Richard Whittall:

The Globalist's Top Ten Books in 2016: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Middle East Eye: "

The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is one of the weightiest, most revelatory, original and important books written about sport"

“The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has helped me immensely with great information and perspective.”

Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach: "James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport: “Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”
Play the Game: "Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal: "No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated: "Essential Reading"
Change FIFA: "A fantastic new blog'

Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life:
"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Turkey’s Travails: Purges Worsen Ankara’s Democracy Deficit

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. 220/2016 dated 31 August 2016

Turkey’s Travails:
Purges Worsen Ankara’s Democracy Deficit
By James M. Dorsey


The Turkish government’s sweeping crackdown across the public services in the wake of a failed military coup in July has highlighted a deep-rooted flaw in Turkish democracy: the politicisation of Turkey's bureaucracy and judiciary.


TURKISH PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled conservative, leader of Hizmet, one of the world's biggest Islamic movements, responsible for last month's attempt to overthrow his democratically elected government. Erdogan asserts that Gulen's followers infiltrated the military, police, judiciary, bureaucracy and education system as well as the media. In response, he has arrested tens of thousands and fired a similar number of military and police officers, judiciary personnel, teachers and professors, and bureaucrats accused of being Gulen sympathisers.

Erdogan's claim is not without reason even if elements of the deep state, a cabal of ultra-nationalist politicians, officers and bureaucrats with links to organised crime, may have participated in the failed plot. Gulen’s strategy,  best described as a version of German student leader Rudi Dutschke’s march through the institutions, amounted to a gradual takeover of the state. To support his strategy, Gulen, a frail and dour septuagenarian, preached obedience to the state and recognition of the rule of law while at the same time inserting his followers into key institutions and educating a next generation in his ideological mould.

Looking the Other Way

Yet, Gulen's strategy was one that Erdogan as prime minister in the first decade of the 21st century wholeheartedly endorsed. It served Erdogan's purpose given that his Justice and Development Party (AKP) had no support base within the state apparatus when it first swept to power in 2002.

Gulen supported Erdogan’s electoral campaign in an alliance aimed at ensuring the rise of an Islamist government that would use Turkey's European Union accession process to bring the military under civilian control. Longstanding guardians of the militant secularism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, the military constituted the main obstacle to greater public religiosity.

As a result, Erdogan looked the other way as Gulen's followers moved into the judiciary where they constructed a legal case based partly on falsified documents against hundreds of military officers as well as journalists who were thrown behind bars. Similarly, the EU and the United States remained silent about the politicisation of branches of the state as long as Turkey was moving towards fulfilment of requirements for EU membership, one of which was civilian control of the armed forces.

While Erdogan believes he has good reason to crack down on Gulen's followers, there is little doubt that he has chosen not to separate the wheat from the chaff. Seemingly caught up in the president's massive purge are thousands who may have been critics but not Gulenists. Similarly, large numbers may have agreed with Gulenist criticism of Erdogan's policies but not been part of what is a power rather than an ideological struggle between the two Islamists.

A Population Exchange

Erdogan’s replacement of those purged is in principle no different from what the president accuses Gulen of: the populating of the bureaucracy, judiciary and armed organs of the state with loyalists whose allegiance is as much to the party or organisation and its leader as it is to the country. Erdogan’s wholesale population replacements serves to strengthen his power, further Turkey's march towards illiberalism, and exacerbate problems resulting from a politicised bureaucracy and judiciary stripped of its independence.

Those who move up the ranks to fill the tens of thousands of vacancies are likely to follow the government line rather than risk their predecessor’s fate. Turkish schools and universities will certainly produce less critical minds as many academics who escaped the purge seek employment overseas. The muzzling of the press and broadcast media further ensures that the government’s message dominates.

Over time, loss of confidence in the judiciary’s competence and the rule of law is but one likely consequence. The rise of less experienced personnel to fill the vast number of suddenly vacant jobs and delays in the processing of applications and judicial proceedings is certain to fuel frustration. In many ways, the judiciary’s ability to put up a case for the extradition of Gulen from the United States to Turkey that will stand up in a US court will serve as an indicator of the damage it has suffered as a result of manipulation by both the imam and Erdogan.

Left with Yes-sayers

Politicisation further reduces hopes for a return to peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), that came to a grinding halt with the resumption of hostilities in July 2015. Turkey needs an understanding with its own Kurdish community that accounts for up to 20 percent of the country’s population as Kurds in neighbouring, war-torn Syria assert themselves in a country that is unlikely to be restored to its pre-war borders. In doing so, the Syrian Kurds are following in the footsteps of their Iraqi brethren who have been autonomous for the past 25 years.

Erdogan’s failure to institutionalise independence of the bureaucracy and the judiciary is likely to come to haunt him as he pursues policies that have failed to produce solutions, first and foremost for Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Much like Pakistan’s employment of jihadists to counter its regional rivals has backfired, so has Turkey’s turning a blind eye to the Islamic State (IS) as part of its battle against the Kurds.

