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

Friday, October 30, 2015

Turkish soccer offers Erdogan headaches instead of voters in walk-up to election

By James M. Dorsey

Turkish soccer has offered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more headaches than likely votes as the Turkish leader battles to ensure that his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will secure a majority in snap parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Polls on the eve of the election predict that the AKP will increase its vote by six percent compared to the June election, enough to form a single-party government.

Mr. Erdogan, a former soccer player, called Sunday’s elections after his AKP failed to secure the necessary majority in elections last June to form a government of its own for a fourth time. The failure delayed Mr. Erdogan’s plans to make his presidency executive rather than ceremonial as it is currently envisioned in the Turkish constitution.

The rise of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) that won 13 percent of the vote in June deprived Mr. Erdogan and his AKP of a majority. A breakdown in peace talks with Kurdish guerrillas in southeast Turkey, the eruption of renewed hostilities and various towns declaring themselves autonomous may win Mr. Erdogan nationalist votes in Sunday’s vote, but is likely to cost him in predominantly Kurdish towns and cities like Diyarbakir.

Turkey’s deep-seated political and ethnic fault lines were being drawn in advance of the election on the soccer pitch with even clubs believed to be close to the president doing Erdogan few favours.

In Diyarbakir, the rise of the HDP prompted the city’s soccer club, Diyarbakır Büyükşehir Belediyespor (Diyarbakir Metropolitan Sport), to earlier this year defy the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) and replace its Turkish name with a Kurdish one, Amedspor. The club also adopted the yellow, red and green Kurdish nationalist colours.

Kurdish nationalist feeling was fuelled by Turkey’s reluctance to help Syrian Kurds when they last year were besieged in the Syrian town of Kobani by fighters of the Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq. Many Kurds believe that Turkey for a long time turned a blind eye to IS because it saw it as a buffer that could prevent the rise of a Kurdish entity in a part of Syria.

Kurdish nationalism on the pitch is being offset by major soccer clubs seeking to drum up Turkish patriotism by starting competition matches with military salutes. Storied Istanbul club Besiktas JK recently wore shirts proclaiming that “martyrs don't die,” a reference to scores of Turkish soldiers that have died in attacks by and clashes with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The divide is as much nationalist as it is social. Many of the soldiers are lower class young men who hail from poorer parts of Turkey and were unable to pay a $6,000 fee that would have allowed them to avoid military service. “In this war, the rich are not dying,” said Mehmet Guner, president of the Association of Martyrs' Families.

The recent disruption of a moment of silence at the beginning of a European championship match in honour of 102 victims of the bombing earlier this month of a peace march in Ankara highlighted yet another Turkish fault line. Fans whistled, jeered and chanted Allahu Akbar (God is Great) as the Turkish and Icelandic national teams observed the silence.

If all of those problems weren’t enough, Mr. Erdogan is also getting grief from those clubs he is close to. Trabzonspor AS president Ibrahim Hacıosmanoglu, angry over his team’s draw with Gaziantep SK as a result of a controversial penalty, ordered the referee to be detained overnight in the stadium until Mr. Haciosmanoglu visited him in the morning.

As if that were not sufficient reason for controversy, Mr. Haciosmanoglu caused an uproar with remarks that appeared to denigrate women.

Mr. Haciosmanoglu’s outburst spotlighted the close ties between Turkish soccer and politics as well as widespread misogyny in the sport.

It took a 3 AM phone call by Mr. Erdogan to get the referee freed.

“I told my managers – ‘Show Trabzonspor’s hospitality, order his tea and coffee and food, until the morning, until I come that referee will not leave that stadium,'” Mr. Haciosmanoglu said, initially refusing to take calls from government officials seeking to defuse the situation.

When the referee was finally set free at 3:30 AM, he was forced to run a gauntlet of hundreds of Trabzonspor fans who shouted abuse of him.

Referring to Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Haciosmanoglu declared after the president’s call: “I do not have to pronounce his name; everybody understands who I’m referring to. Turkey has a leader who serves this nation, a leader who will leave a strong country to my children in the future… I am ready to die for him.”

While Mr. Haciosmanoglu’s praise was what Mr. Erdogan wanted to hear, the Black Sea club leader’s subsequent warning of the fall-out of the match sparked protest from women activists and members of parliament. “The Turkish Republic will see what’s going to happen from now on. If we will die, we will die like a man, we will not live like a woman. Nobody has the power to make us live like a woman,” Mr. Haciosmanoglu said.

Sexism was also evident a week earlier when supporters of Fenerbahce, the political crown jewel in Turkish soccer with some 25 million fans, burnt a blow-up doll dressed in in rival team Galatasaray’s colours after holding a mock engagement party for it.

“Female students and academics…said the incident reflects on the one hand the pornographic face of the violence and on the other hand the hegemonic male mindset which puts women and the enemy on par,” journalist Sibel Yukler reported for news agency Jinha.

Finally, referee Deniz Coban, made a mockery of Mr. Erdogan’s successful battle to ensure leniency for match fixers when he days before his retirement tearfully apologized on national television for calls he made during a match between Kasimpasa SK and Caykur Rize SK, both teams close to the president, that ended in a draw. Mr. Erdogan’s family is from the Black Sea town of Rize while he played for Kasimpasa.

