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

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Bahraini’s soccer defeat: A cautionary tale for autocrats

By James M. Dorsey

A failed election campaign for the presidency of world soccer body FIFA by Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa that has further tarnished the image of his native Bahrain as well as his own reputation holds out a cautionary tale for Middle Eastern, North African and other autocrats who see sports as a way to project themselves more positively on the international stage.

Mr. Salman, who was defeated in Friday’s election by Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) secretary general Gianni Infantino despite being the frontrunner, was dogged during his campaign by allegations of having been involved in the detention in 2011 of a large number of national soccer team players, athletes and sports executives who were abused and tortured during their arrest. The athletes and officials were being targeted for participating in a peaceful popular revolt that was brutally squashed by Saudi-backed security forces.

The silver lining in Mr. Salman’s defeat is that it has likely spared him and Bahrain further reputational damage. Mr. Salman’s presidency would have been mired from day one in questions and critical media reporting of his human rights record and management in the past of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which he still heads. Bahrain and Mr. Salman’s public relations fiasco would have likely gone from bad to worse.

Mr. Salman has repeatedly denied the allegations but has refused to address contradictions in his own statements as well as major discrepancies in his version of events and that of the government as reported by the Bahrain News Agency (BNA), an official organ of the Bahrain regime that only publishes officially sanctioned stories.

Instead he hired a London-based law firm, Schillings & Co, at huge cost to unsuccessfully stop through intimidation major publications from running critical stories about Mr. Salman and other members of Bahrain’s ruling family involved in the Gulf state’s tight political control of sports. Bahrain and Mr. Salman’s reputations have emerged from the FIFA election campaign more tarnished than they already were.

Qatar’s experience after winning in 2010 the hosting rights for the 2022 FIFA World Cup could have served Bahrain and Mr. Salman as a warning. Qatar has suffered significant reputational damage as a result of allegations of wrongdoing in its bid campaign and criticism by trade union and human rights activists of the living and working conditions of migrant workers, who account for the majority of the Gulf state’s population.

The lesson to be learnt from Qatar is not that autocratic states and autocrats with skeletons in their closets should not run the risk of getting involved in the management of international sports or the hosting of mega events. Qatar’s experience shows that serious engagement with critics can earn autocratic states the benefit of the doubt if they demonstrate that they are serious about addressing issues that have put them in the firing line. Qatar has engaged with its critics but has yet to convince them of its sincerity. Neither Bahrain nor Mr. Salman were willing to follow Qatar’s example.

Mr. Salman’s failed election campaign contains one more silver lining. His reputational issues would have clouded a far more fundamental power shift in international sports from West to East had he succeeded in becoming FIFA president. His defeat by a Swiss-born European soccer official only temporarily extends Europe’s traditional grip on the sport; it does not derail the inevitable broadening of power sharing in world soccer. Mr. Salman’s troubled relations with the media and refusal to seriously address legitimate questions would have made him the wrong man to symbolize the power shifts that are taking place.

More fundamentally, Mr. Salman’s defeat by a European does not indicate a break in FIFA’s long-standing instinctive preference for autocratic, non-transparent, unaccountable structures. Rather it suggests a choice for a representative of the world’s most successful soccer leagues who will implement a reform package adopted at the extraordinary congress that elected him but will not fundamentally alter structures that sparked the worst governance crisis in football history. Scores of senior officials have been arrested, indicted or suspended on corruption charges amidst judicial investigations in the United States and Switzerland.

To be fair, Mr. Salman would have followed a similar course similar to that Mr. Infantino is expected to embark on. In contrast to Mr. Infantino, Mr. Salman, however, would have stood out as a symbol of the perpetuation of FIFA as a pillar of autocratic rule, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa where soccer is an important tool in the maintenance of dictatorships and efforts by states to project themselves on the international stage in a more positive light.

By the same token, there is little doubt that Europe certainly rallied around Mr. Infantino out of fear that Mr. Salman would shift the anchor of world soccer away from Europe that has dominated the game since its inception. Mr. Salman implicitly acknowledged that fear by insisting that, if elected, he would not move FIFA’s headquarters out of Zurich. Many in Asia and Africa are concerned that Mr. Infantino will reinforce Europe’s grip on the game.

FIFA’s autocratic instincts were put on public display when the head of the group's ad-hoc electoral committee, Domenico Scala, who also authored the soccer body’s reform package, reprimanded presidential candidate Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan for criticising Mr. Salman’s failure to stand-up for soccer players in 2011 who were on his watch arrested, abused and tortured for participating in peaceful, mass anti-government protests.

FIFA has moreover never used its insistence on the fictious notion that sports and politics are separate to caution Mr. Salman and others against mixing the two. Mr Salman last year used his position as AFC president to create opportunity to try to put Bahrain positively on display by moving the confederation’s congress from AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur to Bahrain.

FIFA was also silent when Mr. Salman manipulated electoral procedures during the congress that Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti politician, IOC member and head of the Olympic Council of Asia, got the FIFA executive committee seat he wanted. Mr. Ahmed is widely viewed as one of the most powerful men in international sports.

FIFA last year suspended Kuwait, in conjunction with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other international sports associations, on allegations of government interference even if the Kuwaiti dispute has everything to do with a power struggle within the Gulf state’s ruling family. At the centre of that struggle is Mr. Ahmed.

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.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s Future: Will Al Saud’s Partnership with Wahhabism Hold?

RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email: for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentary, Yang Razali Kassim. 

No. 046/2016 dated 26 February 2016
Saudi Arabia’s Future:
Will Al Saud’s Partnership with Wahhabism Hold?
By James M. Dorsey


Saudi Arabia is confronting a perfect storm of challenges: economic, political, social, ideological, and geopolitical. How it weathers the storm will likely depend on how it handles the inevitable restructuring of the problematic partnership between the Al Saud ruling family and the Wahhabi ulama or religious scholars, on whom the former rely for their legitimacy.