Already a popular politician, who has won election after election for the past 14 years, Erdogan is riding high on a wave of nationalism and national unity in the wake of the failed coup. Nonetheless continued politicisation and the silencing and exodus of critical minds leaves him ultimately with yes-sayers at a time that he needs creative thinkers more than ever to help solve a Kurdish issue that is taking on regional dimensions, curb mounting domestic political violence, and shield Turkey from the fallout of the disintegration of its neighbours as nation states.

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

HERE to read this commentary online.

Nanyang Technological University
Block S4, Level B4, 50 Nanyang Avenue, Singapore 639798
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Middle Kingdom eyes abigger role in the Middle East (JMD quoted in Straits Times)

Kor Kian Beng China Bureau Chief In Beijing
AUG 30, 2016, 5:00 AM SGT
How China handles its involvement may pose ramifications on other fronts, like its strategic rivalry with the US
A recent deal on military cooperation between China and Syria is viewed as a deepening of Beijing's policy towards direct engagement in the domestic affairs of Middle Eastern states, despite its long-held principle of non- interventionism.
Observers say how China handles its Middle Eastern involvement would not only affect its influence and interests in the region but also pose ramifications on other fronts, like its strategic rivalry with the United States.
An Aug 15 meeting between China's Rear-Admiral Guan Youfei and Syrian Defence Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij in Damascus saw both sides reaching a consensus on the People's Liberation Army providing personnel training and humanitarian aid to the Syrian military.
Though there have been media reports of the Chinese military's presence in Syria, the deal marks the first time both sides have publicly pledged military cooperation and is seen by some as China's decision to back the Bashar al-Assad government against the opposition rebels. Middle East expert Sun Degang of the Shanghai International Studies University said China sees a greater need to protect its economic interests in the Middle East - which accounts for more than half of China's crude oil imports.
The trigger was the launch of the One Belt, One Road initiatives in 2013 to revive two ancient Silk Road trading routes, with a maritime path flowing through the Indian Ocean and an overland one through Central Asia and the Middle East.
"Stability in the Middle East will benefit China economically," Prof Sun told The Straits Times.
Some analysts believe China is getting more engaged in the Middle East as a tit-for-tat response to the US involvement in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Others say China's move in Syria may also be linked to a pledge made by Mr Xi and Mr Putin to "unswervingly deepen their strategic partnership of coordination" on major international and regional hot-button issues.

Some analysts also believe China is getting more engaged in the Middle East as a tit-for-tat response to the US involvement in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Others say China's move in Syria may also be linked to a pledge made by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June to "unswervingly deepen their strategic partnership of coordination" on major international and regional hot-button issues and to support each other on their core interests and major concerns.
Russia has since agreed to hold a joint naval drill with China in the South China Sea next month, while Rear-Adm Guan, director of international cooperation in the Central Military Commission, reportedly also met Lieutenant- General Sergei Chvarkov, chief of Russia's reconciliation centre in Syria.
Hong Kong military commentator Ma Dingcheng told Phoenix TV in a recent interview on the Sino-Syria cooperation pact: "It's about sending a warning to the real opponent. In Syria, the US and Russia are competing with one another. By raising its flag, China reminds the US that it needs to watch its step in the South China Sea and East China Sea; otherwise, the US may find itself struggling against Russia and China there (in Syria) as well."
Middle East expert James Dorsey from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said China's goals also include joining the international fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group, which reportedly has links with the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) separatist group that seeks the Xinjiang region's separation from China.
Beijing blames the ETIM for inciting violence in restive Xinjiang. Chinese leaders have also been under pressure domestically to do more on counter-terrorism, following the execution of Chinese hostage Fan Jinghui in Syria last year. Beijing was accused of neglecting his case.
Prof Sun said China's "zero-enemy" strategy and its standing as a neutral broker offers the country an advantage in deepening its involvement in the Middle East. "China can be friends between Israel and the Palestine, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Afghanistan and the Taleban, between the Sunnis and the Shi'ites," he said.
He believes that if China plays its cards well in the Middle East, it could burnish its reputation as a peacemaker and responsible global power to counter criticisms of its assertiveness in the South China Sea.
But others say China's efforts to play a bigger Middle Eastern role are not without difficulties and have even run into pitfalls.
For instance, Mr Xi, on a visit to three Middle Eastern states earlier this year, declared China's support for the peace process between Israel and Palestine. But his pledge of support for a Palestinian state with eastern Jerusalem as its capital reportedly angered the Israelis.
Dr Dorsey said China, which has no choice but to get more involved in the Middle East given its growing heft and interests, can do nothing to avoid potential negative backlash and being dragged into potential conflict in the region.
"The Middle East is a region that demands attention. It doesn't like to be ignored. It's not a question of giving China more time to make its involvement work. It's a question of reality," he added.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2016, with the headline 'Middle Kingdom eyes a bigger role in the Middle East'. Print Edition | Subscribe

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Gulf autocrats and sports corruption: A marriage made in heaven

Remarks at 2016 Exeter Gulf Conference

Global soccer and global sports governance have for the past nine years and certainly since a fateful meeting in late 2010 of the executive committee of FIFA, the world soccer body, witnessed crisis after crisis. Invariably the scandals involved corruption: financial corruption, political corruption or corruption of sporting performance.

