Football is religion's only rival in the Middle East: James Dorsey


James Dorsey.
In his latest book, Dorsey looks at football in the region, which overlaps with politics, protests and gender rights

While world football may be dominated by European and South American nations, the Middle East and North Africa have consistently made football news over the years. Whether it was Algeria’s shocking win over West Germany in the 1982 World Cup, or the fact that some of the biggest clubs in Europe have owners from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

In his latest book The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, James M. Dorsey, a journalist and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, looks at football in the region, which overlaps with politics, protests and gender rights.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer about beyond what the title suggests?

What the book does, with a degree of history, is primarily delve on contemporary events. It looks at the role of football in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in the popular revolts of 2011. It looks at the role that football’s played in terms of women’s rights; it looks at the debate, arguments and attitudes that exist between various tendencies within militant Islamists’ world towards football.

History is important, because a fundamental thesis of the book, if you wish, is that football plays a role in politics across the globe in very specific moments of time and periods of history. What sets the Middle East and North Africa apart is that there is no other region where football has played a continuous, persistent and key role over a period of more than a century. So it’s not incidental, it doesn’t come and go. It is a continuous factotum.

How is the overlap of politics in sport unique to the Middle East?

It’s not. Sports and politics are intertwined at the hips. They are Siamese twins. You cannot separate them. The international sports world, whether soccer or other sports, including the International Olympic Committee, maintain this fiction that the two are separate. I call it political corruption. That political corruption as a matter of principle then enables financial corruption, which is the focus of much of the crisis that’s going on within world soccer.

In the Middle East and North Africa, it is all the more true. You are talking about countries that are football crazy and in terms of the deep-seated passion that the sport evokes, it’s the only institution that can rival—in evoking that kind of passion—religion, mostly Islam.

The dictator cannot control or shut down the space, even though it’s happened—in Egypt, for example, where for much of last five years, the stadia have been closed for spectators.

What it means is the soccer pitch poses both a threat and opportunity. I say threat because it is an aggressive sport, it’s about conquering the other half, following its tribal, confined environment, in which emotions run high and large numbers give confidence in strength.

The opportunity is that the sport is so popular, and if a club or the national team, Egypt being an example, is successful, then the autocrat would want to identify himself with that team. Some of the glory of the team may shine on him, particularly in situations when his image or credibility is on the line.

The second opportunity is that it obviously allows the dictator to distract attention from grievances or things people are upset about. A number of years ago (in 2006), a ferry went down in Egypt, killing thousands. People were upset, for lack of management of the disaster. But the newspapers featured football on page one.

Thirdly, under given circumstances, the autocrat can manipulate national emotions. In late 2009, when Algeria beat Egypt (to qualify for the finals of the World Cup in South Africa), you had riots in three continents. That’s the closest the world came since 1969 to a football war.

Europen football clubs, like Manchester City and PSG, have owners from the Middle East. But what are their motivations in buying teams? 

Not all Arab owners or owners from the Middle East are motivated by the same thing.

You have three categories. If I divide them based on seriousness, the least serious are individual businessmen. They may or may not be members of a ruling family. When they are buying a club, it’s really a vanity move, a whim of the moment. Malaga (owned by Qatari businessman Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser al-Thani) in Spain is an example.

The second group of investors is those who want to turn this into a business. What they often do is not buy a top league team, like a Manchester City or PSG, but they buy second, third league teams. They buy it cheaper, and hope to bring the team up to the Premier League. They can make money in the process. There’s no proven example of that working yet, but that doesn’t mean it may not work.

The third group, the one with the most attention and rightly so, is either an entity belonging to a sovereign wealth fund owned by the government or a very senior member of the ruling family. But it functions the same way as it has been bought for the state and in those cases it really is about soft power. It’s about projection of the country and image building, particularly countries that don’t have a great image.

The cases of Qatar and UAE are different. Qatar (through its sports foundation Aspire) has bought a minor team in Belgium, Eupen. The reason they have done that is because the Qataris are more strategic compared to the UAE (which owns Manchester City). Most countries develop a sports sector organically over many years, Qatar is building it lock stock and barrel.