SAUDI ARABIA may be heading into a perfect storm of economic problems, social challenges and foreign policy crises. Tumbling commodity and energy prices are forcing the Saudi government to reform, diversify, streamline and rationalise the kingdom’s economy. The government is cutting subsidies, raising prices for services, searching for alternative sources of revenue, and moving towards a greater role for the private sector and women.

Cost cutting occurs at a time that Saudi Arabia is spending effusively on efforts to counter winds of political change in the region with its stalled military intervention in Yemen, its support for anti-Bashar al Assad rebels in Syria, and massive financial injections into an increasingly troubled regime in Egypt that has yet to perform. Traditional autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa is being challenged like never before.

Reform bumps into Wahhabism

Despite renewed doomsday prediction about the viability of the Saudi regime, its future however depends less on how it solves any one of these issues individually. Instead, it will be determined by how the kingdom’s rulers restructure their Faustian bargain with Wahhabism, the puritan interpretation of Islam in which the Al Saud cloak themselves but which increasingly looms as a prime obstacle to resolving their problems.

Founded on an alliance between the Al Saud family and descendants of 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, modern Saudi Arabia adopted an interpretation of Islam that is in many respects not dissimilar from that of the self-styled Islamic State (IS), the jihadist group that controls a chunk of Syria and Iraq. The Wahhabis’ jihadist and expansionist instincts have since dulled and its strict ulama or religious scholars class, has progressively compromised to accommodate the needs of the state and its rulers.

The question arises whether clerical accommodation of Saudi Arabia’s rulers will give the government sufficient leeway to tackle the multiple challenges it confronts or whether the Faustian bargain needs to be restructured to a degree that the very legitimacy of the Al Saud is called into question.

The Saudi rulers repeatedly bump into Wahhabism as they move to reform the economy, seek to differentiate Saud Arabia from IS, repair a tarnished international image, and ensure that the kingdom is not penalised for its four-decade old global funding of intolerant, anti-pluralistic Muslim communities in a bid to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran. Moreover, the more the Saudi establishment ulama accommodates the state, the more it sparks militant critics who accuse it of deviating from the true path of Islam.

An Unaffordable Risk

In its attempt to differentiate itself from IS, Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as a victim of jihadist violence, taking a tough stance in confronting jihadists at home and abroad with its commitment to introduce ground troops in Syria, and painting Iran as the source of violence and instability in the Middle East. The Saudi effort has been only partially successful.

The risk the kingdom runs is becoming evident in ever greater scrutiny of Wahhabi and Salafi communities across the globe as a result of jihadist attacks like the ones in Paris in November. For example two major Dutch political parties have asked the government whether there was a legal basis for the banning of Wahhabi and Salafi groups.

If enacted, such a ban would lead to the prohibition of funding such groups and could prompt the Dutch government to ask the kingdom to remove its attaché for religious affairs from the Saudi embassy in The Hague. Over the years, other countries, including the United States, have moved to curtail inroads made by Saudi-funded religious groups. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to be penalised for the communities it funds and that lend the Al Saud their legitimacy. “Saudi Arabia’s strategic vision is, to put it bluntly, whatever is best for the ruling House of Saud,” said Saudi Arabia watcher Simon Henderson.

No Immediate Alternative

Similarly, the government will have to free itself from the social restrictions imposed by Wahhabism to rationalise the Saudi economy, bring women fully into the workforce, shift the economy’s emphasis from the public to the private sector, and diversify away from a 90 percent reliance on oil revenues.

Restructuring the economy inevitably will involve renegotiation of the Al Saud’s bargain with the Wahhabis and the kingdom’s social contract in which the population surrendered political rights for cradle-to-grave economic benefits.

With an unemployment rate of 29 percent among Saudis aged 16 to 29 who account for two thirds of the population, the government faces daunting challenges at home and abroad at a time of imposed financial austerity. Indulging puritan Islam is a luxury it increasingly cannot afford. Perhaps, the greatest challenge the Al Saud face is what alternative there is to Wahhabism that will legitimise their continued absolute rule. No immediate alternative presents itself.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg, Germany.

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Scheich Salman Al-Khalifa und der Folter-Verdacht (JMD quoted in Berliner Zeitung)

MÖGLICHER NEUER FIFA-PRÄSIDENTScheich Salman Al-Khalifa und der Folter-Verdacht

Scheich ist ihm nicht genug: Salman Al-Khalifa will an die Spitze der Fifa.  Foto: AFP
Am Freitag will Scheich Salman Al-Khalifa in Zürich Präsident der Fifa werden. Er gilt als Favorit. Warum das Mitglied des sunnitischen Herrscherhauses für das marode Wertesystem der Fifa steht.
Die Londoner Kanzlei Schillings hat derzeit eine Menge zu tun. Ihre Anwälte, die unter dem Motto „Den Ruf verteidigen. Privates schützen“ arbeiten, verschicken Schreiben an Medien weltweit, im Auftrag eines Klienten, der an diesem Freitag in Zürich Präsident des Fußball-Weltverbandes (Fifa) werden will: Scheich Salman Al-Khalifa aus Bahrain, Mitglied des sunnitischen Herrscherhauses, das eine schiitische Bevölkerungsmehrheit mit eiserner Faust regiert.

Al-Khalifa lässt schon Fragen juristisch abwehren, vor allem solche nach seiner Rolle bei der blutigen Niederschlagung des Arabischen Frühlings 2011, als in Bahrain Tausende verhaftet wurden, auch Sportler. Seine Interviews sind rar und beschränkt auf Medien, die fürs Nachhaken nicht bekannt sind. „Sie stellen die falschen Fragen“, ließ sich ein Schweizer Blatt gerade rüde abspeisen. Und gegenüber dem Sender Sky durfte der Scheich behaupten: „Ich kann zu einer Million Prozent garantieren, dass in bahrainischen Gefängnissen keine Athleten gefoltert worden sind.“
„Eine große Lüge“ hat das zuletzt ein Betroffener genannt: der frühere bahrainische Jugend-Nationalspieler Hakeem Al-Oraibi. Dem WDR-Magazin sport inside schilderte er sein Gefängnis-Martyrium, wie vier Polizisten ihn stundenlang auf die Beine schlugen und drohten: „Mit diesen Beinen wirst du nie wieder Fußball spielen.“ Al-Oraibi soll 2012 eine Polizeistation angezündet haben – zu einem Zeitpunkt, als er für die Nationalelf spielte, eine Partie, die live im Fernsehen zu sehen war. Seine Familie bat Al-Khalifa, damals Präsident des Fußball-Verbandes in Bahrain, um Unterstützung. Vergeblich.