Invariably, Gulf autocracies were at the centre of the financial and political corruption scandals. The 2010 FIFA meeting awarded Qatar its hosting rights, fuelling already widespread suspicions of massive corruption of global soccer governance and the awarding of one of the world’s foremost sporting mega events. At the centre of that scandal was the now banned and disgraced Qatari soccer executive Mohammed Bin Hammam. And lurking in the shadows behind Bin Hammam was former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his son and current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Bin Hammam’s successor as head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and member of FIFA’s executive committee, Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa brought alongside allegations of failure to act against corruption a very different set of questions to the fore: the refusal of FIFA and its constituent bodies like the AFC to seriously look into allegations of human rights and particularly the rights of some of Bahrain’s foremost soccer players.

Finally, international sports governance is grappling with yet another politically driven crisis related to the Gulf: the suspension of Kuwait by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and virtually all international sports associations as a result of differences within the Gulf state’s ruling Al Sabah family. At the centre of the crisis is Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, a Kuwaiti politician and one of the most powerful men in international sports who has used the IOC as well as the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which he heads, to fight his domestic political battles and enhance his global sports power.

What all of these scandals and crises have in common is far more than a coincidental involvement of Gulf personalities. They all reflect in extremity the problems involved in the relationship between sports and politics, an inseparable and incestuous relationship that is allowed to flourish unregulated and ungoverned with international sports associations and governments misleadingly denying that the relationship even exists.

Gulf autocrats are well served by the denial. In fact, I would argue that the relationship between Gulf autocrats and international sports is a mutually beneficial marriage made in heaven. Certainly, FIFA serves as a pillar of autocracy in the Gulf as well as in in countries in the larger Middle East like Egypt or Syria. Application of FIFA rules serves those in power for whom sports and soccer are tools to enhance their international standing or polish their tarnished images, project their countries, create leverage that allows them to punch above their weight, and hopefully manage discontent at home.

Bin Hammam like Sheikh Salman and Sheikh Ahmad, Salman’s protector, who was elected to the FIFA executive committee highlight the intertwining of sports and politics as well as soccer’s affinity with autocracy. Men like Bin Hammam, Salman, and Ahmad are products of autocracies whose rise in international sports was paved in the 1970s when Middle Eastern geopolitics spilt on to the soccer pitch.

At the time, FIFA threatened but failed to follow through on threats to sanction the AFC for its expulsion of Israel as well as Taiwan in violation of the principle of a separation of sports from politics. FIFA’s failure wrote Arab politics into the DNA of Asian soccer and helped shape global soccer’s cosiness with autocracy.

FIFA’s and the AFC’s refusal to enact principles enshrined in their charters has had far-reaching consequences over the years for global soccer governance, no more so since Bin Hammam became AFC president in 2002. Men like Bin Hammam, Salman, and Ahmad are imperious, ambitious, and have worked assiduously to concentrate power in their own hands and sideline their critics clamouring for reform. Hailing from countries governed by absolutist, hereditary leaders, they have been accused of being willing to occupy their seats of power at whatever price with persistent allegations of bribery and vote buying in their electoral campaigns.

Personal and national ambition, corruption, and greed led to Bin Hammam’s ultimate downfall. Salman, like his relative, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s sports czar, has been dogged by allegations that he was involved in the arrest and human rights violations of scores of athletes and sports officials accused of having participated in mass anti-government protests in Bahrain in 2011. Both men have consistently denied any wrongdoing.

The role of men like Bin Hammam, Salman and Ahmad says much about the intertwining of sports and politics that is nowhere more prevalent than in the Middle East, whose 13 national associations, Israel not included, account for 28 percent of the AFC’s 46 member associations. As a result, the composition of the AFC’s executive committee speaks volumes.

Six of the AFC executive committee’s 21 members in the period from 2011 to 2015 hailed from the Middle East. They included Salman, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah who has emerged as a reformer and the only representative of an elite to have used his status to promote change; the United Arab Emirates’ Yousuf Yaqoob Yousuf Al Serkal, who maintains close ties to his country’s ruling elite; Sayyid Khalid Hamed Al Busaidi, a member of Oman’s ruling family; Hafez Al Medlej, a member of the board of Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled soccer association, who made his career in the Kingdom’s state-run media; and  Susan Shalabi Molano, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Football Association (PFA) that is closely aligned with the Palestinian Authority.

That number has risen to seven in the executive committee elected in April 2015, which includes Sheikh Salman and Shalabi Molano as well as Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, head of the UAE soccer association and Deputy Commander in Chief of the Abu Dhabi police force, a law enforcement agency with a less than stellar human rights record. The committee also includes representatives of Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Football Federation (IRIFF).

The Middle East’s close ties between sport and politics are regionally in Asia evident not only in the AFC but also in organizations like the Olympic Council of Asia.  The OAC is headed by Sheikh Ahmed, a former oil minister, who also heads the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) and is believed to harbour political ambitions in his home country and to play a major behind-the-scenes role in AFC politics. 