The acquittal in early October of scores of soccer officials of charges of match fixing, including Fenerbahce chairman Aziz Yildirim, may earn Mr. Erdogan some votes, but more importantly further highlighted the incestuous relationship between Turkish politics and soccer that often corrupts the sport.

The scandal, involving the arrest of 93 soccer executives in 2011, served as a precursor for a corruption scandal that rocked then Prime Minister Erdogan’s government two years later
It was not immediately clear whether the acquittal would persuade the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) to lift its two-year ban of Fenerbahce and one-year prohibition on rival Besiktas JK from playing in European competitions.

Mr. Yildirim was initially sentenced in 2012 to six years in prison and a $560,000 fine for forming a criminal, match-fixing gang. He served a year before being released pending retrial. Mr. Yildirim has long asserted that the case was politically motivated.

Irrespective of whether the match-fixing case was politically driven or not, it is symptomatic of the degree to which Mr. Erdogan over the last decade has further politicized a sport that has been tied into Turkish politics from its inception. It’s a legacy that could come to haunt Mr. Erdogan whose hunger for power appears to have trumped his love for the game.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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, October 29, 2015

FIFA ‘resistant to wholesale reforms’ (JMD in Today)

FIFA needs major reforms, but chances are the changes will be minimal...
Award winning investigative journalist James Dorsey
FIFA needs major reforms, but chances are the changes will be minimal...
Award winning investigative journalist James Dorsey
Investigative reporter James Dorsey says preference for familiarity will give Sheikh Salman the edge in FIFA’s presidential election
PUBLISHED: 4:15 AM, OCTOBER 26, 2015
SINGAPORE — As FIFA continues to struggle to maintain its credibility in the midst of ongoing investigations into corrupt practices within the organisation, there remains a sense of uncertainty as to what the future holds for world football’s embattled governing body.
But a clearer picture of the direction FIFA will take towards the long and drawn-out road to redemption is expected to emerge after its presidential election on Feb 26 next year.
So far, five candidates have officially entered the running to become FIFA’s next president — Prince Ali bin Hussein, UEFA head Michel Platini, ex-FIFA official Jerome Champagne, former Trinidad and Tobago captain David Nahkid and South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale (see sidebar on right).
Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa is reportedly also keen to contest the elections, but as of press time, he has yet to submit his candidacy.
The deadline to formally present their nominations is today.
Of all the potential candidates, however, it is Prince Ali who will most likely effect the necessary reforms within FIFA if elected, said award-winning investigative journalist James Dorsey.
But Dorsey cautioned that Prince Ali would likely lose the election should Sheikh Salman choose to throw his hat into the ring.
“If you’re looking for change within FIFA, then Prince Ali is the most promising candidate,” explained Dorsey, who is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. “Ali and Champagne are the only two candidates who would probably bring about change. But Ali is the one with a better chance of getting elected.
“Sure, there are minor reforms being introduced in FIFA at the moment. After all, they need to be seen doing something after all that has happened. But while the changes that have been made are important, it still doesn’t tackle the fundamental problems within the organisation.
“Based on the current candidates that are running for the presidency, I foresee it will be a bitter battle between Prince Ali and Sheikh Salman for the presidency.
“But the odds favour Salman, because he will likely take a significant part of the votes from Asia and Africa, while he may also attract the European voters who may have previously favoured Platini.”
The problems of FIFA, Blatter and Platini
While the web of lies and corruption within FIFA has reportedly been intricately woven for more than a decade, it was only in the middle of this year that its problems finally came to a head.
In May, a US-led corruption investigation led to the arrest of several FIFA officials and senior sports marketing executives — an event that ultimately prompted incumbent president Sepp Blatter to resign, just four days after securing a fifth term in office.
The Swiss authorities also launched an investigation into claims that Russia and Qatar had bribed their way to winning the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively.
Earlier this month, Blatter and Platini were provisionally suspended for 90 days by the FIFA ethics committee, which opened full misconduct proceedings against the two men over a 2011 payment of two million Swiss francs (S$2.9 million) from FIFA to the Frenchman.
Having been favourite to replace Blatter at the helm of FIFA, Platini’s stock has fallen dramatically since the scandal broke, although he will still be eligible to run for president if he manages to pass the election integrity checks.
“Platini could have been the next FIFA president,” Dorsey said.
“But the issue is that his reputation has now been greatly damaged, and he still hasn’t duly accounted for those payments. However, the backdoor is still open for him, so it’s still too early to tell what the Europeans are going to do.
“For now, though, it is Blatter who runs a greater risk of being charged by the authorities, and the keys to how this scandal will pan out lie with the Swiss and US investigators. We don’t know what the Swiss investigations into Blatter will turn up, while the US could decide to expand their investigations dramatically in the future as well.”
The appeal of status quo
While there has been huge reputational damage to FIFA following the recent corruption scandals, Dorsey believes that most people within the organisation would be resistant to too much change, too quickly. And this, he says, would give Sheikh Salman the advantage in the elections.
“He (Salman) doesn’t have a history of huge reform or change,” said Dorsey. “And a large majority of the confederations and national associations are happy with the status quo because they have benefited from it.
“So my guess is that if Sheikh Salman is elected, he will come in and do the minimal changes, while still ensuring a certain degree of continuity within FIFA.”
However, Dorsey added that this does not constitute an endorsement of the alleged corrupt practices that blighted Blatter’s reign: “I personally think Sheikh Salman is not corrupt. But there are three fundamental issues — the flawed patronage system, the unhealthy connection between football and governments, and the relationship between FIFA and the regional confederations — that FIFA needs to sort out, which I doubt he’ll do.
“The recent events in Kuwait and Thailand (the Kuwait Football Association was suspended from international football because of government interference, while the Thailand FA’s executive committee was replaced by a normalisation committee following the 90-day suspension of president Worawi Makudi over a possible breach of ethics) are just the tip of the iceberg. There has to be more regulation of the relationship between politics and sport. Sport must be guarded against political and corporate interference.
“There also needs to be more transparency with the various processes within FIFA. But I doubt these issues in the organisation will be addressed (if Salman is elected), unless it’s imposed from the outside.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