Al-Oraibi ist Schiit und der einzige Fußballer, der über diese Realität noch sprechen kann – ihm gelang die Flucht nach Australien. Andere sind zum Schweigen gebracht worden. Der einstige Stürmerstar Ala’a Hubail, während der Arabellion Redner auf einer Sportler-Demonstration, berichtete vor vier Jahren noch über Folter. Inzwischen befürwortet er öffentlich Al-Khalifas Kandidatur als Fifa-Präsident. Al-Oraibi versteht das: „In Bahrain musst du Angst haben“, sagt er, und dass er dort auch nicht anders handeln würde.

Fragwürdiger Integritätstest
Für James Dorsey, Publizist und international gefragter Beobachter der Golfregion und ihres Fußballs, ist schon der Umstand, dass Salman den sogenannten Integritätstest der Fifa bestanden hat, ein Statement: „Die Fifa sagt der Welt: Es geht uns nicht um Veränderung oder Reform. Es geht auch nicht darum, das Wertesystem zu verändern, das diese Organisation zerstört hat.“
In der Tat: Wäre die Fifa jene ethische Institution, als die sie sich inzwischen ausgibt, müsste Al-Khalifas Disqualifikation wohl längst verfügt sein. Selbst sonst eher zurückhaltende Fifa-Sponsoren wie Coca Cola oder Visa teilten öffentlich mit, sie seien „zutiefst enttäuscht“ über diesen Kandidaten.

Denn der Fifa-Thronanwärter hat wohl nicht allein bezüglich der Folter gelogen. Er bestreitet auch, 
was die Nachrichtenagentur BNA − de facto Regierungsorgan in der Golf-Monarchie − 2011 mehrfach berichtete: Dass er sogar am Schalthebel saß, als die Al-Khalifas ihr Reich befriedeten. BNA zufolge leitete der Scheich ein Untersuchungskomitee, das regimekritische Sportler identifizierte, die „unsere Führung und unser kostbares Königreich beleidigt haben“. Berichtet wurde auch über Strafen „in Übereinstimmung mit Entscheidungen des Komitees“. Al-Khalifa hingegen behauptet, sein Komitee habe gar nichts entschieden.

Auch Golf-Kenner Dorsey nimmt ihm das nicht ab. Bezeichnend sei doch, dass der Scheich „zu keiner Zeit“ auch nur „die geringste Distanz“ geäußert habe zum Vorgehen gegen Sportler. Aber wen schert das in der Fifa? Dort gibt man ja nicht mal Auskunft darüber, wie die sonstigen Verfehlungen des Scheichs im sogenannten Integritätstest eigentlich erledigt worden sind. 2009 etwa ging bei den Fifa-Ethikern eine Anzeige gegen ihn ein. Damals verlor Al-Khalifa noch einen Machtkampf gegen den inzwischen gesperrten Fifa-Vize Mohamed bin Hammam. Das einflussreiche kuwaitische IOC-Mitglied Ahmed al Sabah, einer der mächtigsten Strippenzieher im Weltsport, soll damals auf Stimmenkauf gegangen sein, um Al-Khalifa einen Sitz in der Fifa-Exekutive zu sichern. Auf eine „politische Intrige“ Bin Hammams reduzieren das Al-Khalifas Anwälte heute. Im aktuellen Wahlkampf ist Al Sabah, inzwischen auch im Fifa-Vorstand, wieder mit von der Partie – an Al-Khalifas Seite.

Prüfbericht beerdigt
Der gelobt nun, als Fifa-Präsident seine „Erfahrungen in der Fußball-Administration“ zu nutzen, um „jede und alle Korruption auszurotten“. Der übliche Begleitlärm, seit FBI und Schweizer Bundesanwaltschaft die Fifa auseinandernehmen. Denn vor nicht einmal drei Jahren legte er dasselbe Versprechen ab, bei seinem Antritt als Boss der Asien-Konföderation AFC. Zum Erbe seines Vorgängers Bin Hammam gehörte ein Vertrag mit der in Singapur residierenden World Sport Group, die eine Milliarde Dollar für die Generalvermarktung des asiatischen Fußballs gezahlt hatte. Bestechungsgelder inklusive? Das vermutete ein Bericht der Wirtschaftsprüfer von PricewaterhouseCoopers, noch dazu Geldwäsche und Steuerhinterziehung. An die AFC ging der Rat, Strafanzeige zu erwägen, den Vertrag zu kündigen oder neu zu verhandeln. Dorsey, der den Prüfbericht öffentlich gemacht hat, sagt: „Salman hat viel versprochen, aber in Wahrheit alles dafür getan, dass dieser Prüfbericht beerdigt wird.“

Es wäre wohl grotesk zu glauben, dass der Scheich aus Bahrain, dürfte er ab Freitag im Glaspalast auf dem Zürichberg residieren, die Fifa einer ethischen Läuterung unterziehen würde. Spannender als die Frage nach dem Wahlsieger ist ohnehin eine andere: Greifen die Korruptionsermittler beim Kongress wieder zu, wie zuletzt immer bei den Treffen der Fifa-Granden in der Schweiz? Das wird womöglich auch Al-Khalifa umtreiben, denn sein Vertragspartner, die World Sport Group, hat Geschäfte in Amerika gemacht – mit dem Rechtevermarkter Traffic. Deren Boss ist einer der Hauptangeklagten in den USA. Und soll sich inzwischen, so heißt es, als äußerst gesprächig erweisen.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Salman’s moral rectitude or everything you wanted to know about FIFA but never dared to ask

By James M.  Dorsey

Lecture at the 8th Interdisciplinary Colloquium of the Institute of Sports Science, Wuerzburg, 19 February 2016 

Let me start off on a positive note given that I have been one of Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA presidential candidate Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa’s staunchest and most persistent critics. Salman has put forward proposals for reform of FIFA that have merit. He has taken personal gain out of the game by insisting that he won’t draw a salary and more importantly he has proposed to separate FIFA’s governance duties from its business activities – a change that goes to the core of the world soccer body’s patronage politics and financial corruption. It’s a separation of powers that I and others have long argued for.

