for which there is no immediate solution: how does a citizenry that constitutes a mere 12 percent of the population give rights to its 88 percent foreign majority without losing control of its society, state and culture? How Qatar addresses that question is likely to have a ripple effect across the Gulf.

It is a debate that has long simmered in Qatar and other Gulf states but only exploded into the public domain with the avalanche of criticism by the unions and human rights groups.

A series of articles in The Peninsula, a Qatari English-language newspaper, last year portrayed various aspects of the lives of migrant workers, including informal self-organized money pools that constitute a rudimentary social security system for workers and the lack of entertainment and relaxation opportunities as well as access to the Internet.

Qatar University sociologist Kaltham Al Al-Ghanim noted in an article that unskilled foreign workers were not included in the country’s National Strategy for Social Security (2011-16). “Isolating these large sections of our population can make them vulnerable to crime. They can be a challenge to social security,” she said.

In a break with the past dominated by the fear that a foreigners association with a sport club would spark identification and a sense of belonging, Ms. Al-Ghanim, called on the country’s sports clubs to set up branches in the Industrial Zone “to channel their (workers’) energy to productive avenues and hunt for sporting talent.” She cautioned that if foreign workers were allowed to “live on the social fringes, the danger is they would take to illegal activities and emerge as a threat to social security.”

While the Workers Cup is unlikely to satisfy Qatar’s critics who have demanded the abolition of its kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers as well as recognition of workers’ rights to establish independent trade unions and bargain collectively it does constitute one more step in unprecedented engagement by the Gulf state.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in Hong Kong on Thursday for the inauguration of the Hong Kong Football Association’s new offices put the responsibility for improving workers’ conditions on Qatar after being confronted by protesters. “They have a problem and we know that but this is not a question for FIFA.  It is one which the state of Qatar must handle as well as all the construction companies who are responsible for the workers,” Mr. Blatter said.

A major litmus test is looming as Qatar prepares to announce what it says will be a major overhaul rather than the abolition of the kafala system. The reforms are expected to include shifting sponsorship from employers to the government and granting workers greater freedoms such as the right to change employers after serving notice. Workers currently need their employers’ permission to change jobs.

Another litmus test is likely to be whether enhanced welfare standards adopted by the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy that is responsible for delivery of the World Cup for all contracts related to the tournament as well as similar standards approved by Qatar Foundation are integrated into the law of the land.

“Qatar has opened the door. How open it is remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Qatar is treading on uncharted ground,” said a foreign diplomat who monitors labour issues closely. “Qatar’s critics will continue to wield a stick certainly as long as Qatar has not reached a point of no return. Getting to that point of no return is now the key issue.”

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, April 21, 2014

Qatar to cut ‘one third’ of World Cup stadiums (JMD quoted on Al Arabiya

Qatar to cut ‘one third’ of World Cup stadiums

Qatar originally planned 12 stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. (Photo courtesy: Qatar 2022 Bid Committee)
Qatar is to slash the number of stadiums it builds for the 2022 World Cup, according to reports, with the local tournament organizer confirming the number of grounds is under review.
The country originally set out plans for 12 football stadiums, including three refurbished grounds. But it has now cut that to eight, according to statements by Ghanim al-Kuwari, the organizing committee’s senior manager for projects, quoted by Bloomberg.
Kuwari did not give a reason for the reduction, which comes at a time of rising costs and several controversies surrounding Qatar's hosting of the tournament.
The Qatar World Cup committee confirmed to Al Arabiya News that the final selection of venues is still under review.
“For Qatar, the process of selecting the final proposed line-up of host venues is ongoing. In due course, the final proposal for stadia will be submitted to the FIFA Executive Committee for approval. The requirement is a minimum of eight and a maximum of 12 stadia,” the Qatar committee said in a statement.
A committee spokesman confirmed that Qatar’s original bid included 12 stadiums. He said it was normal for plans outlined in a bid to be reviewed once a country is chosen as host.
But James Dorsey, author of a blog and related book entitled The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, said it is rare for World Cup hosts to change plans indicated in their original bids.
“Qatar signalled last year that it was considering reducing the number of stadia. It has to do so in consultation with FIFA. Normally, hosts stick to the plans they submitted as part of their bid,” Dorsey said. “Qatar will obviously have to justify this and demonstrate that a reduction will not impact the tournament.”
Relevant factors include the time of year when the World Cup will be held (still undecided in Qatar’s case), the ability to cool venues should the tournament be held in summer months, and broadcasting schedules, Dorsey said.
The commentator added that he would be “surprised” if cost were the main issue behind any decision to cut the number of venues.
Qatar is embarking on a massive infrastructure outlay ahead of the 2022 tournament, set to cost more than $200 billion. The stadiums will cost $4 billion, according to the ministry of business and trade cited by Bloomberg.
Yet the Gulf state has faced rising costs and pressure from campaigners over its treatment of foreign workers.
Other controversies surrounding Qatar's hosting of the World Cup include allegations that almost $2 million was paid to a senior FIFA official and his family just after the Gulf state won its controversial bid.
The Qatar 2022 World Cup committee denied any wrongdoing in the wake of those allegations.
Last Update: Monday, 21 April 2014 KSA 12:01 - GMT 09:01