New Qatari labour law: too little, too late

By James M. Dorsey

Never missing an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot, 2022 World Cup-host Qatar has adopted a new law that is more likely to convince critics that it aims to put a friendly face on its controversial kafala or sponsorship system rather than radically reform a legal framework that trade unions and human rights activists have dubbed modern slavery.

Qatar has been under pressure since winning in 2010 hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup to radically reform, if not abolish the sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employer. Requirements that employees obtain permission from their employer to switch jobs or travel abroad were among the main provisions of the sponsorship system targeted by activists.

The new law streamlines procedures but does not fundamentally change them. Under the new law, that although signed by Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, only takes effect a year from publication in the Gulf state’s official gazette, employees can seek new employment once their labour contract has expired rather than at any given point.

The law abolishes the requirement that employees leave the country for two years before seeking new employment in Qatar if an employer refuses to grant a no objection certificate. Employees that want to switch jobs before the termination of their labour contract would still need to obtain permission from their sponsors as well as the ministries of interior and labour. Employees with open-ended contracts would only be allowed to switch jobs after having served five years.

The law inserts the state into the procedure to obtain an exit visa by obliging employees to inform the interior ministry three days before their planned departure. The ministry rather than the employee would then obtain the employer’s consent. The law also grants employees the right to appeal if the employer refuses permission.

Qatar earlier adopted a law that comes into effect next week that obliges employers to pay salaries and wages by bank transfer to ensure on-time payment of workers.

Qatar’s labour system is a focal point of widespread criticism of the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to the Gulf state by world soccer body FIFA. The awarding despite Qatar’s slow and disappointing moves to reform its labour system has already sparked change that has so far failed to convince critics of the Gulf state’s sincerity in the absence of measures that amount to more than a streamlining of the existing framework.

In response to criticism, Qatar has, in contrast to other Gulf states who bar entry to foreign activists and imprison local critics, engaged with international trade unions and human rights groups. Several Qatari institutions, including the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, Qatar Foundation and Qatar Rail developed in consultation with organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights standards that significantly improve the working and living conditions of migrant workers who constitute a majority of Qatar’s population. Activists had expected those standards to be enshrined in law.

Perceptions that Qatar is not serious about fundamental reform of its labour system are reinforced by opposition to change by many Qataris who fear that they as a minority in their own country will see their culture diluted and lose control of their society.

Opposition has expressed itself in, for example, demands for greater segregation of migrant workers who largely leave their families behind to seek employment in Qatar. Doha’s Central Municipal Council (CMC) recently called on the government to enforce more strictly a five-year old ban on blue-collar workers living in neighbourhoods populated primarily by families.

CMC member Fatima Ahmed Al Jaham Al Kuwari told the Doha News that male workers had stood outside of their homes in transparent undergarments, and that some women had complained that they were being watched from building windows while they held private parties in their yards. Ms. Al Kuwari asserted that migrant workers harmed the infrastructure and increased pressure on local electricity grids.

Ms. Al Kuwari demanded that measures be taken to ensure that landlords and their tenants respect the “customs and traditions of the Qatari society.”

Writing in The Peninsula, an English-language Qatari daily, journalist Rashed Al Audah Al Fadeh charged that “these bachelor workers are threatening the privacy and comfort of families, spreading like a deadly epidemic that eats through our social fabric.”

Ms. Al Kuwari and Mr. Al Fadeh were not only highlighting widespread concern among Qataris but also the fact that the government is caught between a rock and a hard place. International pressure coupled with the fallout of the FIFA corruption scandal that has increased the spotlight on Qatar demands that Qatar respond quickly and forcefully to labour criticism. Domestic opposition forces the government to move gingerly.

The government so far has manoeuvred that field of tension poorly. Critics charge that it could have taken steps like a stark rather than a gradual increase of the number of labour inspectors to enforce existing rules and regulations that would have conveyed sincerity while at the same time reassuring Qataris.

One reason Qatar has been reluctant to abolish the exit visa is the fact that the Gulf state has few extradition treaties with other countries. As a result, businessmen who hire foreigners to operate their businesses and give senior managers access to company bank accounts fear that a manager could empty and account and skip the country.