Having said this, let me quickly disabuse you of any illusions that my comments on Salman’s reform proposals imply a change in my position with regard to the requirement that he preferably before but if not than after the upcoming FIFA presidential election give chapter and verse allegations that he was part of a crackdown in 2011 on athletes and sports executives who exercised their human right of freedom of expression by participating in peaceful anti-government protests. Nor has my comment on his reform proposal altered my view of Salman as the embodiment of the role of Arab autocracy in global soccer and sports governance.

To be clear, I have no doubt that Salman is the wrong man for the job and no self-respecting organization, certainly not one with the kind of credibility and deep structural problems that FIFA has, would entertain his candidacy without a proper and thorough investigation of allegations against him. If only, to clear the air and leave no shadow of doubt at a time that corruption and legal proceedings in the United States and Switzerland have torn the group’s reputation to shreds. 

In fact, I would argue that Salman, if he is serious about wanting to help FIFA put the crisis behind it, would not only have welcomed an investigation but have honestly and openly addressed legitimate questions. He hasn’t. Yet, if there is one thing FIFA’s next president has to bring to the table, it is an unblemished reputation that would give him the authority and the credibility to introduce deep-seated reform and restructuring and to symbolize what would be a new era in the life of the soccer body, an era in which it is seen to be rooting out the structures that enabled political and financial corruption. Without satisfactorily addressing unanswered questions, Salman is not that man.

There is no evidence that either FIFA or Salman truly recognizes this. FIFA’s vote for a new president on February 26 is in effect a litmus test that will demonstrate whether FIFA, its confederations and national associations still live in a bubble in which in essence they believe that business can go on as usual with at best some cosmetic changes or if FIFA has returned to the real world in which mass protests across the globe and the emergence in the US elections of figures like Donald Trump and Bernie Saunders are evidence of global distrust of the system and lack of confidence in mainstream leaders – a fact that FIFA no longer can deny or evade.

Prominent American sports journalist and one time FIFA presidential candidate Grant Wahl suggested recently in Sports Illustrated that FIFA’s problem is that a majority of its base, the national associations, may not want change. That could very well be true. Political corruption of sports is not a particularly Middle Eastern or North African characteristic and may well be part of FIFA’s DNA. If so, there is little hope for FIFA and Salman is the man to perpetuate the incestuous relationship between politics and sports that has yet to be regulated.

What Salman represents with his proposals for reform and slick presentations made on advice of high-powered public relations and electoral consultants goes far beyond sports. It involves what Middle East scholar Steve Heydermann once termed the upgrading of Arab autocracy. That is exactly what the Gulf states are doing. Tumbling oil prices, regional turmoil, domestic discontent and strained relations with the United States are forcing them to upgrade, fine tune, and adjust their autocracies that remain absolute dictatorships by adding forward looking language and sometimes a creative touch like the UAE’s newly appointed minister of happiness. The projection is one of reform and progressive thinking.

The problem is that the fundamental power structure doesn’t change and that is the reason why FIFA’s insistence that it is reforming itself has little credibility as long as someone like Salman can be a candidate. In fact, FIFA’s handling of the questions swirling around Salman go to the core of whether it is sincere about change. FIFA refused in its review of Salman to take into consideration reports published by the Bahrain News Agency, not an independent media organization but a government mouthpiece, an official organ, in a country in which the media is strictly controlled and freedom of the press is non-existent. Those official reports documented the country’s abuse of the rights of athletes and sports executives.

Moreover, Salman’s track record hardly recommends him as a candidate who would be capable and willing to reform FIFA. In fact, FIFA is adopting the same attitude taken by the Asian Football Confederation, the AFC, when it first elected Salman as its president in 2013 at a time that it was mired in a corruption scandal. The AFC had no compunction about having someone as president who for years refused to even respond to questions about his alleged role in the arrest, abuse and torture of athletes in his own country.

More recently, as a FIFA presidential candidate Salman has adopted the principle of autocratic upgrading and has become more sophisticated in his efforts to spin facts and avoid answering questions that at the very least could put him in political hot water at home and internationally. In doing so Salman has had a relatively softball media that has failed to ask him the really tough questions. He has ensured that by refusing to take questions that would be tough and has refused to grant interviews to those who would ask him the tough questions.

My name was allegedly banned for several years in the corridors of the AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. Those AFC officials willing to talk to me would do so in secrecy. That has changed with Salman’s appointment of a new head of communications, who indeed has reached out and been responsive to requests and questions. In a surprising move I was asked late last year whether I would be willing to meet Salman. I said I’d be happy and subsequently said the meeting would only make sense if he was willing to entertain and answer tough questions rather than dance deftly with words. 

That was the last I heard from Salman’s people except for a recent letter from his lawyers to a German radio station that had interviewed me and whom I had already defeated earlier when they represented Salman’s relative and Bahraini sports boss, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a son of the king and head of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sports and it’s Olympic committee, in another legal altercation aimed at intimidating media and controlling the message with hard handed tactics rather than engagement.

Fact of the matter is that Salman’s response to critical media inquiries goes more often than not beyond evasion. Salman doesn’t bother to respond at all. He sends his legal representatives, London-based law firm Shillings & Co, whose motto is ‘Defending Reputation, Demanding Privacy.’ – a motto that is grounded in both the nature of British libel law that intuitively stresses the right to privacy above freedom of the media and of Arab autocracy. The list of those at the receiving end of Shilling’s numerous epistles include Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, German radio, The Guardian, The Independent, France Football, and L’Equipe, just to name a few.