Ten of the 41 OAC’s board members hail from the Middle East. The Saudi, Bahraini, and Jordanian members belong to ruling families while those from Syria and Lebanon like their Thai and Pakistani counterparts are military officers. Iran’s representatives include a former oil minister who headed the country’s Physical Education Organization, the state entity that exercises political control of sports, and the head of a state-owned soccer club. Sheikh Ahmed’s brother is also a member.

The close ties between sport and politics, particularly in the Middle East are also reflected in the composition of the boards of the region’s national soccer associations and many of its major clubs. Almost half of the West Asian Football Federation’s 13 members are headed by members of ruling families or people closely associated with them. This includes Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan.

Saudi Arabia’s association remains tightly controlled by the kingdom’s General Presidency of Youth Welfare that is headed by a member of the ruling Al Saud family even after former Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) Prince Nawaf bin Faisal became in 2012 the Gulf’s first royal to resign under popular pressure.  Members of the board of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) are closely linked to Iran’s Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution popularly known as Pasdaran or Revolutionary Guards while many of its clubs are owned by state entities.  Similarly, clubs in the Gulf and Syria are frequently owned by members of ruling families and state institutions, including the military and security forces.

The AFC’s intimate association with politics is further highlighted by former secretary general Peter Velappan’s glowing description of the group’s long standing efforts to build bridges between feuding parties on the Asian continent such as India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, Iraq and the Gulf states following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and China and Taiwan.  Politics was moreover at the core of the AFC's landmark decision in 1974 at the behest of its Arab members to expel Israel in the wake of the 1973 Middle East war.

It was politics that ultimately persuaded FIFA not to follow through on its threat when the AFC refused to succumb in one of the first acts of defiance in the case of Israel by one of the world body's constituent members. That same year FIFA again threatened the AFC for its expulsion of Taiwan at the behest of China and again the world body succumbed to the Asian group’s defiance.  FIFA's failure and the AFC's defiance created the basis for a policy by both organisations adhered to until today that effectively supports autocratic rule by refusing to insist on universal adherence by national associations to the principles, rules and regulations of the global and regional governing bodies.

FIFA in the walk-up to this year’s presidential election requested information from the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) about the arrest and torture of soccer players accused of participating in a brutally suppressed popular uprising in 2011.  Pressure by the world soccer body persuaded Bahraini authorities to release two players, brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, but FIFA refrained from investigating the BFA or holding it accountable. In fact, it was evident to me when the FIFA ethics committee approached me for evidence that Sheikh Salman had been associated with abuse of human rights that the committee was determined to come up empty handed. Sheikh Salman has since sought to intimidate independent reporting by instructing his lawyers before he lost the FIFA election to threaten and intimidate anyone looking into the matter. The lawyers succeeded in many cases but failed in their three attempts to silence me. So did Prince Nasser.

Ironically, the AFC’s undeclared yet effective support of Middle Eastern autocracy played into Israel's cards despite its expulsion. The policy served to strengthen the region’s autocrats whom Israel despite an official state of war long viewed as regimes it could do business with and who were less likely to seek its destruction. Ironically FIFA and the AFC’s handling of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come full circle in the wake of the popular revolts that have rocked the Middle East in the 21st century and mounting international criticism of Israeli policies that among other things hinders the development of Palestinian soccer. After years of failed mediation efforts, FIFA warned Israel in late 2014 that it could be sanctioned if it failed to ensure the free movement of Palestinian players and officials in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has so far defeated attempts to suspend it. The question is for how long.

Among the rules and regulations that FIFA and the AFC choose to enforce selectively are the eligibility of clubs to compete in premier leagues and abidance by principles of non-discrimination. 
This failure is clear in the expulsions of Israel and Taiwan, the fact that clubs in Iran and Egypt are often government-controlled or owned in violation of single ownership rules and clubs elsewhere in the region have ties or are entities of families ruling with absolute power. Similarly, Iran and Saudi Arabia bar women from entering stadiums were men’s competitions are held. Saudi Arabia moreover refuses to make women’s sporting rights universal. Then AFC general secretary Alex Soosay defended during the Asian Games in Australia defended in early 2015 Iran’s ban on women entering stadiums.

This effective support of autocracy takes on added significance in a world in which the politics of soccer has played an important, if not a key role in the development of various Middle Eastern and North African nations since the late 19th and early 20th century. That role is reflected in the fact that a large number of soccer clubs in the region were founded with political associations and continuous efforts by autocratic governments to politically control the game.  It is also evident in the politics underlying the Middle East and North Africa’s foremost derbies, including Teheran’s Esteghlal FC v Persepolis FC, a traditionally leftist opposition club versus one historically associated with Iran’s rulers, Amman’s Al-Faisali SC v Al-Wehdat SC, a reflection of Jordan’s East Bank-Palestinian divide, and Cairo’s Al Ahli v. Zamalek.