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Workers’ Cup 2014 speeds to the finals (JMD quoted in Doha News)

Posted: 20 Apr 2014 02:25 AM PDT
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All photos courtesy of Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy
With reporting from Ankita Menon
It was a rough weekend for several teams competing in the second annual Workers’ Cup, as the playing field was narrowed from eight to four teams.
Gulf Contracting Co. and Out Look will face off in the semi-finals on Friday, as will Amana and Tanzifco Co WLL. The matches will most likely take place at the Al Wakra Sports Club, and are free and open to the public.
So far, thousands of people have turned out to support the teams, which are comprised of workers from several companies around Qatar. The finals, which will be held on Friday, May 2, may be played at a stadium, organizers told Doha News.
A spokesman for the QSports League, which is overseeing the tournament, said the motivation for holding such an event is to help the nation (host of the 2022 World Cup) become a “sports hub.”
“We are building the momentum for Fifa 2022 by engaging the working communities in sports activities,” he said.


According to a different QSL organizer who spoke to Doha News during the inaugural season last year, the goal is also to integrate a large segment of Qatar’s population with the rest of the community.
The tournament also addresses a common complaint among Qatar’s hundreds of thousands of working class residents about a lack of recreational options here. These men, who are usually here without their families, are often turned away from malls and other public areas on Fridays, their one day off a week.
Holding sports tournaments for this demographic are a relatively novel concept, According to James Dorsey, who writes for MidEast Soccer. Last year, he said the idea of such a tournament could be seen as a “small but not insignificant” step forward in terms of improving human rights for this vulnerable group.

Syrian jihadists employ soccer as propaganda and recruitment tool

By James M. Dorsey

Jihadists, often eager to exploit soccer for their ideological goals, have found a new way of employing the game for propaganda and recruitment purposes. A recent jihadist video suggested that an apparent Portuguese fighter in Syria was a former French international who had played for British premier league club Arsenal.

The video exploited the physical likeness of a masked jihadist fighter believed to be Celso Rodrigues Da Costa, to that of French international Lassana Diarra. Voice analysis suggested however that the man brandishing an AK-47 weapon in the clip was Mr. Da Costa, a Portuguese national who had lived in East London for some time and may have attended youth coaching sessions at Arsenal. Mr. Diarra played for Arsenal before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow.

Mr. Da Costa would be the third London-based Portuguese national to have joined the Syrian jihad.  Last October, Burak Karan, an up and coming German-Turkish soccer star, was killed during a Syrian military raid on anti-Bashar al Assad rebels near the Turkish border. Messrs. D Costa and Karan joined a list of soccer players-turned-militants who have gone to the Middle East and North Africa or had roots in the region or in Islam. They are among thousands of Europeans believed to have joined the war in Syria.

In the eight-minute video posted on, a website associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one of the most militant jihadist groups in Syria, Mr. Da Costa, using the nomme de guerre Abu Isa Andaluzi and speaking with a heavy accent, urged others to join the jihadists.

A caption under the video posting read; “A former soccer player - Arsenal of London - who left everything for jihad.” Another text said: "He... played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah.”

On camera, Mr. Da Costa said: "My advice to you first of all is that we are in need of all types of help from those who can help in fighting the enemy. Welcome, come and find us and from those who think that they cannot fight they should also come and join us for example because it maybe that they can help us in something else, for example help with medicine, help financially, help with advice, help with any other qualities and any other skills they might have, and give and pass on this knowledge, and we will take whatever is beneficial and that way they will participate in jihad."