With other words, this is Salman’s concept of engagement and transparency. Intimidation through lawyers and softball interviews rather than true engagement are the building blocks of Salman’s media policy. That hardly bodes well for FIFA reform. When I recently asked Shillings to confirm the threatening letters to various media, the law firm advised me that they could not confirm or deny who their clients were. When I then advised them that was not the issue since I had various letters of theirs on behalf of Nasser and Salman in which I was the object they simply did not reply.

The number of issues Salman refuses to clarify is getting longer. To be fair some may be more difficult to prove and in fact less relevant. while others demand clear cut answers. In fact, I would argue that it is the duty of responsible and critical journalists and researchers to separate the wheat from the chaff and to refrain from getting involved in a witch hunt.

Let’s deal briefly with two issues that I think would behove Salman to clarify but will not be the primary ones because Salman may not have been aware of them or involved in wrong doing.

Issue number one is the fixing of a match in Bahrain when Togo fielded a fake team. This happened on Salman’s watch when he was head of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) and yes the buck stopped with him. There is however no evidence that he was aware of the fix, in any way involved in it, or that he benefitted from it.

The same is true for alleged vote buying in the 2009 AFC presidential election that Salman ultimately lost to Mohammed Bin Hammam. It is repeatedly alleged that Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), head of the Olympic Committee of Asia and, since last May part of FIFA’s executive committee, was buying votes for Salman. Again there is no evidence that Salman knew this or was actively involved even though he would have been the beneficiary if it happened.

Salman has certainly denied the allegations. ”Sheikh Salman had absolutely no involvement in vote-buying and there has been no evidence suggesting he was involved. Sheik Salman is committed to transparency and has zero tolerance for corruption. He has pledged to work tirelessly to help restore FIFA’s reputation if he is elected president,” a spokesman for Salman said.

Yet, FIFA was never inclined to investigate the allegations so that they could definitively be put to bed if incorrect. Efforts by journalist and former FIFA ethics committee member Les Murray to get the soccer body to investigate were rejected. And Salman is not known to have encouraged an investigation in a bid to remove any doubt.

There have also been muted questions about Salman’s financial management of the Bahrain Football Association and his 2009 AFC electoral campaign. That issue has barely come up in the media because of the effectiveness of Salman’s lawyers and because the source is a little known Bahraini newspaper with dubious ownership. Nonetheless, it would behove Salman to remove any doubts by providing chapter and verse rather than just flat denials and unleashing his legal advisors to ensure that the matter is not further pursued.

The most immediate and most credible allegations against Salman remain the human rights ones and Salman’s management of the Asian Football Confederation. Let’s start with the allegations of human rights abuse. They are credible in the sense that there are undeniable facts that Salman not only ignores, denies, brushes over or distorts. His statements by and large contradict the facts. At times he contradicts himself, and for sure has yet to square the circle.

The facts are straightforward. Some 150 athletes and sports executives were arrested in 2011 during peaceful mass anti-government protests that were brutally squashed by Saudi-backed security forces. They included three of the Bahrain national soccer team’s top players, two of whom have asserted that they were tortured in prison. One of the players was hauled in front of a kangaroo court on state-run television during which Prince Nasser phone in to warn that “people have entered labyrinths in which they will be lost... Anyone who involved himself in these matters and was part of it will be held accountable. Whether he is an athlete, socialite or politician, whatever he is — he will now be held accountable. Today is judgment day. May God grant patience and strength to all. Bahrain is an island and there is nowhere to escape… It is known who stood against us. The days will judge.”
Salman initially flatly refused to discuss the events of 2011, maintaining ad absurdum that sports and politics are separate. Now as a FIFA candidate no longer able to throw down a blanket refusal, and under increasing pressure to respond, his meagre answers get him only further tied up into knots. The denial that sports and politics are separate has effectively been thrown out of the window.

The events prove that, as does Salman’s implicit acknowledgement that the government was acting against dissident athletes and sports executives during what was a popular revolt in Bahrain that initially demanded reform, not regime change. What happened is beyond doubt even if Salman has used cheap tricks to paint a different picture. In one incidence, Salman got athletes who 4.5 years ago described their torture in detail, criticized the FIFA candidate for not standing up for them, and have remained silent since, to suddenly endorse his candidacy in press meetings arranged by his election campaign. It doesn’t get much cruder than that and hardly bodes well for what Salman would bring to the leadership of one of the world’s foremost sports associations.

The facts in the Salman case are not that difficult. The questions he needs to answer are straight forward. The consequences of answering truthfully could however be severe, because he would have to actually contradict his own government and say that what the government has said was not true. Even worse as a member of the ruling family he would have to state that he disagreed with the government’s policy and actions. It is not something Salman is willing or can do, but without that whatever he says lacks credibility and should be grounds enough for FIFA to disqualify him.

Let me explain.

The basis of the allegations against Salman and the questions he needs to answers are primarily reports carried by the Bahrain News Agency (BNA). BNA is the official organ of the government in a country that Reporters Without Borders ranks number 163 out of 180 countries; the media are tightly controlled through repressive articles in its penal code; journalists, activists, photographers and social media users are targeted; and in which writers exercise self-censorship including avoiding statements of fact like the fact that Shiites constitute the majority in Bahrain. BNA does not carry anything that has not been sanctioned by the government.

In 2011, BNA reported that Nasser had issued a decree ordering that measures be taken against those guilty of insulting Bahrain and its leadership. Nasser formed the committee after an earlier royal decree had declared a state of emergency in Bahrain. The royal decree allowed the Bahrain military to crackdown on the protests and establish military courts. Salman reportedly was at the time general secretary of the supreme sports and youth council as well as head of the Bahrain Football Association.