Middle Eastern autocracy was not alien to the world of global soccer governance whose secretive ways pockmarked by lack of transparency and accountability have come to a head with the controversy over the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

Little in Salman’s career as head of the BFA, former secretary general of the Bahrain National Olympic Committee, and president of the AFC suggests a willingness to uphold values enshrined in the Asian body’s statutes such as the group’s neutrality in politics, universally accepted principles of good governance and management, or his own electoral promises. Salman’s past electoral battle with Bin Hammam as well as his election in 2013 and his simultaneous defeat of Qatar’s Hassan al-Thawadi in the competition to fill Bin Hammam’s vacant seat on the FIFA executive committee mirrored the balance of power in the Gulf where Bahrain and Kuwait are more closely aligned with Saudi Arabia than Qatar.

In an electoral message in his first AFC campaign, Salman, a former soccer player, asserted that “I believe that too many power and political games are affecting the harmony of Asian football when the only game that should matter is the one taking place on football pitches. As leaders in our sport, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are first and foremost servants of the game, at all levels and in all corners of the Asian continent.”  Salman listed as his values “fair play, cooperation, team work, transparency, integrity and passion for the game.”

Salman’s failure to adhere to his electoral promises and values has contributed to the failure of both the AFC and FIFA to put behind them the worst corruption and mismanagement scandal in the history of world soccer even if a number of non-Middle Eastern Asian soccer executives have been sanctioned. In fact, a cleaning of the AFC’s house in line with recommendations of an internal audit of the Asian group’s finances in 2012 that toppled Bin Hammam, who was in 2013 banned for life from involvement in professional soccer, could have helped spark badly needed reform of the world body.

The audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCooper (PWC) suggested that the AFC under Bin Hammam’s management may have been involved in money laundering, tax invasion, bribery, and busting of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea.  PwC warned that “it is our view that there is significant risk that the AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder funds and that the funds have been credited to the former President (Bin Hammam) for an improper purpose (Money Laundering risk), The AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder the receipt and payment of bribes.”

The audit questioned a $1 billion master rights agreement (MRA) between the AFC and World Sport Group (WSG) negotiated by Bin Hammam without putting it out to tender or financial due diligence. 

My reporting on the audit earned me a libel case in Singapore that I won in 2014 in a landmark case that changed Singapore court procedures and enhanced the right of appeal in libel cases. The AFC and Salman have refused to act on the recommendations of the audit, let alone get to the bottom of the allegations. The only action they took was the firing of General Secretary Soosay in June of last year after I disclosed a video that documented his attempts to undermine the PwC auditors by seeking to destroy documents. Officially, Soosay, who denied the allegations, resigned voluntarily. He has since been hired as a consultant.

Finally, I want to dwell briefly on the controversy surrounding Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup. I would argue that the debate about Qatar is skewed by arrogance, prejudice, bigotry and sour grapes. That is not say that there are not serious questions about the success of the Qatari bid. The debate however is not truly about the values it professes to defend.

Issues of climate, size and legacy are too me expressions of unease with the reflection of the more global shift from East to West on the soccer pitch. The jury is still out on technology that Qatar was having developed to alleviate the oppressive summer heat. That has meanwhile become academic with the shifting of the 2022 World Cup from summer to winter. How big does a country have to be to host a mega event.

Qatar spent a multitude on its World Cup in comparison to its competitors. It wasn’t a bunch of oil-rich Arabs dressed in pyjamas with tea towels on their heads and dollars coming out of every pore in their bodies. It was like all bids the result of a rational cost/benefit analysis. Unlike its competitors, Qatar’s reason for bidding was not simply soft power but a key element of its foreign and defence policy that makes it far more valuable.

I am Johnny-come-lately to the conclusion that Qatar bought the World Cup. Fact of the matter is that bribery and corruption in World Cup bids was standard practice in FIFA. Qatar was unlucky that it was its bid that helped spark the soccer governance corruption scandals. The question is how one best extracts positive change in dealing with the Qatari case. Depriving Qatar of its hosting rights, which is unlikely but remains nonetheless a distinct possibility, is unlikely to produce social or political change. On the contrary.

Fact of the matter is that most sporting mega events leave a legacy of white elephants and debt. A recent video clip illustrated dilapidated, discarded facilities in cities like Sarajevo and Athens that hosted Olympic Games. I would argue that the Qatar World Cup holds out the potential of change. There already has been change, too little, too slow but nonetheless. Qatar today is the more or less the only Gulf state to grant entry to its foreign critics, human rights activists, labour union operators and journalists. There have of course been any number of incidents with journalists being detained and activists having their visas or residency permits cancelled.

Nevertheless, there is an active dialogue with groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Confederation of Trade Unions. Human rights reports that take Qatar to task on the circumstances of workers’ rights are have been launched at news conferences in Doha. On paper, several Qatari institutions have significantly enhanced standards for the working and living conditions of migrant workers and efforts to combat widespread corruption in the recruitment process. Implementation often is the issue. There is moreover a tension between Qatar’s need to act swiftly to convince its critics of its sincerity and domestic constraints that stem from fear as a result of the country’s demography. From my perspective giving the process of change a chance of moving forward is far more important than depriving Qatar of its hosting rights on the grounds of justice having been done.