Mr. Da Costa’s projection of himself as a soccer star signalled an apparent perception among jihadists that three years after the capture and killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden the movement is in need of celebrities. Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman Zawahiri, a dour 62-year old medical doctor in hiding, doesn’t quite cut it as a charismatic figure.

Jihadists “have finally embraced the idea that nothing can truly be put into perspective today unless it is filtered through the prism of our own fametastic Premier League,” The Guardian quipped n a satirical editorial.

Soccer has long served jihadists as a recruitment and bonding tool. It brings recruits into the fold, encourages camaraderie and reinforces militancy among those who have already joined.

Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel traced their roots a decade ago to a West Bank soccer team. The 2004 Madrid train bombers played the beautiful game together and several Saudi players joined the anti-American jihad in Iraq following a fatwa or religious ruling by conservative Muslim preachers denouncing football as a game of the infidels.

In Russia, authorities three years ago arrested three men on charges of wanting to blow up the high speed Sapsan railway linking Moscow and St Petersburg. The three were childhood friends who traced their roots to the northern Caucasus, a hotbed of Islamist militancy, where they played soccer together.

Mr. Da Costa’s video adds propaganda or what The Guardian called “an exciting development in jihadist PR” to the jihadist toolkit even if it was not immediately clear whether he and Mr. Karan were driven to give up potential or promising soccer careers by a radical interpretation of Islam or a deep-seated humanitarian concern for the victims of brutal wars like that in Syria.

What Messrs. Da Costa and Karan however shared with players-turned-jihadists as well as various jihadist leaders including Mr. Bin Laden, Hamas Gaza foreman Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is a deep-seated passion for the sport and that their road towards militancy often involved an action-oriented activity, soccer.

Messrs, Da Costa and Karan’s cases appear nevertheless more similar to those of players Yann Nsaku or Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, individuals who radicalized, rather than the Hamas or Madrid bombers or the Saudi players who turned militant in the context of a group.

Mr. Nsaku, a Congolese born convert to Islam and former Portsmouth FC youth centre back, was one of 11 converts arrested in France in 2012 on suspicion of being violent jihadists who were plotting anti-Semitic attacks.

Mr. Trabelsi, , a Tunisian who played for Germany’s Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Wuppertal, was arrested and convicted in Belgium a decade ago on charges of illegal arms possession and being a member of a private militia. Mr. Trabelsi was sentenced to ten years in prison.

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, April 19, 2014

Experts say Russia-Iran barter deal harmful (JMD quoted)