A series of BNA stories further reported on the implementation of Prince Nasser’s decree and the launch of a committee to investigate “breaches by individuals associated with the sports movement during the recent unfortunate events in the Kingdom of Bahrain.” BNA reported that the committee met on 10 April 2011 under Salman’s chairmanship.

BNA also reported that the Bahrain Football Association threatened penalties and suspensions for those who “violated the law”, including athletes, administrators and coaches who participated in “illegal demonstrations” or any other act that aims to “overthrow the regime or insult national figures.”  BNA said that the BFA had suspended clubs, noting that “the Bahrain FA stressed that these penalties were issued in accordance with the Investigative Committee’s decisions concerning all those who have offended our leadership and our precious Kingdom.”

A Bahraini newspaper, in another indication of the implementation of Nasser’s decree, quoted at the time Bahrain Table Tennis Association Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Hamad Al Khalifa, as saying that his group had decided to act against players who “offended the nation and its wise leadership.”
In his refusal in the last five years to discuss the allegations, Salman insisted that sports and politics was separate, a statement contradicted by BNA’s reporting and the fact that Bahrain’s ruling family keeps a tight rein on the country’s sports.

Since launching his presidential campaign, Salman has denied in interviews the establishment of the investigation committee and the assertion that he headed it but has yet to directly address the consistent BNA reporting. At no time, did Salman suggest that he objected as a matter of principle to the penalizing of athletes and executives or that he would not have accepted to chair the committee if it had been established. And that is what the real issue in the FIFA election is about. Does Salman have the moral rectitude, unblemished reputation and credibility to lead FIFA out of crisis and restore its credibility image? Draw your own conclusions.

The BNA reports are as close as one can get to a smoking gun. Add to that there is one player who is now in exile in Australia and thus not subject to the kind of pressures that those in Bahrain are exposed to. This player was falsely arrested and abused and Salman, according to the player, refused to lift a finger for him. Salman has never denied any of the BNA reports

The human rights issues are allegations no self-respecting organization or candidate can ignore or simply dismiss. Whether true or not, they are allegations that need to be addressed fairly and squarely in chapter and verse. That should be the yardstick for judgement on whether Salman is a legitimate candidate or not. The problem is that FIFA says it does integrity checks on candidates and that Salman passed those checks. No one knows what those checks are, what criteria are applied and on what grounds decisions are taken. There is no reason for that process to be secretive and non-transparent.

Fact of the matter is that Salman has a way of dealing with the human rights allegations if he wanted to and that is the independent report by Cherif Bassiouni. This was an independent investigation into allegations of law enforcement brutality, abuse and torture during the 2011 popular revolt conducted by international jurists. They concluded that torture and abuse had happened. The government 
endorsed the report and its recommendations even if those have yet to be largely implemented.

Instead of using the Bassiouni report as cover to position himself, Salman has charged that the campaign against him was an effort to tarnish the image of Bahrain. In doing so, Salman not only identified himself with government policy but also positioned himself as an agent seeking to improve his country’s image. The fact that Salman’s presidency is at least in part designed to polish Bahrain’s tarnished image was evident in the moving last April of the AFC congress from Kuala Lumpur to Bahrain where Nasser featured as a prominent speaker. That is one reason why Salman has had to promise in recent days that if elected he would not move FIFA out of Zurich.

Salman’s handling of the issue is emblematic of his management style since having been elected as AFC president. Flat denials and the squashing of critical inquiries laced with a sense of hubris are the hallmarks of his secretive management style.

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 twist last year, the officials disclosed that in addition to the audit, PwC had also delivered a second 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 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.

The only known time that the AFC took action with regard to the audit besides honouring FIFA’s banning of Bin Hammam was last year when it effectively fired its general secretary, Alex Soosay, for seeking to destroy documents relevant to the audit. Even then, the AFC portrayed Soosay’s dismissal as a voluntary resignation even if his departure followed my disclosure of a tape in which then financial director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong testified that Soosay had asked him to destroy documents. The fact that it took media pressure for 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 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. There has never been an acknowledgement by the AFC or Salman that those questionable transactions were being investigated.

Salman or for that matter Bin Hammam and Sheikh Ahmad are reflections of members of autocratic ruling families. They bring a sense of entitlement and arrogance to their management of international sports associations. They also strengthen the role of FIFA as well as the AFC in the Middle East as pillars of regional autocracy. In fact, Salman is the most prominent international soccer executive with a questionable human rights record but he’s not the only one.

Another is AFC Executive Committee member Major General Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi who is Commander-in-Chief of the Abu Dhabi police force. This is a police force that arrests critics of the government in secrecy who then often vanish for months before being hauled before court in trials that have been denounced by human rights groups. At least one uniformed officer of the Abu Dhabi police force in a gruesome incident in 2009 together with at least one prominent Emirati brutally tortured a grain dealer because of a $5,000 business dispute. The video is featured on You Tube. Salman has never questioned the appropriateness of having a representative of a police force with a dubious human rights record even if Al Romaithi was not its head at the time of the 2009 incident serve on his executive committee.

All of this is food for thought but holds out little hope that FIFA is capable of reforming itself and holding up universal values. It certainly is unlikely to do so under the possible leadership of Salman.

Thank you

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Conviction of Egyptian soccer fans slams door on potential political dialogue

By James M. Dorsey

Fleeting hopes that Egypt’s militant, street battled-hardened soccer fans may have breached general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s repressive armour were dashed with this week’s sentencing of 15 supporters on charges of attempting to assassinate the controversial head of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC.

Although the sentences of one year in prison handed down by a Cairo court were relatively light by the standards of a judiciary that has sent hundreds of regime critics to the gallows and condemned hundreds more to lengthy periods in jail, it threatens to close the door to a dialogue that had seemingly been opened, if only barely, by Mr. Al Sisi.

Mr. Al Sisi’s rare gesture came in a month that witnessed three mass protests, two by soccer fans in commemoration of scores of supporters killed in two separate, politically loaded incidents, and one by medical doctors – an exceptional occurrence since Mr. Al Sisi’s rise to power in a military coup in 2013 followed by a widely criticized election and the passing of a draconic anti-protest law.