Critics suggest that the government could have addressed that concern by offering businesses guarantees modelled on the Federal Deposit Insurance Company (FDIC) in the United States that guarantees bank deposits up to a certain amount.

In a first response to the new labour law, International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrow charged that it added a new layer of repression for migrant workers. “Promises of reform have been used as a smokescreen to draw in companies and governments to do business in Qatar as the government rolls out massive infrastructure developments to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” Ms. Burrow said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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, October 26, 2015

AFC Salman’s FIFA candidacy puts integrity checks to the test

By James M. Dorsey

Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa’s candidacy for the presidency of world soccer body FIFA is likely to serve as a litmus test for newly introduced integrity checks on the group’s executives.

Sheikh Salman, a former soccer player, has consistently like other members of his ruling family refused to respond to allegations by human rights groups that he was associated with the detention and abuse of scores of sports executives and athletes, including national soccer team players, alleged to have participated in a 2011 popular uprising that was brutally squashed.

Sheikh Salman also played a key role in squashing a 2012 independent audit of AFC finances that raised serious questions about possible bribery, non-transparency, tax evasion, and sanctions busting in the awarding to Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG) of a $1 billion master rights agreement.

The audit by a PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) that constituted the basis for FIFA’s banning for life of former AFC president and FIFA executive committee member Mohammed Bin Hammam counselled the AFC to seek legal advice on potential civil and criminal charges and review its contract with Singapore-based World Sport Group.

AFC officials deny that Sheikh Salman or the group buried the audit. In a new twist, the officials recently disclosed that in addition to the audit, PwC had also delivered a report on proposed restructuring of the AFC. The officials said those recommendations had largely been implemented.

In a reflection of the group’s lack of transparency and Sheikh Salman’s management style, the disclosure was the first time in three years since the audit that the AFC referred to a second PwC report. The report was never made public nor was it clear what PwC recommendations were implemented. Disclosure of the existence of the report moreover did not explain why the recommendations of the audit have been ignored.

Sheikh Salman’s secretive management style that bodes ill for reform of FIFA should he win the world soccer body’s February 26 presidential election is further evident in current AFC negotiations with potential marketing partners. The AFC has denied reports that the group was negotiating an extension of its controversial WSG contract. The officials said the AFC was talking to various companies and had yet to take a decision.

The PwC audit criticized the AFC for failing to put the contract to tender, a suggestion Sheikh Salman appears to be studiously ignoring. The audit further raised questions about the valuation of the contract and unexplained payments of $14 million to Mr. Bin Hammam through an AFC account by a WSG shareholder in advance of the signing of the original contract.

The only known time that the AFC took action with regard to the audit besides honouring FIFA’s banning of Mr. Bin Hammam was earlier this year when it effectively fired its general secretary, Dato' Alex Soosay, for seeking to destroy documents relevant to the audit.

Even then, the AFC portrayed Mr. Soosay’s dismissal as a voluntary resignation even if his departure followed disclosure by this blog and The Malay Mail of a tape in which financial director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong testified that Mr. Soosay had asked him to destroy documents. Mr. Kuan has since disclosure of the tape left the AFC.

The fact that it took media pressure for Sheikh Salman and the AFC to act three years after delivery of the audit says much about the Bahraini’s management style.

The PwC audit suggested that Mr. Soosay had authorized many of the payments on which it cast legal doubt. “Our transaction review revealed that items sampled were, in most cases, authorised by the General Secretary or Deputy General Secretary and the Director of Finance. As signatories these parties hold accountability for the authorisation of these transactions.  We also note the Internal Audit and Finance Committees were aware of this practice,” the PwC report said.

The AFC and Sheikh Salman’s lack of transparency with regard to the allegations of his involvement in the arrest and torture of sports officials and athletes in 2011 as well as in his management of the Asian sports group contrasts starkly with efforts to clean up soccer governance that have led to the arrest in Switzerland at the request of the US Justice Department of seven soccer officials and the suspension of FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini.

The lack of transparency is also notable given suggestions that the AFC may be on the radar of the investigation because of Mr. Bin Hammam, who is believed to have been named as an unidentified co-conspirator in US indictments, and the AFC’s contract with WSG.

WSG has been linked to Traffic, a sports marketing company is among those indicted in the US. WSG acquired in 2005 the international broadcasting rights of the Gold Cup and CONCACAF Champions League operated by the soccer confederation for North, Central America and the Caribbean together with Traffic.

Traffic´s owner, Brazilian businessman Jose Hawilla, is cooperating with the FBI in its FIFA investigation, a lawyer for Mr. Hawilla told The Wall Street Journal. Under the agreement, Mr. Hawilla has admitted to crimes including money laundering, fraud, extortion, and has agreed to return $151 million in funds.

Sheikh Salman’s refusal to denounce the alleged abuses of human rights or to discuss the allegations against him are all the starker given the fact that an independent fact-finding commission made up of international rights lawyers that was endorsed by the Bahrain government concluded in November 2011 that those detained during the uprising had suffered systematic abuse. Among them were two of Bahrain’s top soccer players.