Experts say Russia-Iran barter deal harmful

By Sara Rajabova
Iran is in talks with Russia on bartering the Iranian oil with Russian goods, which has caused concerns of some countries, especially the United States.
Negotiations on Russia-Iran barter deal came up while the West is angry with Russia over the events in Ukraine, and the six world powers and Iran are trying to bridge the gaps and prepare the final deal.
Iran and Russia have been discussing various ways of increasing bilateral trade, including Moscow possibly taking up to 500,000 barrels a day of the Iranian oil in exchange for Russian goods needed by Iran.
Washington said such a deal would go against the terms of the interim nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran, reached in Geneva in last November.
In case Russia and Iran's barter deal happens, the U.S. senators have threatened to reinstate Iran sanctions that were eased under the Geneva deal.
The senators said if Iran moves forward with this effort to evade U.S. sanctions and violate the terms of the oil sanctions relief, the United States will respond by re-instating the oil sanctions, rigorously enforcing significant reductions in global purchases of Iranian crude oil.
However, Russia doesn't take the United States' concerns and warnings too seriously. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said recently that any oil-for-goods deal between Moscow and Iran would follow the United Nations' rules on sanctions, not the U.S.
Speaking about the possibility of the Russia-Iran barter deal, some experts believe that such deal will not be in Iran's interests.
Commenting on the issue, professor of economics at U.S. Northeastern University Kamran Dadkhah told AzerNews that even if the United States does not reinstate the sanctions, the oil-for-goods deal with Russia will damage Iran.
Dadkhah said if the U.S. reinstates the sanctions, Iran's loss would be even greater.
"There are two ways to look at this oil-for-goods deal. It may be a political move by Iran to have a bargaining chip during the nuclear negotiations with P5+1 group. As such, it cannot and will not go through.But Iran may ask for more speedy removal of sanctions from the United States and Europe in return for not pursuing the deal. But if Iran is serious about going through with the deal as an economic move, then it is a grave mistake and will bring nothing but loss for Iran," Dadkhah noted.
He said Iran has always been the loser in any transactions with Russia. "Consider the Bushehr nuclear power plant that seems to be taking forever to start operation or the deal on the Caspian Sea resources, where Russia deprived Iran of its share," Dadkhah said.
He said in the case of oil-for-goods deal, it should be taken into consideration that Russia is one of the three top oil producers in the world along with the United States and Saudi Arabia. "Thus, Russia does not need Iran's oil and has to sell the 500,000 barrels per day of oil from Iran to its own clients.Therefore, Russia will insist on receiving the oil at a price far below the international market price. On the other hand, Russia is not the supplier of the goods and material that Iran needs," Dadkhah underlined.
Furthermore, he noted that in barter agreements, Russia can try to sell its low-quality products to Iran.
"We have observed this in case of Iran-China trade, where China has flooded Iran's market with low-quality goods that Iran itself could produce. In a trade agreement, both sides will benefit if they are on an equal footing. But if one side has the upper hand (in this case Russia) it can impose its will to the detriment of the other side," the expert said.
Dadkhah stressed that in the barter trade, this situation is worse for the side with lower bargaining power.
"Thus, for the sake of the Iranians, let us assume that this is only a bargaining chip and nothing more," he added.
Speaking about the possibility of Russia-Iran deal, senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies James M. Dorsey said such a deal is certainly possible.
He said against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis and the threat of escalating sanctions against Russia, the latter has far less need to be concerned about a U.S. response.
Dorsey added that such a deal will not affect the nuclear deal, but much depends on the substance and terms of the deal.
He also said Iran's relations with Russia are independent of the Ukraine crisis. "In fact, Russian relations with Iran played and continue to play a significant role in getting the talks started and advancing them," Dorsey noted.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Scandal-ridden Asian football body stymies reform efforts

 Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa vs Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein

By James M. Dorsey

Efforts to reform Asian soccer governance have stalled more than a year after FIFA ousted disgraced former Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam in the sport’s worst corruption scandal that tainted multiple members of the executive committees of both the world soccer and the Asian soccer body.

Bahrain Football Association president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, elected last May to complete Mr. Bin Hammam’s curtailed tenure has yet to act on his electoral promise of far-reaching structural reform. Sheikh Salman was at the same time elected a member of the FIFA executive committee.

Sheikh Salman’s promise included acting on a devastating internal audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC). The audit served to unseat Mr. Bin Hammam on charges of conflict of interest.

“The audit’s purpose was to deal with Bin Hammam. It served its purpose. It’s been buried,” said an AFC executive committee member, suggesting that establishing facts as the basis for reform had not been the group’s primary purpose in commissioning the audit.

In fact, reform has all but disappeared from the AFC’s agenda with the removal of Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national. Instead, with elections for the AFC presidency and FIFA’s Asian vice presidency scheduled for next year, attention is focused on efforts by soccer autocrats to rally the wagons in defence of their positions rather than democratize and make more transparent the group’s governance structures and efforts to further Asian soccer.

While candidates for the AFC presidency have yet to be announced, Sheikh Salman, supported by an alliance that includes North Korea and national associations with a past record of corruption and mismanagement like that of Indonesia, as well as strange bedfellows such as Qatar, is lobbying hard to circumvent the election for the FIFA seat by merging it with that of Asian presidency.

The seat is currently held by reformist Jordanian Prince and FIFA Vice President-Asia Ali Bin Al Hussein who was elected in early 2011. Japanese Football Association vice-president Kohzo Tashima said earlier this month that he too would run for the FIFA seat.

Sheikh Salman’s campaign to garner a majority at the AFC’s forthcoming congress during the World Cup in Brazil in favour of reversing its overwhelming rejection of a proposal to do away with elections for FIFA’s Asian vice presidency is staked on the Bahraini’s conviction that he will be re-elected as Asia’s soccer czar.

The fact that the campaign is gaining steam puts a minority of reformers within the AFC and FIFA, including Prince Ali and the national associations of Singapore, Japan, Australia and Guam on the defensive.
The battle in many ways highlights a situation in which soccer autocrats despite the sports’ recent history pockmarked by corruption and match-fixing scandals are under little if any pressure from the public, including fans and the media, to embark on long overdue reform.