In a telephone call to a local television in reaction to a February 1 gathering of Ultras Ahlawy, the militant support group of Zamalek arch rival Al Ahli SC, in honour of 72 of their members who died in 2012 in a brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, Mr. Al Sisi offered the fans to conduct an investigation of their own.

The brawl was widely believed to have been an attempt that got out of hand by security forces and the military to teach the ultras a lesson after they had played a key role in the 2011 popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak as well as in mass anti-government protests against subsequent governments, including post-coup student protests to which Mr. Al Sisi responded with an iron fist.

The ultras argue that the real culprits were excluded from court proceedings in which eleven fans of Port Said’s Al Masri SC were sentenced to death and 25 others, including a former security chief were given hefty prison terms on charges that they were responsible for the incident.

“I call on the Ultras to choose ten of their members whom they trust to be part of a committee to look into all the details concerning this case and determine what more can be done,” Mr. Al Sisi said in the phone call.

The ultras, who are demanding that Mr. Al Sisi’s military predecessor, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi be held accountable, rejected the president’s officer.

” We can't be the judge and the jury at the same time in the Port Said massacre trial… The president's invitation to the group to be part of the investigations is unexpected and shows that he is paying attention," the ultras said in a statement.

The president gesture’s constituted an extraordinary acknowledgement of the power of the ultras even if they have been on the receiving end of his effort to suppress all dissent. The exchange moreover, involving a response by the ultras in language and substance that displayed an unusual degree of political sophistication, appeared despite the rejection of Mr. Al Sisi’s offer to create a basis for further dialogue.

That seemed also to be true for the government’s restraint in responding to a protest days later by the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant Zamalek support group, commemorating the death of 20 of its members in clashes with security forces in February 2014. An Egyptian court has ordered a new investigation of the incident that prosecutors and Zamalek chairman Mortada Mansour charged had been instigated by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The government also refrained from breaking up a protest by thousands of doctors against the treatment of medical personnel in hospitals by security forces.

A larger than life figure and member of the recently elected parliament who basks in controversy, Mr. Mansour sparked an uproar in January in the assembly’s first meeting when he refused to take the prescribed constitutional oath, saying he disliked the wording that recognized the 2011 revolt.

Mr. Mansour, who alleges that the UWK attempted to assassinate him when members of the group through a plastic bag filled with urine at him, has been in the forefront of efforts to persuade the courts to ban the ultras as terrorist organizations.

The regime’s brief change of attitude towards seemed to be an effort to engage at a time that criticism of Mr. Al Sisi is mounting because of his inability to deliver economically, harsh repression and failure to gain the upper hand in a mushrooming insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.

Mr. Al Sisi moreover didn’t do himself any favours when recently a massive red carpet was laid over public roads for his motorcade during a trip to open a social housing project in a Cairo suburb.

"How is the president asking us to tighten our belts while the four-kilometre red carpet says otherwise?" read a headline in Al-Maqal newspaper, whose editor-in-chief, Ibrahim Eissa, is one of Egypt's most prominent TV commentators.

“As Sisi’s excesses continue, new alliances of convenience and cooperation will form among unexpected allies. Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers may once again align with secular groups; military factions may find the Brotherhood a useful ally against a rogue president. Voices in the media will begin to speak up. Criticism on social media will begin to build up a revolutionary head of steam. One day, Sisi will be replaced — probably not democratically,” noted Stephanie Thomas, a Reuters reporter who covered the 2011 uprising.

That may well have been on the mind of Mr. Al Sisi, who is keenly aware of the role soccer fans have played in the history of Egyptian protest, when he made his offer.

The sentencing of the 15 UWK members and the earlier blocking of Ahlawy members to get into a stadium where Zamalek and Ahli were scheduled to kick off in a derby threatens to slam the door even before it really swung open to a dialogue that could help Egypt tackle its multiple problems.

Mr. Al Sisi could still rescue the situation by lifting the ban on spectators attending soccer matches that has been in place for much of the last five years. Lifting the ban is one of the ultras’ prime demands.  The risk of stadiums again becoming a prime venue for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration and political protest is however a risk that Mr. Al Sisi more likely than not doesn’t dare run.

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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Is Saudi Arabia wavering on sending troops to Syria? (JMD quoted in Christian Science Monitor)

Is Saudi Arabia wavering on sending troops to Syria?

The Kingdom pledged to send troops last week, amid an international campaign to fight the Islamic State.

After announcing its willingness to deploy ground forces in Syria last week, Saudi Arabia’s officials now appear to be more hesitant about their initial plans.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said on Sunday that the decision whether to have a ground component on the ground is up to the US-led coalition.
“We said that if the US-led coalition is going to send ground troops into Syria, we are prepared to send special forces, so now we are waiting to see what the plan looks like,” Jubeir said in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. “But we have said yes, we’re prepared to provide special forces as part of the ground operations in Syria.”
The Kingdom pledged to send troops last week, amid an international campaign to fight the Islamic State.
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said he welcomed the move, calling on other countries to take  part in the coalition that would accelerate efforts in fighting the jihadist group, but other US officials questioned Saudi Arabia's commitment, pointing to the Kingdom’s involvement in Yemen, and asking whether it would have the capability to engage in yet another conflict.
“I do not assess that the Saudi ground forces would have the capacity to take this fight on,” Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency said, according to the Washington Post. “I think the idea is, how do you get more US skin in the game?”
With more at stake, as the Syrian city of Aleppo continues to be under siege from pro-Assad forces, Saudi Arabia’s ambivalent plan raises a question; are there other underlying factors behind the Kingdom’s uncertainty?
Analysts have long expressed suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s intentions in Syria, largely because neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey makes a secret of their desire to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
“Saudi intervention in Syria would, in contrast to Yemen, which the kingdom sees as a proxy war, bring Saudi troops in closer proximity to Russian forces and Iran's Revolutionary Guard,” writes James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, in the Huffington Post. “Russian and Iranian attacks on Saudi-backed rebels would inevitably have to elicit a Saudi response.”
“The Saudi gamble ironically fits neatly with the strategy of the Russian and Iranian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Syria and its backers want real negotiations that could end Syria's five-year old, brutal civil war until the lay of the battlefield definitively enhances their respective negotiating position.”
While Saudi Arabia has been a member of the US-led coalition that has been launching airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria since September 2014, the Kingdom has limited its involvement to arming and supplying certain rebel groups in Syria.
“The Saudis won't send significant numbers – they already stretched with an uphill and losing struggle in Yemen – and they won't want to be on the front lines, as Saudi troops in Syria would be fighting and killing other Sunnis (and indeed other Saudi Sunnis). That would be unprecedented, and enormously unpopular,” political scientist Ian Bremmer told Business Insider.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Saudi Arabia’s Syria strategy: Rewriting the Middle East’s Political Map