Thank you

Dr. 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, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Wahhabism - Remarks at 2016 Exeter Gulf Conference

This book project on Saudi public diplomacy using primarily the kingdom’s financial muscle has had a long gestation. It focuses on the impact of various policies of the kingdom on Muslim communities and nations across the globe.

In doing so, I will concentrate on Saudi government policy and actions as well as those of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family rather than wealthy individuals who may or may not be associated with them. As a result, theological and ideological differences between various expressions of Muslim ultra-conservatism fall beyond the parameters of what I am looking at.

My thinking on this has evolved in the past year despite having covered the Saudi efforts for many years from very different angles and multiple geographies. The evolution of my thinking is reflected in the fact that were I looking today for a title for these remarks, I’d call it Saudi export of ultra-conservatism rather than Wahhabism. The reason is simple: Saudi export and global support for religiously driven groups goes far beyond Wahhabism. It is not simply a product of the Faustian bargain that the Al Sauds made with the Wahhabis. It is central to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to position itself internationally and flex its muscles regionally as well as on the international stage and has been crucial to the Al Sauds’ survival strategy for at least the last four decades.

There is a lot of talk about Saudi funding of Wahhabism, yet in the mushrooming of Islamic ultra-conservatism in the last half century, Wahhabis as a group form a minority in the ultra-conservative Muslim world. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: For the Saudi government, support of puritan, intolerant, non-pluralistic and discriminatory forms of ultra-conservatism – primarily Wahhabism, Salafism in its various stripes, and Deobandism in South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora – is about soft power and countering Iran in what is for the Al Sauds an existential battle, rather than religious proselytization. One other important aspect is that South Asia has been an important contributor to ultra-conservative thinking for more than a century. Another significant element is the fact that while the Saudi campaign focuses predominantly on the Muslim world, it also at times involved ties to other, non-Muslim ultra-conservative faith groups and right-wing political groups.

Saudi Arabia’s focus on ultra-conservatism rather than only Wahhabism or quietist forms of Salafism allowed the kingdom to not simply rely on export of its specific interpretation of Islam but also to capitalize on existing, long-standing similar worldviews, particularly in South Asia. South Asia is also where the Saudi effort that amounts to the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in post-World War Two history, bigger than anything that the Soviet Union or the United States attempted, had its most devastating effect.

The campaign is an issue that I have looked at since I first visited the kingdom in the mid-1970s, during numerous subsequent visits, when I lived in Saudi Arabia in the wake of 9/11, and during a 4.5-year court battle that I won in 2006 in the British House of Lords, a landmark case that contributed to changes in English libel law.

The scope of the Saudi campaign goes far beyond religious groups because it is about soft power and geopolitics and not just proselytization.  It involved the funding of construction of mosques and cultural institutions; networks of schools, universities and book and media outlets, and distribution of not only Wahhabi literature in multiple languages but also of works of ultra-conservative scholars of other stripes. It also involved forging close ties, particularly in Muslim majority countries, with various branches of government, including militaries, intelligence agencies and ministries of education, interior and religious affairs to ensure that especially when it came to Iran as well as Muslim minority communities like the Ahmadis and Shiites, Saudi Arabia’s worldview was well represented.

An example of this is Indonesia where Asad Ali, the recently retired deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and former deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema (NU), one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that prides itself on its anti-Wahhabism, professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and warns that Shiites are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. Shiites constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population, including the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years. A fluent Arabic speaker who spent years in Saudi Arabia as the representative of Indonesian intelligence, this intelligence and religious official is not instinctively anti-Shiite, but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel.  In other words, the impact of Saudi funding and ultra-conservatism is such that even NU is forced to adopt ultra-conservative language and concepts when it comes to perceptions of the threat posed by Iran and Shiites.

In waging its campaign, Saudi Arabia was not alone. It benefitted from governments eager to benefit from Saudi largesse and willing to use religion opportunistically to further their own interests that cooperated with the kingdom wholeheartedly to the ultimate detriment of their societies.

Much of Saudi funding in the last half century, despite the more recent new assertiveness in the kingdom’s foreign and defense policy, was directed at non-violent, ultra-conservative groups and institutions as well as governments. It created environments that did not breed violence in and of themselves but in given circumstances greater militancy and radicalism. Pakistan is probably the one exception, the one where a more direct comparison to Russian and Communist support of liberation movements and insurgencies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is most relevant. 

In many ways, the chicken is coming home to roost. The structure of the Saudi funding campaign was such that the Saudis ultimately unleashed a genie they did not and were not able to control, that has since often turned against them, particularly with a host albeit not all militant Islamist and jihadist groups, and that no longer can be put back into the bottle.

The government, to bolster its campaign created various institutions including the Muslim World League and its multiple subsidiaries, Al Haramain, another charity that ultimately pos-9/11 was disbanded because of its militant links, and the likes of the Islamic universities in Medina, Pakistan and Malaysia. In virtually all of these instances, the Saudis were the funders. The executors were others often with agendas of their own such as the Brotherhood with the Muslim World League or in the case of Al Haramain, more militant Islamists, if not jihadists. Saudi oversight was non-existent and the laissez-faire attitude started at the top. Saudis seldom figure in the management or oversight of institutions they fund outside of the kingdom, the International Islamic University of Islamabad being one of the exceptions.