The reason they got Eupen, a team of no renown, is because they needed a team where they could send players for experience. The UAE, beyond the projection, also sees a business. You see that in the ability of the owners of Manchester City being able to parley their ownership with a significant entry into China, the growing market in the coming years.

The football field is also one where political battles are fought...

There is a battle going on between Qatar and the UAE that plays out, among other places, on the football field, but not exclusively to it. There are tensions and differences between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The reason it plays out is beyond the nature of relationships between Qatar and the UAE. These are two countries that see sport as a vehicle to achieve political goals.

Saudi is a vulnerable state because of its issues with women’s sports. They also may not want to open themselves for that kind of criticism. Also, Saudi has a conservative clergy where views, particularly on football, are divided.

Why would Qatar (hosting the 2022 edition) or any other Gulf state bid for the World Cup? Is it because of economic reasons or something beyond it?

It has nothing to do with economics. By and large, if World Cups leave a legacy, it’s white elephants of debt. They make money for Fifa, may make money for sponsors, but they don’t make money for the hosts. You host a World Cp because you believe the cost of it is worth the objectives you are trying to achieve and those are usually projections, ability to organize an event like this, branding, leveraging of opportunity and so on.

What does football do for people in the Middle East? Is it a metaphor for freedom?

When we are talking about the Middle East and North Africa, we are talking about 22-25 states. Each one is different from the other.

In many states, it is a release valve. There was a study in 2011 on why divorce rates were rising in Egypt and, you guessed it, the foremost reason was football. For the vast majority of people who see and feel football is one thing in their life that distracts from their daily struggle, for a vast majority they are probably not that political.

But when you do then get militant fan groups who enjoy a lot of respect because of the depth and militancy of their support of their club, then some of that rubs off. If and when this happens in various countries, the fights between security forces and fans become one of the major flashpoints of resistance to the regime.

Why don’t rich Arabs invest in soccer in the Middle East?

They do, clubs in the Gulf are owned by rich people. Now, that’s the Gulf. Because of the political structure, often, private ownership is difficult. One of the things you will probably see with the World Cup in Qatar is that there will be a drive towards further professionalization in the region.

Has the renaissance of Middle East soccer come and gone?

I don’t think its come and gone. You have a number of powerhouses in the region that often, for political reasons, haven’t always been able to fulfil their full potential. Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel, if playing in Asia rather than Europe, are soccer powerhouses.

Recently, Qatar was in the news for human rights violations, vis-à-vis workers at the stadiums. But is that unusual?

The kafala sponsorship system (used to monitor migrant workers) is more or less universal in the Middle East. Its not a new issue—the first time I wrote about it was 1976, 40 years ago.

The difference that the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar has made is it suddenly gave the activists of human rights leverage on the workers’ conditions. You can go back a number of years before the awarding and these reports came out every year. There was a bad day in Doha or Abu Dhabi and the next day it was forgotten because there was no momentum to it. The awarding of the World Cup gave it momentum, leverage to these groups.

You say in your blog that Qatar’s high profile sporting efforts have turned into a self-defeating enterprise. Can you explain?

Qatar has a multipronged soft power policy. Beyond sports, they have high-profile real estate investments, high-profile art acquisitions, building of museums, you have Doha as an international airline hub, you have a foreign policy that’s high-paced and geared towards mediating conflicts.

They want to be friends with everybody and provide solutions at times when others can’t do that. The Qataris expected that when they were awarded the World Cup in 2008, they would be feted and celebrated. Instead, they have been showered by questions about integrity of their bid and issues about conditions of labour.

Even though they have done some good stuff in response, they have been poor in their ability to communicate that they do recognize the issues and are trying to do something. What their issues are in terms of implementing this, why it’s taking time.

If you leave your office and go down to the street and ask people if they have heard of Qatar and what they think of Qatar, they would say enormous wealth, slave state and a great airline.


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