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia has raised the ante in its battle with Iran by publicly committing to send ground troops to Syria. This latest move by the Saudis is aimed at drawing the US into a more direct involvement to confront Islamic State as well as the de facto alliance of Russia and Iran to keep Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in power. An agreement by major world powers to negotiate a cessation of hostilities in the next week does little to thwart Saudi Arabia’s strategy.

In a recent, wide-ranging interview in The Economist, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was unequivocal in a recent about the goals of Saudi Arabia’s more assertive, interventionist foreign and defence policy. To achieve the kingdom’s goal of rolling back the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa and contain Iranian influence in the region, Saudi Arabia needs to leave the US no option but to re-engage rather than simply focus on the fight against jihadism.

“The United States must realise that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” Prince Mohammed said, suggesting that the sooner the US re-engages the better. Reengagement means to the Saudi leader, aggressive US support for the kingdom’s efforts to shape the Middle East and North Africa in its image.

What happens in Syria has a far more immediate regional fallout than events in Yemen where the Saudi military is struggling to win an unwinnable war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels unlike the war in Yemen, with its indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, Saudi ground forces in Syria could force the US to become more involved.

Saudi intervention in Syria would, in contrast to Yemen, which the kingdom sees as a proxy war, bring Saudi troops in closer proximity to Russian forces and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Russian and Iranian attacks on Saudi-backed rebels would inevitably have to elicit a Saudi response.

It’s a high-stakes gamble that would create the perfect powder keg, from which the US would be unable to stand aside. The US hopes that implementation of an agreement by the International Syria Support Group (ISSC) to arrange a ceasefire in Syria within a week will avert Saudi military intervention. The agreement, despite Saudi support for the ISSC decision, excludes not only Islamic State but also the Saudi-supported Al Nusra Front from the cessation of hostilities, which raises questions about what the kingdom’s real intentions are.

The agreement, even if implemented, does little to lower the risk of a Saudi-Russian-Iranian conflagration. By exempting the two jihadist groups, Russia and the US-led alliance retain the right to conduct airstrikes against the militant Islamists. Russia’s track record so far has been that it has targeted a scala of rebel groups rather than just the jihadists in its bid to strengthen the Assad regime.
Saudi military spokesman Brigadier General Ahmad Assiri described the cessation of hostilities was being negotiated as “irreversible decision.” At the same time, Saudi Arabia announced that a 34-nation military alliance made public by Prince Mohammed in December would meet in Riyadh next month.

In many ways, the Saudi offer, whether implemented or not, constitutes a master stroke. To sidestep the Saudi challenge and prevent a dangerous escalation of the Syrian war, the Obama administration will have to come up with proposals that justify delaying Saudi intervention, but go beyond air strikes against IS and futile efforts to breathe new life into peace talks.

Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist with close ties to the ruling Al Saud family, defined “the Americans” as the target of the Saudi offer. “The Saudis are telling the Americans: ‘we are ready to send our troops to Syria.’ What the Saudis did not say is: ‘what are you going to do about it?… How are you going to come along with us?’ We are, I think, challenging the Americans because the Americans are not doing their duty… We are saying: ‘Are you willing to send troops along with us? Khashoggi said in an Al Jazeera interview.

The Saudi gamble ironically fits neatly with the strategy of the Russian and Iranian-backed regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Syria and its backers want real negotiations that could end Syria’s five-year old, brutal civil war until the lay of the battlefield definitively enhances their respective negotiating position.

The Assad regime made this clear by recently launching a major offensive in Aleppo that significantly weakened a rebel stranglehold on the city and its environs and ensured that United Nations-sponsored peace efforts were rendered stillborn before they even effectively started. Saudi Arabia, backed by Turkey, contributed their bit by persuading rebel negotiators to leave Geneva in the wake of the Aleppo offensive.

The Saudi offer of ground troops exploits an increasingly untenable situation. The Aleppo offensive has sent tens of thousands fleeing to the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has warned that the latest fighting could force and additional one million Syrians to flee.

With 2.5 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey and European leaders urging Turkey to accommodate them rather than allow them to head to western Europe, Ankara is urging NATO to patrol the waters off its Mediterranean shore to prevent human traffickers from smuggling refugees to Greece. The Turkish demand for NATO assistance adds to the Saudi strategy of forcing the US to become more engaged.

For both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Syria constitutes the ultimate battleground for hegemony in the region. Russian military intervention and Iranian backing have turned around the once waning fortunes of the Assad regime.

A Syria in which the regime and IS, rather than other rebel groups, are the only real domestic players turns Bashar al-Assad into a pivotal cog in the fight against jihadism. That is something Saudi Arabia cannot allow to happen. To turn the tide, it needs a United States that is engaged and willing to do its bit.

Mr. Khashoggi hinted at how far Saudi Arabia was willing to go when asked whether Saudi ground troops risked direct confrontation with Russia and Iran. “Yes, it’s a risk but it’s more of a risk if the Iranians win in Syria and have hegemony over that Arab land,” he 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. A version of this story first appeared on RSIS Commentaries.