Few international organizations would have gotten away with burying an independent audit that not only concluded that its chairman had used a sundry account as his personal account but also warned that there may have been cases of money laundering, tax invasion, bribery and busting of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

Similarly, few international organizations would have elected as president the representative of a country in which national team players were publicly denounced, detained and tortured for their participation in mass anti-government protests and where two soccer teams remain incarcerated in prison. Particularly not against the backdrop of an increased focus on human rights in the wake of harsh criticism of labour conditions in Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, and mass protests in Brazil against demands put by FIFA on host nations.

Mounting frustration among reformers in Asian soccer exploded publicly this week with Prince Ali’s publication of an open letter to the Asian football community. Denouncing the efforts to merge the positions of AFC president and FIFA Asian vice president, Prince Ali asserted that “I stand firm by my conviction that all sport, including our sport; football, should be free from politics and completely devoid of politicos and self-interest individuals and groups that exploit the sport and all its stakeholders for their own personal gains.”

Charging that Sheikh Salman and “other AFC officials” were “driven purely by politics,” Prince Ali said it was “unfortunate” that the AFC was not focusing its “energies and valuable time to improving the game in Asia and addressing the myriad challenges that AFC faces in marketing, grassroots football, women’s football, transparency and accountability.”

The prince published his at times emotional appeal after an AFC executive committee meeting in Kuala Lumpur that was dominated by Shaikh Salman’s campaign to solidify his position in advance of the grouping’s forthcoming congress.

In going public, Prince Ali effectively put his finger on the key obstacle blocking reform of world soccer: the self-serving maintenance of the fiction that sports and politics are separate. Reality is that the two are inextricably intertwined at the hip. The sooner world soccer acknowledges reality, the sooner it becomes possible to introduce some form of governance of the relationship of sports and politics. Soccer, one the world’s most prevalent expressions of popular expressions, would be the first to benefit.

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, April 16, 2014

EURO 2020 set to polish Turkey’s tarnished image

By James M. Dorsey

Turkey, eager to polish its image tarnished by a politicized match-fixing scandal, a massive corruption scandal, hard-handed police tactics against anti-government demonstrators and a bruising domestic power struggle, has emerged as a favourite to host  the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final.

"We think we will be awarded the two semi-finals and finals and we deserve it after bidding for the last three tournaments. It's high time we were successful and UEFA president Michel Platini has given that hint to us," Turkish Football Federation (TFF) vice-president Servet Yardimci told Inside World Football.

Brutal police tactics last June against anti-government demonstrators on Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square protesting against plans to replace the square’s historic Gezi Park with a shopping mall cost Turkey the hosting of the 2020 Olympic Games that were awarded to Tokyo instead. Militant soccer fans played a key role in the protests, the largest in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s more than a decade in power.

Turkey’s soccer image had already been tarnished by the time the protests erupted by a massive match-fixing scandal that escalated into a struggle between Mr. Erdogan and Fethullalh Gulen, a self-exiled 73-year old imam, for the favour of fans in a soccer-crazy country and control of Istanbul’s Fenerbahce SK, the crown jewel in Turkish soccer with the country’s largest fan base.

Turkey’s image was further sullied by a massive corruption scandal in December to which Mr. Erdogan responded by moving thousands of suspected followers of Mr. Gulen in the police and the judiciary to other jobs in a bid to control the graft enquiry. Mr. Erdogan’s further moves to control the Internet where leaks of potentially damaging evidence of corruption appeared regularly and make the judiciary subservient to the government have partially been reversed by the courts.

To top it all off, an article by investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh in the London Review of Books earlier this month asserted that last August’s chemical weapons attack on the outskirts of Damascus that brought the United States within inches of military intervention in Syria was the work of Syrian rebels aided by Turkey in a bid to force the US to take military action.

Long a proponent of US military action, Turkey had hoped that US intervention would salvage its failed Syria policy that together with the toppling of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt has cost it loss of influence and prestige across the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Hersh argued that Turkish–US relations have been strained as a result of the last minute US doubts about Syrian government responsibility, reinforced by Syria’s agreement to surrender its chemical weapons.

Winning the hosting of the EURO 2020 semi-finals and finals would project Turkey in a very different light and distract from the widely criticised authoritarian turn Mr. Erdogan has taken in recent years. It would also reinforce a resounding victory for Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in last month’s municipal elections that has left his opponents licking their wounds.