The report created a basis on which Sheikh Salman could have been more forthcoming about what happened in 2011 and his alleged role in the events. Instead, Sheikh Salman has said that there was no reason to apologize to the players because it was an issue for politicians, not his soccer federation.
Sheikh Salman, according to information submitted to British prosecutors, chaired a committee established in 2011 by a decree by a relative, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, head of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sport as well as its Olympic Committee and fourth son of King Hamad, ordering that measures be taken against those guilty of insulting Bahrain and its leadership.

Prince Nasser formed the committee after an earlier royal decree had declared a state of emergency. The royal decree allowed the Bahrain military to crackdown on the protests and establish military courts, according to the information provided to the prosecutor.

Critics charge that sports since the squashing of the 2011 popular revolt have largely served as attempts to bolster Bahrain’s tarnished image. “There are no sports since the uprising. Matches serve as PR to show that Bahrain is back to normal,” said Faisal Hayyat, a Bahraini sports journalist and activist – an assertion that was also reflected in Sheikh Salman’s decision to hold AFC’s annual congress earlier this year in Bahrain rather than at the group’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.

FIFA has yet to detail what integrity checks of its executives and presidential candidates will entail. Evaluation of Sheikh Salman’s presidential candidacy is likely to put the integrity of those checks to the test.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Why has Israel gone quiet over ISIS? (JMD quoted on Al Arabiya)

Why has Israel gone quiet over ISIS?

Israeli officials have now noticeably diverted their attention to a surge in Israeli-Palestinian deadly violence. (File photo: AP)
In its first-ever video message in Hebrew, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has sent out a threat that “not one Jew will remain in Jerusalem,” amid recently escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions. 

But the video, released on Friday, has so far failed to attract official Israeli attention – in contrast to Israel’s previous persistent finger-pointing at ISIS.

Israeli officials have now noticeably diverted their attention to a deadly surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, predominantly in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. Have Israeli concerns over ISIS now taken a back seat?

Overshadowing fears

“For Israel, the escalation with the Palestinians has overshadowed its concerns over ISIS in neighboring Syria,” Lina Khatib, a London-based Senior Research Associate at the Arab Reform Initiative, told Al Arabiya News on Saturday. 

Throughout 2015, Israel had been sounding the alarm that ISIS was “closing in on Northern and Southern Israeli borders,” that ISIS militants were posing as illegal migrants in Europe, as well as releasing a political campaign video showing men in an SUV waving an ISIS flag asking for directions to Jerusalem.
ISIS's latest threats directed at Israel: "We assure you that soon there will not be a single Jew left in Jerusalem and throughout the country."
Now, instead of a continued focus on ISIS’s threat to Israeli security, Israeli statements have recently become centered on anti-Palestinian rhetoric, as seen in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last U.N. General Assembly speech, as well as his recent controversial remark that a Palestinian was directly responsible for the Holocaust. 

When ISIS has been mentioned in recent weeks, it is mostly grouped with statements targeting HamasIran or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

And while ISIS is now appearing to position itself as supporters of the Palestinian people, it has previously threatened to “uproot” Hamas in Gaza in a video released last July. 

There have reportedly been at least a dozen attacks this year on Hamas in Gaza by ISIS sympathizers, including four in May. One bomb hit a Hamas security checkpoint in northern Gaza. A few days later, another exploded in a trash can. Another blew up next to a Gaza City high-rise, and a small one targeted a chicken store owned by Hamas intelligence official Saber Siyam.

On the day that ISIS threatened Hamas, Israeli Intelligence minister Israel Katz said there was “cooperation” between Hamas and ISIS “in the realm of weapons smuggling and terrorist attacks… At the same time, within Gaza, ISIS has been flouting Hamas. But they have common cause against the Jews, in Israel or abroad.”

Israel and ISIS’s aligned hatred

But while Israeli officials have repeatedly combined Hamas and ISIS in their rhetoric, the view that ISIS and Israel also have common concepts – a shared hostility towards Hamas and the Palestinian Authority – has not gone unmentioned.
ISIS video earlier this year threatened to overthrow Hamas in Gaza. (YouTube)
Explaining the Israel-Hamas-ISIS “hate triangle,” Khatib said that “ISIS leaders have often declared that fighting apostate Sunnis is a priority over fighting Jews. The ISIS threats directed at Hamas and the Palestinian Authority fall under this category.

“With Israel taking an antagonistic stance to the Palestinian Authority as well as its continuing antagonism towards Hamas, Israel has come to be aligned with the position of ISIS,” Khatib added.
Meanwhile, “ISIS is seeking to use worsening Israeli-Palestinian violence to increase its visibility in this arena,” Middle East historian Olivia L. Sohns told Al Arabiya News following the release of the new ISIS video.
Sohns said the militant group “is attempting to position itself as the champion of the Sunni Muslim world and is extremely hostile towards the West and Israel, which it considers a transplant of the West in the Middle East.”

Less of a threat?

Israel’s spotlight on ISIS has now dimmed with escalating violence in Jerusalem and West Bank, claiming the lives of at least 51 Palestinians and nine Israelis in the past month.

“Israel’s main concern today is to stabilize the situation with the Palestinians,” Dr. Alon Ben Meir, an American academic specializing in peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab states, told Al Arabiya News.

“Israel understands all too well that they have to deal, now and in the future, with the Palestinians, and it also understands that ISIS will not survive in the long run, whereas the Palestinian conflict will remain present until it is resolved. 