This lack of oversight was evident in the National Commercial Bank (NCB) when it was Saudi Arabia’s largest financial institution. NCB had a department of numbered accounts. These were all accounts belonging to members of the ruling family. Only three people had access to those accounts, one of them was the majority owner of the bank, Khaled Bin Mahfouz.  Bin Mahfouz would get a phone call from a senior member of the family who would instruct him to transfer money to a specific country, leaving it up to Bin Mahfouz where precisely that money would go.

In one instance, Bin Mahfouz was instructed by Prince Sultan, the then Defence Minister, to wire US $5 million to Bosnia Herzegovina. Sultan did not indicate the beneficiary. Bin Mahfouz sent the money to a charity in Bosnia, that in the wake of 9/11 was raided by US law enforcement and Bosnian security agents. The hard disks of the foundation revealed the degree to which the institution was controlled by jihadists. 

At one point, the Saudis suspected one of the foundation’s operatives of being a member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad. They sent someone to Sarajevo to investigate. The investigator confronted the man saying: “We hear that you have these connections and if that is true we need to part ways.” The man put his hand on his heart and denied the allegation.  As far as the Saudis were concerned the issue was settled until the man later in court testimony described how easy it had been to fool the Saudis.

The impact and fallout of the Saudi campaign is greater intolerance towards ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, increased sectarianism and a pushback against traditional as well as modern cultural expressions in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali and Bosnia Herzegovina.

It creates a wasteland that Saadat Hasan Manto, a Muslim journalist, Indian film screenwriter and South Asia’s foremost author of short stories, envisioned as early as 1954 in an essay, ‘By the Grace of Allah.’ Manto described a Pakistan in which everything – music and art, literature and poetry – was censored. “There were clubs where people gambled and drank. There were dance houses, cinema houses, art galleries and God knows what other places full of sin ... But now by the grace of God, gentlemen, one neither sees a poet or a musician… Thank God we are now rid of these satanic people. The people had been led astray. They were demanding their undue rights. Under the aegis of an atheist flag they wanted to topple the government.  By the grace of God, not a single one of those people is amongst us today. Thank goodness a million times that we are ruled by mullahs and we present sweets to them every Thursday…. By the grace of God, our world is now cleansed of this chaos. People eat, pray and sleep,” Manto wrote.

The fallout of Saudi- and government-backed ultra-conservatism has been perhaps the most devastating in Pakistan. There are a variety of reasons for this including,

  •        the fact that Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state rather than a state populated by a majority of Muslims;

  •        the resulting longstanding intimate relationship; between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that long before the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s led to constitutional amendments against the Ahmadis and every Pakistani applying for a passport being forced to effectively sign an anti-Ahmadi oath;

  •         the devastating impact of the jihad itself on Pakistan; and 

  •       Pakistan’s use of militant Islamist and jihadist groups to further its geopolitical objectives.

To be sure, the Saudi campaign neatly aligned itself with the manipulation of religiously-inspired groups by governments as well as the United States to counter left-wing, communist and nationalist forces over the decades.

Pakistan had however from the Saudi perspective additional significance. It borders on Iran and is home to the world’s largest Shiite minority that accounts for roughly a quarter of Pakistan’s 200 million people.

The result is that with the exception today of Syria and Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990s, Pakistan is the only country where Saudi funding strayed beyond support for non-violent groups. In Pakistan, the Saudis were at the birth of violent groups that served their geopolitical purposes, many of which are theoretically banned but continue to operate openly with Saudi and government support, groups whose impact is felt far and wide, including here in Britain as was evident with the recent murder of an Ahmadi in Glasgow. These groups often have senior members resident in Mecca for many years who raise funds and coordinate with branches of the Saudi government.

These groups as well as Pakistani officials have little hesitation in discussing Saudi Arabia’s role as I found out recently during a month of lengthy interviews with leaders and various activists of groups like Sipaha-e-Sabaha, Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat, the remnants of Lashkar-e-Janghvi whose senior leadership was killed in a series of encounters with Pakistani security forces, Lashkar-e-Taibe and Harakat al Mujahedeen as well as visits to their madrassas.

I want to conclude by suggesting that the Saudi campaign may be coming to the end of its usefulness even if its sectarian aspects remain crucial in the current environment. Nonetheless, I would argue that the cost/benefit analysis from a Saudi government perspective is beginning to shift. Not only because of the consequences of ultra-conservatism having been woven into the fabric of Pakistani society and government to a degree that would take at least a generation to reverse and that threatens to destabilize the country and the region.

But also because identification of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism with jihadists like the Islamic State has made the very ideology that legitimizes the rule of the Al Sauds a target witness debates in countries like the Netherlands and France about the banning of Salafism. Bans will obviously not solve the jihadist problem but as Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism increasingly is in the crosshairs, efforts to enhance Saudi soft power will increasingly be undermined.