The hosting would further boost Turkey in its unspoken rivalry with Qatar for regional influence. Both nations employ sports alongside a global airline and the arts as tools of their projection in a friendly competition in which Turkey unlike Qatar brings to bear a sizeable country with one of the world’s 20 largest economies, a history of empire and historic ties to the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Asia.

While the electoral victory likely strengthens Turkey’s hand against its competitors for the EURO 2020, soccer fans who regularly stage protests in stadia and denounce Mr. Erdogan as a thief because of his alleged involvement in the corruption scandal could cast a shadow over the Turkish bid. So could the fact that last year’s Under-20 FIFA World Cup attracted disappointing spectator numbers.

Similarly, Mr. Erdogan’s retaliation against legendary former soccer player Hakan Sukur, a supporter of Mr. Gulen, is unlikely to help the Turkish bid. Municipal officials this month removed Mr. Sukur’s nameplate from Istanbul’s Sancaktepe Hakan Sukur Stadium and the prime minister demanded that he resign his seat as a member of parliament.

Mr. Sukur was recruited by Mr. Erdogan and elected on the AKP ticket in 2011 but resigned in December from the party in protest against the prime minister’s efforts to close down prep schools operated by Mr. Gulen’s Hizmet movement. Mr. Sukur, viewed as the best soccer player of his generation if not in Turkish football history, remains an independent member of parliament.

Similarly, alleged political interference in soccer could damage the Turkish bid. Critics of Mr. Erdogan charge that the AKP last September engineered the storming of the pitch by rival fans during a derby between Istanbul rivals Besiktas and Galatasary in an effort to further curtail Carsi, the militant and widely popular Besiktas support group that played a key role in last year’s anti-government protests. They point to the fact security was lax at the match and that a youth leader of the AKP boasted on Facebook how he had obtained a free ticket to the derby and was one of the first to invade the pitch.

Turkish journalist Mehmet Baransu moreover documented links between the AKP and 1453 Kartallari (1453 Eagles), a rival conservative Besiktas support group named in commemoration of the year that Ottoman Sultan Fatih the Conqueror drove the Byzantines out of Constantinople,. 1453 members reportedly shouted ‘God is Great’ and attacked Carsi supporters during the pitch invasion.

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, April 12, 2014

Erdogan chooses soccer for first-post election strike against Islamist opponents

Hakan Sukur Stadium no more

By James M. Dorsey

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan, fresh from a resounding victory in municipal elections has chosen the soccer pitch to make good on his promise to “enter the lair” of his Islamist rival, self-exiled preacher Fethullalh Gulen, and ensure that what he calls an “alliance of evil” is brought to account for alleged treason and creating a state within a state.

In a symbolic gesture, Mr. Erdogan called on Turkish soccer legend Hakan Sukur to resign from parliament after his nameplate was removed from an Istanbul’s Sancaktepe Hakan Sukur Stadium. Mr. Sukur represented Istanbul on behalf of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) until he resigned in protest again the government’s handling of a major corruption scandal.

Back in 2011, Mr. Erdogan, a former soccer player, recruited Mr. Sukur to boost his election campaign to become prime minister for a third term. The former player had support the prime minister’s effort a year earlier to change Turkey’s constitution that had been drafted in the 1980s during a period of military rule. 
“Turkey has experienced a tremendous development and I wanted to be a part of this progress and transformation, too. I love my country and I am part of a party that has gained large support,” Mr. Sukur said at the time.

Three years later, responding to the renaming of the stadium, Mr. Sukur quipped on Twitter: “"It is better to have your name in people's heart than having a picture on a wall.”

AKP won last month’s municipal elections despite a massive corruption scandal that was sparked in December when prosecutors believed to be close to Mr. Gulen launched an investigation into alleged graft by ministers and prominent businessmen. Police at the time detained sons of three ministers and the head of a state-owned bank.

Mr. Erdogan has accused Mr. Gulen, who heads one of the world’s largest Islamist movements, of leaking a string of audio tapes allegedly implicating senior government officials, including Mr Erdogan, in the scandal as well as of a high level security meeting on Syria. The prime minister charged that the graft inquiry was part of a parallel state seeking to topple the government. Mr. Gulen is believed to have had a strong following in the judiciary and the police force

In response to the leaking of the tapes, Mr. Erdogan sought to block Twitter and You Tube but was rebuffed by the courts who lifted the ban on Twitter unconditionally and ordered You Tube to be unblocked once it deleted the Syria-related video because it damaged national security.