“And Netanyahu knows all too well that further escalation will only antagonize the international community and increase pressure on him to contact the conflict, the sooner the better,” Ben Meir added.
Israeli soldiers and policemen take position during clashes with Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Reuters)
But in response to claims that ISIS and Israel are “pursuing the same goals” in the Middle East, Ben Meir said: “I do not believe that you will ever find Israel, in any shape or form, supporting ISIS or “fighting on the same side.” 

Middle East analyst James Dorsey, who has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, agrees. 

“I think its stretching things by far to conclude that Israel and ISIS could find common ground, particularly in their opposition to Hamas.

“Obviously, the wave of Palestinian protests and attacks is Israel’s most immediate concern … Having said that, it does not mean that Israel is taking its eye of the ball in Syria. ISIS too poses a serious threat even if Israel is not ISIS’s immediate focus,” Dorsey added.

It is also probable that Israel’s concerns over ISIS have taken a back seat following ally Russia’s decision to carry out strikes on militant targets in Syria. 

Still, Tel Aviv’s response to the latest ISIS threat remains to be seen. An Israeli interior ministry spokesperson contacted by Al Arabiya News did not respond to a request for comment on Israel’s security concerns.
Last Update: Sunday, 25 October 2015 KSA 08:17 - GMT 05:17

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Egyptian soccer fans put youth disillusion with elections on public display

By James M. Dorsey

As Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi struggled this week to get Egyptians to cast their vote in parliamentary elections, militant soccer fans put widespread youth disillusionment with the president’s autocratic rule on public display.

More than 10,000 fans rushed in response to a call by Ultras Ahlawy, the militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC, to the Mokhtar al-Touch Stadium on election Sunday to watch their storied team train. It was the club’s first training since it last week won the Egyptian Super Cup.

Ultras Ahlawy issued the brief call on its Facebook page that has more than 1.1 million followers. Ultras Ahlawy together with other militant fan groups has played a key role in anti-government protests in the last 4.5 years starting with the 2011 popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Fan neglect of the election reflected a widespread sentiment among Egyptian youth expressed by a hashtag #badalmatantakhib or #insteadofvoting that was trending on Twitter.

"Youth see no hope for the future in the current elections. They are the ones that are every day the most attacked and accused of treason on television no matter whether they are engaged in politics or sports. How can they trust you and participate with you in the political process?,” activist Khaled Talima asked on Facebook.

Mr. Sisi’s government failed to persuade Egyptians to cast their vote on Sunday and Monday in the first of a two-stage parliamentary election, the first since Mr. Sisi staged a coup in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president. The second phase of the election is scheduled for November 22 and 23.

Mr. Sisi gave government employees half a day off on Monday in the hope that they would use their free time to go to polling stations. Journalists surveying the stations estimated turnout at 15 percent at best despite pro-government and state-owned television stations repeatedly urging Egyptians to cast their vote.

The fan’s demonstrative neglect of the election and the low turnout highlight Mr. Al Sisi’s failed attempt over the last two years to depoliticize a generation that was emboldened by its success in overthrowing Mr. Mubarak after 30 years in office and angered by the fact that youth were subsequently side lined and have since seen their hard fought achievements rolled back.

Youth disillusionment was already evident in low participation in a constitutional referendum last year that paved the way for this week’s election.

The new constitution envisages a transition from autocratic rule to a presidential system with an empowered parliament. In theory, the new parliament would have the power to impeach the president, question the prime minister and withdraw its confidence in him. A majority of the 568 seats in parliament will however be filled by individuals rather than parties, many of who were associated with Mr. Mubarak’s now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP)

Critics of Mr. Al Sisi fear that with major opposition groups like the Brotherhood barred from participating in the election, the new parliament will be packed with supporters of the president who could call for a new referendum to revise the constitution, curb the assembly’s powers and strengthen the power of the presidency.

Mr. Al Sisi has ruled with an iron fist since coming to power. He has banned Mr. Morsi’s Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and cracked down on both Islamist and secular opposition and dissent. Thousands have been put behind bars and more than 1,000 people have been killed by security forces since the 2013 coup.

Mr. Al Sisi has promised to involve youth by creating a National Youth Council, increasing opportunities for youth participation in politics, and enhancing scholarship openings for study overseas.

At the same time, the president has warned students and youth from engaging in activity “with questionable political goals that serve the interests of unpatriotic groups in their endeavour to destroy the nation.”

Mr. Al Sisi’s warning appears to have fallen on deaf ears with a large number of students, fans and youths evidently putting little faith in his promises.

In a statement, Ultras Ahlawy called on soccer fans to next week attend Al Ahli’s first match in the Egyptian Premier League’s new season. Fans have largely been banned from stadia since the popular revolt against Mr. Mubarak erupted in 2011 in a bid to prevent stadia from becoming opposition rallying points and a staging ground for fan protests.

"Football fans want to return to their ordinary place. Ahli fans attended the Orlando Pirates match and a lot of training sessions without any problems,” the group noted, referring to a recent African Confederation Cup game for which the spectator ban was briefly lifted.

"We suggested many ideas to solve the problem (of the ban) but in vain. Speaking about the difficulty of allowing fans to attend matches amid the current parliamentary elections is strange. If the officials are busy with the elections, they can let the football fans go to games. They can manage the matter better by themselves,” the statement said.