Thank you

Dr. 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, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario

Saturday, August 20, 2016

FSF September: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer with James Dorsey

FSF September: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer with James Dorsey

book cover of The Turbulent World of Middle East SoccerOur seventh season begins on September 19, 2016, with a discussion of FSF member James Dorsey’s long-awaited new bookThe Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer[For the UK edition click here].
Dorsey is a journalist and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. His blog on Middle East soccer “(has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture,” notes FSF member Alon Raab.
The book, according to the publisher’s website, examines the game “as an arena where struggles for political control, protest and resistance, self-respect and gender rights are played out. Football evokes deep-seated passions and offers unique insight into the region. Examples include clandestine Saudi women football clubs; political demonstrations at Algerian matches; Somali child solders turned soccer stars; and Iranian women who disguise themselves as men to watch matches.”
For more information about this event and to participate via Skype contact Alex Galarza (galarza1 AT msu DOT edu).

Do African, Eastern European athletes make better Arab Olympians? (JMD quoted on Al Arabiya)

Do African, Eastern European athletes make better Arab Olympians?

Ruth Jebet of Bahrain leaves track after winning the race. (Reuters)
It is every athlete’s dream to win an Olympic medal and celebrate with their own national anthem being played before them while draped in their country’s flag.
While Arabs worldwide have so far celebrated 12 of their own during the Rio Olympics, at least three of those athletes stood before a country and anthem not originally their own.
Bahrain made headlines by winning gold and silver medals when Ruth Jebet came first in the 3,000 meters steeplechase and Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa came second in the marathon. Both had represented Kenya in the past.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) won its second Olympic medal ever via Moldovan-born Sergiu Toma in judo.
The importing - some go as far as saying purchasing - of athletes from Africa and East Europe has been criticized over the years as affecting the fairness of the games.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) won its second Olympic medal ever via Moldovan-born Sergiu Toma in judo.
However, sports experts and observers say the phenomenon is nothing new. “The practice of hiring foreign players is a standard and global practice. It’s not necessarily a trend started by the Arabs,” James Dorsey, syndicated columnist and the author of the blog “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer”, told Al Arabiya English.
Statistics compiled by the IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, found that 45 athletes changed national allegiances to compete for Bahrain between 2012 and 2016. A close second was the United States with 39. Qatar was sixth with 13.
Most athletes receive what is called a “sports passport,” in which a travel document is issued for the number of years an athlete is contracted to compete under while some do receive full citizenships.
These citizenships are not free for life and can be revoked at a given time like the case of Kenyan-born runner Leonard Mucheru Maina (Mushir Salem Jawher under Bahrain), who was stripped of his citizenship after he had run in a marathon in Israel.

Lack of talent vs too much money

Dorsey says small Gulf Arab states, particularly those with small populations such as the UAE and Bahrain, are forced to import foreign athletes because of the small talent pool. However, the trend goes both ways.
“You’ll also see a number of Arab, Middle Eastern countries exporting their talents to other countries,” Dorsey said.
“There are North African players in the Premier League. There are Gulf players who, while not great in number, play for foreign clubs.”

Ruth Jebet, originally from Kenya, of Bahrain poses with her gold medal. (Reuters)
Some Kenyan athletes have no choice for the opposite reason. Kenya usually fields many runners, and is limited by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the number of athletes it can field at international events.
While many of the athletes will switch allegiance for money, for most it is a chance to receive better facilities and guarantee themselves better chances at receiving medals.
“It makes sense for some athletes who don’t have enough resources in their home countries to gravitate toward other countries that could help them, so they move elsewhere, usually Gulf or European countries,” said New York-based sports writer Pablo Medina Uribe.

Sports as a political tool

For countries with big sporting ambitions such as Qatar, their practice of importing foreign athletes has been criticized in the past for being overused.
Qatar’s handball team at the Olympics this year compromises 14 players, 11 of whom are foreigners from nine countries and four continents.
To gain national and international recognition, Gulf Arab Olympic committees hope that more chances on the medal podium will translate to better name recognition.
“We live in a world that’s no longer Foreign Ministry to Foreign Ministry. Public diplomacy is a big part of our world, but so is cultural diplomacy and engagement with other cultures at all levels,” said Dorsey.
“Sports is a very important level. In some ways, countries today get ranked not only in terms of how many tanks and warplanes they have, but also how they perform on the sports field internationally.”
However, Simon Rofe, an expert on the diplomacy of international sport at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), says countries need to balance the trend or risk negative consequences.
“If a country is implementing the policy, they need to think about it carefully,” he told Al Arabiya English.
“It says something about how prepared a country is to do absolutely anything necessary to win,” he said. Rofe added that there are consequences of national identity being compromised and hinted at how the practice could alienate local-born athletes.
Although Bahrain native Ali Khamis failed to win a medal, he gained national attention when he qualified for the 400 meters semi-finals compared to the other Bahraini-medal winners.
The trend is not going away anytime soon, says Uribe: “For nations with small populations who want to participate in international sport and be a global player, that’s what they have to do, at least for now, because it will take many generations to develop their homegrown athletes.”