The move against Mr. Sukur, viewed as the best soccer player of his generation if not in Turkish football history, seemed petty against the prime minister’s earlier moves again Mr. Gulen, which included shifting scores of judicial personnel and thousands of police officers into new jobs in a bid to control the corruption investigation.

In addition to the renaming of the stadium, police in the south-eastern city of Adana arrested eight police officers believed to be close to Mr. Gulen’s Hizmet or Service movement on charges of illegal wiretapping.

Mr. Gulen heads a global education, banking and media empire that allied itself with Mr. Erdogan’s AKP in a successful bid to submit Turkey’s powerful military to civilian control. The mounting power struggle first became apparent in 2011 in a political and legal battle between Messrs Erdogan and Gulen over how to handle the eruption of the worst match fixing scandal in Turkish history. The match fixing inquiry was initiated by the same prosecutor who launched the graft investigation.

Messrs Erdogan and Gulen fought a proxy battle over legal penalties for match fixing when the soccer scandal erupted. Mr. Erdogan won that battle by pushing through parliament a bill that significantly reduced the penalties and arm twisting the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) to get Fenerbahce SK, the political crown jewel in Turkish soccer, off the hook and prevent clubs guilty of match fixing from being relegated. At stake in the battle over Fenerbahce was control of the club with its millions of supporters.

The battle as well as the escalation of the power struggle culminating in the graft investigation has raised doubts about whether Mr. Gulen, a frail, ailing 73-year old, who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania, is in full control of his movement.

Those doubts have risen given that Mr. Gulen’s movement turned the power struggle into open warfare with the graft investigation without an apparent clear endgame. The movement appeared unprepared for whatever the outcome would be, a fall of the Erdogan government, which it has not prompted, or government retaliation that would seek to seriously weaken it.

Mr. Gulen appeared to implicitly acknowledge that he may not be in control in two phone calls to Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim in 2011 prior to soccer boss’s conviction on match fixing charges. People familiar with the phone calls quote Mr. Gulen as telling Mr. Yildirim: “There is nothing bad in my heart against you. I am not involved in this. There might be people who did wrong against you but I am not aware of this if it was my people.”

In an inscription in a book Mr. Gulen sent to Mr. Yildirim in between the two phone calls, the preacher wrote: “To Aziz Bey whom I never had a chance to meet but admire for his activism, righteousness and perseverance. My prayers are with you that your difficult days may pass.”

The renaming of the Istanbul stadium to punish Mr. Sukur is likely to be but a mild first push in Mr. Erdogan’s retaliation. So are allegations by Gulen-owned Turkish media such as Cihan news agency and Zaman newspaper - both affiliated to Gulen that they suffered cyber-attacks during last month’s elections.
Fenerbahce is certain to figure in Mr. Erdogan’s campaign. The club emerged in the run-up to the municipal elections as a bastion of opposition against Mr. Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

The club appeared to highlight its position in a tweet that said that Mr. Yildirim had written in his personal notebook an oath of allegiance to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire: "I promise you, Fenerbahce will be the last light on earth fighting against the darkest powers that want us to forget your revolution".

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, April 11, 2014

Human rights violations raise spectre of Gulf soccer acquisitions as reputation laundering

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan

By James M. Dorsey

Reports about torture and abuse in the United Arab Emirates of British nationals, including a former bodyguard of the mother of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi whose half- brother was caught on video several years ago brutally torturing a business associate, raises the spectre of high profile Gulf acquisitions and sponsorships of European soccer clubs serving as a form of reputation laundering.

Noting that the Al Nahayan family, which rules the United Arab Emirates as well as Abu Dhabi, one of its seven emirates, owns Manchester City, the first of a number of high profile Gulf soccer acquisitions, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported that the British Foreign Office had documentary evidence of alleged torture of its nationals in Dubai Central Prison. The evidence was acquired during a visit by Foreign Office staff to British detainees held ion drugs charges.

The Brits include Hasnain Ali, a former bodyguard of Shaikha Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, and. Ahmad Zeidan, a student from Berkshire. Shaikha Fatima is the mother of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and supreme commander of the UAE armed forces.