"Starting the new season without fans is an extension of killing Egyptian football, so all the group members will be gathering at the Petro sport stadium to attend the match. Football is for fans," it said in a move that could renew confrontation with security forces.

Sports Minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz promised in September to allow fans to attend home matches of the Egyptian national team but has yet to make good on his promise. The Egyptian Football Association has said for years that it was negotiating security arrangements with the interior ministry that would lead to a lifting of the spectator ban.

Some 20 fans were killed in February, when fans tried to gain entry to a stadium for a match for which the spectator ban had been lifted in an incident that reinforced the need for reform of a security force that for years has been allowed to act with impunity.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

OECD holds FIFA responsible for Qatari World Cup-related labour conditions

By James M. Dorsey

A Swiss government-sponsored unit of the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has defined world soccer body FIFA as a multi-national bound by the group’s guidelines. As a result, the group concluded that FIFA is responsible for the upholding of the human and labour rights of workers employed in Qatar on 2022 World Cup-related projects.

The decision by the OECD, which groups 34 of the world’s richest countries, in response to a trade union complaint about the violation of workers’ rights, rejected FIFA’s argument that the soccer body was a non-profit group and an association under Swiss law rather than a corporation and its attempts to absolve itself of responsibility for sub-standard labour conditions on projects that fall under the group’s contract with Qatar.

In its complaint to the OECD, trade union Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) asserted that the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar violated OECD guidelines given that the Gulf state’s widespread violation of human rights had long been known and documented. It said further that FIFA had failed to conduct due diligence, lacked a human rights policy as required by the non-binding guidelines, and had refrained from ensuring that its projects would not have an adverse impact on human rights.

FIFA while rejecting responsibility has said it was working with Qatari authorities to improve labour conditions in the Gulf state.

The OECD decision could not have come at a worse moment for FIFA, already embroiled in the worst corruption scandal in its history that has led to the suspension or banning of senior managers, including recently suspended president Sepp Blatter and Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) president Michel Platini, who both have close ties to Qatar.

A Swiss judicial enquiry is investigating potential wrongdoing in Qatar’s controversial bid while a US Department of Justice investigation into FIFA corruption could expand to include the Gulf state’s bid.

Qatar has said it had yet to be contacted by Swiss investigators but would fully cooperate with the enquiry. Qatar has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in its controversial bid.

Qatar could also become a US justice department focus given that Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG) is likely on the department’s radar because it acquired the international broadcasting rights of the Gold Cup and CONCACAF Champions League operated by the soccer confederation for North, Central America and the Caribbean together with Traffic, one of the sport marketing companies indicted in the US.

Traffic´s owner, Brazilian businessman Jose Hawilla, is cooperating with the FBI in its FIFA investigation, a lawyer for Mr. Hawilla told The Wall Street Journal. Under the agreement, Mr. Hawilla has admitted to crimes including money laundering, fraud, extortion, and has agreed to return $151 million in funds.

WSG has a $1 billion marketing rights agreement with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that was negotiated by then AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national who despite Qatari denials appears to have played an important role in the Gulf state’s World Cup bid.

Mr. Bin Hammam has since been banned for life by FIFA from involvement in professional soccer. 

A PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) audit raised questions of potential bribery in the signing of the contract and advise the AFC to seek legal advice on either renegotiating or cancelling the contract.
AFC’s failure to act on PwC’s advice could dog the group’s president, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who is expected to announce his candidacy for the FIFA presidency in the coming days. FIFA is scheduled to elect a new leader in February to replace Mr. Blatter.

Mr. Blatter has long asserted that FIFA was not responsible for labour conditions in Qatar that have been denounced by international trade unions and human rights group as modern slavery even though he at times has called for reform of the Gulf state’s kafala or sponsorship system that put employees at the mercy of their employers.

Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, Qatar Foundation and Qatar Rail have in response to the criticism adopted standards that go a far way to improve labour condition within the context of existing Qatari legislation. Qatar has yet to incorporate those standards in law.

Responding to OECD questions, FIFA asserted somewhat disingenuously that its Qatari counterparts, the Qatar Football Association (QFA) as well as the bid and supreme committee were organizations that were independent of the government.

In a further bow to trade union demands that Qatar allow the formation of independent trade unions and collective bargaining, Qatari players this month founded the Qatar Players Association (QPA).

“We want to provide all players with the necessary protection. Our aim is to support, advise and represent our members at the local and international organisations in case of disputes. The QPA wants to support the football system in the country. You’ve noticed some of the issues — financial and others — between the players and clubs in Qatar. The QPA wants to represent the players and thus reduce the pressure on the QFA,” said QPA president Salman Al Ansari.

Qatar has suffered significant reputational damage as a result of high-profile labour disputes with foreign players, whose careers were significantly disrupted because they were not allowed to leave the country for extended periods of time under the kafala system while they sought to resolve their issues.

The degree of social segregation in Qatar, a country in which foreigners account for more than 80 percent of the population was highlighted this month with the publication by the municipality and urban planning ministry of interactive maps that identify areas in which migrant workers cannot be housed.