The Foreign Office documents assert that in the case of Mr. Ali police officers "hit his head from the left side and pointed a gun to his head". Mr. Ali was quoted as saying that he had been "repeatedly kicked by the officers". The British diplomats said they had "found bruises on his back that were a result of his kicking". They described how Mr. Ali took off his T-shirt to show his visitors "four even scars, two on the right side and two on the left, parallel to each other".

Mr. Zeidan was also allegedly beaten, hooded, stripped naked and threatened with rape by police officers.

Both men, who said they do not speak Arabic, told the diplomats that they had been forced to sign confessions in Arabic that had not been translated for them. Their plight, which has been raised by British Prime Minister David Cameron with UAE authorities, follows the arrest last year of three Britons on drug charges who were pardoned after they complained about torture in a UAE prison.

The UAE has consistently denied reports of abuse and torture.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in statements last year to The Guardian warned that the UAE was using soccer to launder its image.  Former English Football Association chairman Lord Triesman called at the time for making a country’s human rights record one of the criteria for establishing whether a state entity or member of a ruling family passes the "fit and proper person test" for ownership of a Premier League club.

The calls and statements by Amnesty International, the Emirates Centre for Human Rights and prominent human rights lawyers and activists like Sir Geoffrey Robertson followed a mass trial of 94 people, 69 of whom were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, that the activists denounced as unfair and a violation of due process. The defendants were denied legal assistance while being held incommunicado pre-trial, allegedly tortured, and refused the right of appeal. In its response at the time, the UAE justice ministry implicitly did not rule out torture and argued that alleged victims should have reported abuse to the police.

HRW researcher Nicholas McGeehan, describing the UAE as "a black hole" for basic human rights, told 
The Guardian that "In this situation, a Premier League club (Manchester City) is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses. That should be of concern to football supporters as well as human rights organizations." The paper quoted Human Rights Watch as further saying that Abu Dhabi’s purchase of Manchester City enabled it to "construct a public relations image of a progressive, dynamic Gulf state, which deflects attention from what is really going on in the country".

The portrayal of acquisitions and sponsorships of prominent soccer clubs as an effort to launder a country’s reputation casts a shadow over the use of soccer as part of the soft power strategy of the UAE as well as Qatar that is designed to embed themselves in the international community in a way that would ensure public support in times of need. Both countries recall the success of Kuwait, another small Gulf state incapable of defending itself, in rallying the international community in 1990 to force the withdrawal of invading Iraqi forces.

The issue of human rights violations in the UAE compared to criticism of the conditions for foreign workers in Qatar, which owns Paris Saint Germain and will host the 2022 World Cup, highlights different approaches in the Gulf when states are attacked for their human rights record.

Qatar despite persistent criticism by trade unions and human rights groups has engaged with its critics and taken initial steps to address their concerns and repair reputational damage suffered. Repairing reputational damage will depend on quick and efficient implementation of those steps.

“In my meetings with the people in charge of Qatar 2022, they made some big promises of change. After this investigation, it’s urgent that they deliver,” British Labour Member of Parliament and shadow international development secretary Jim Murphy told the Daily Mail during a fact finding mission organized by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), one of Qatar’s harshest critics.

In its latest response to its critics, Qatar this week issued a handbook of standards for accommodation of foreign workers at construction sites. With foreign workers already the majority of its population, Qatar expects to import a million more to complete World Cup-related projects in coming years.
In contrast to Qatar, the UAE so far has limited its response to official denials of allegations of torture and abuse.

Manchester City was bought in 2008 by Deputy UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a brother of Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed and a half-brother of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Sheikh Mansour is the senior official responsible for the Abu Dhabi judiciary. UAE officials have insisted that the acquisition as well as last year’s agreement to invest in the creation of a 20th Major League Soccer team in the United States was a personal rather than a government investment.

The allegations of abuse of British nationals are not the first time that the UAE has faced allegations of human rights violations. A court acquitted Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al Nahyan, a brother of Sheikh Mansour, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Khalifa in 2010 on charges of torture and rape of an Afghan merchant even though the allegations were documented on a widely distributed graphic video.

The court did not dispute the fact that Sheikh Issa was among those depicted in the tape alongside a man in a police uniform torturing the Afghan with cattle prods and at one point running him over repeatedly with a sport-utility vehicle. It argued that Sheikh Issa could not be held accountable because he had been drugged by two former business associates.

Sheikh Mansour became deputy prime minister after Sheikh Khalifa removed two of Sheikh Issa’s brothers from his cabinet in the wake of the incident.

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.