The no-go zones that include central Doha are described as ‘family housing areas,’ which forces employers to house workers on the outskirts of the city. The ban does not apply to service sector personnel and professionals.

Writing in The Peninsula, Qatari columnist Rashed Al Audah Al Fadly complained that the long-standing ban was not being strictly implemented. “These bachelor workers are threatening the privacy and comfort of families, spreading like a deadly epidemic that eats through our social fabric,” Mr. Al Fadly said in a reflection of Qatari fears that their culture is threatened by the massive influx of foreign labour, some of which were contracted for World Cup-related projects.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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, October 17, 2015

Israel suspends Israeli-Palestinian encounters on the pitch

By James M. Dorsey

The Israel Football Association (IFA) acting on orders of the police has suspended what it calls ‘sensitive’ matches, a reference to professional and amateur games between Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian squads.

Police said the suspension on soccer pitches that have long signalled mounting tensions, violence, and racism in Israeli society was because their forces where stretched to the limit in attempting to prevent Palestinian lone wolf attacks on Israeli Jews.

The police and Israeli military have been accused in recent weeks of using excessive force, including shoot-to-kill, in their effort to counter mushrooming peaceful and violent protests in against Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Supporters of arch rivals Beitar Jerusalem, Israel’s most hard line anti-Palestinian club, and Bnei Sakhnin, the only Israeli Palestinian team in the premier league, hurled rocks at one another earlier this month. Last month, shots were fired when supporters of Maccabi Tel Aviv clashed with Palestinians who were celebrating the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

A militant support group, Maccabi Tel Aviv Fanatics, hoisted a banner during a match saying “Refugees Not Welcome,” after their club said it alongside some 80 teams competing in the Champions and Europa League would donate 1 euro per ticket to support Syrian refugees from their first home games. The banner was a play on banners saying “Refugees Welcome” that are frequently hoisted by fans in European stadia. 

Two other recent incidents highlight the degree to which violence has become rooted in Israeli society as it is a tool in Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule among disenchanted and disenfranchised West Bank youth.

“We are all human beings we are all equal. It does not matter if an Arab stabbed me or a Jew stabbed me, a religious, orthodox or secular person. I have no words to describe this hate crime,” Uzi Rezken, a supermarket employee, told Israeli television. Mr. Rezken was speaking from his hospital bed after having been stabbed by an Israeli Jew who mistook him for being a Palestinian.

“You deserve it, you deserve it. You are bastard Arabs,” Mr. Rezken quoted his attacker as saying as the supermarket employee shouted at him that he was Jewish, not Palestinian.

Days earlier, members of La Familia, Israel’s most violent, racist soccer fan group that supports Beitar Jerusalem, the only top Israeli club that refuses to hire Palestinian or Muslim players, attacked a supporter of rival club Hapoel Tel Aviv with an axe.

Members of La Familia wearing Beitar T-shirts, many of who openly support the outlawed racist Kach party, marched earlier this month alongside supporters of Lechava, a right-wing grouping seeking to prevent the assimilation of non-Jews in Israel through Jerusalem shouting "Death to Arabs" and “Mohammed is dead,” slogans frequently heard on the stands during Beitar matches, and “may your village burn." Palestinians account for about 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry.

The soccer violence with La Familia in the lead is likely to complicate Israeli efforts to ensure that world soccer body FIFA does not become the first international organization to suspend Israel. Israel evaded suspension last May when Palestine withdrew a resolution demanding that Israel be penalized for its policies, including racism in soccer. A FIFA committee is seeking to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian compromise that in the current environment is likely to prove increasingly difficult.

The Palestine Football Association (PFA) has been documenting alleged violations of Israeli promises to work with FIFA and the Palestinians to eliminate Israeli obstacles to the development and functioning of Palestinian. Among incidents cited is Israel’s reported refusal earlier this month to allow a player of the Palestinian national team to return to the West Bank from the squad’s qualifier in Qatar for a regional tournament when he arrived on an Israeli-controlled bridge linking the West Bank to Jordan.

The threat of a FIFA suspension weighs heavily with international public opinion increasingly critical of Israel and the Palestinians likely to step up their campaign to isolate Israel in international organizations.

Spanish football club Sevilla FC recently rejected a $5.7 million sponsorship deal to advertise tourism in Israel on its players’ shirts. The 2015 UEFA Europa League champions turned down the offer because it conjured support for Israel, Spanish sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo reported.

Israeli sports reporter Adi Rubinstein writing on his Facebook page noted that soccer pitches often serve as early indicators of societal trends. “What has been happening in Israel since… (last month’s) beginning of (the Jewish calendar) year is more than anything else reminiscent of what happened in Yugoslavia in 1990s. That is precisely how it started (there) How did it end? Well, we all know,” he wrote referring to the Yugoslav wars.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Guy Israel, a member of La Familia, which has several of its members behind bars and like Beitar Jerusalem faces several judicial and administrative investigations, appeared to be downplaying the political and racist nature of much of the group’s activity.

“It's a matter of letting off steam. At present, there are restrictions on anything and everything. You mustn't swear, and you shouldn't smoke in the pub. There is a long list of bans and prohibitions. You are limited wherever you go. And the rage builds up inside you until it finally explodes,” Mr. Israel said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 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.