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

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

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Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
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Friday, September 30, 2016

Fighting for the Soul of Islam: A Battle of the Paymasters

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. 241/2016 dated 30 September 2016

Fighting for the Soul of Islam:
A Battle of the Paymasters
By James M. Dorsey


A gathering of prominent Sunni Muslim leaders in the Chechen capital of Grozny that appeared to have effectively excommunicated Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism potentially opens not only a theological but also a geopolitical rift in the Muslim world. The conference, sponsored and attended by some of Saudi Arabia’s closest allies, suggests that Saudi funding of ultra-conservative worldviews may be meeting its match in more liberal interpretations of Islam backed by the United Arab Emirates and Russia.


CHECHEN STRONGMAN Ramzan Kadyrov, an Islamist with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, recently convened some of Islam’s most prominent leaders to determine the theologically and politically explosive question of who is a Sunni Muslim. Professing to be a Sufi, a more mystical interpretation of Islam, Kadyrov lacks the religious credentials beyond his native Chechnya where he was recently re-elected with 98 percent of the vote.

Kadyrov’s ability to bring together an illustrious group of Muslim scholars highlights successful behind-the-scenes manoeuvring by the United Arab Emirates to counter Salafism despite the UAE’s close collaboration with Saudi Arabia as a member of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in the war in Yemen. It also shines a light on Russian efforts to cultivate Muslim religious leaders.

A Frontal Assault

Participating in the Grozny conference were, among others, the imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque in Cairo, Ahmed El- Tayeb; Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawki Allam; former Egyptian Grand Mufti and Sufi authority Ali Gomaa, a strident supporter of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi; Al Sisi’s religious affairs advisor, Usama al-Azhari; the mufti of Damascus Abdul Fattah al-Bizm, a close confidante of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and influential Yemeni cleric Habib Ali Jifri, head of the Abu Dhabi-based Islamic Tabah Foundation who has close ties to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed ibn Zayed al-Nahyan.

In a frontal assault on Saudi-backed ultra-conservative movements such as Wahhabism, Salafism and Deobandism, the conference charged that the label Sunni had been hijacked by heretics whose deviant practices distorted Islam. In defining Sunni Islam, the conference explicitly excluded Wahhabism, the Saudi state’s adopted version of Islam, as well as Salafism and Deobandism from its definition. The assault is all the more significant given that Saudi Arabia has over the last four decades invested tens of billions of dollars into promoting globally ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.

The conference suggests that the UAE, together with Russia, is succeeding in countering the Saudi effort that has enabled ultra-conservatism to make significant inroads into Muslim communities across the globe. The heavy Egyptian presence suggests further that the UAE, which together with Saudi Arabia is Egypt’s foremost financier, has effectively driven a wedge between the kingdom and the Arab world’s most populous state.

It also serves as evidence that Russian efforts to woo mainstream Muslim as well as Islamist leaders have begun to pay off despite Moscow’s support of the Assad regime in Syria. In a political fete, Russia managed to gather four years ago leaders of a host of Islamist stripes, including Saudi-backed Salafists, Muslim Brothers and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah at one table. Russian officials have stressed that conservative Russian Orthodox values are similar if not identical to puritan Islamic ones.

Deep-seated Aversion

The Grozny conference was co-organised by the Tabah Foundation, the sponsor of the Senior Scholars Council, a group that aims to recapture Islamic discourse that many non-Salafis assert has been hijacked by Saudi largesse. The Council was also created to counter the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars, headed by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, widely viewed as a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

UAE backing for anti-Salafi initiatives and opposition to the Brotherhood, even though it does not adhere to Salafi ideology, is rooted in Prince Mohammed’s deep-seated aversion to political Islam. The crown prince is credited with having persuaded the late Saudi King Abdullah to ban the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

Prince Mohammed has been troubled by suggestions that King Salman since acceding to the throne may be less strident in his opposition to the Brotherhood. Mohammed also differs with King Salman’s son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on the conduct of the war in Yemen and tacit cooperation on the ground in Yemen with groups associated with Al Qaeda.

The participation in Grozny of Egypt’s Sheikh El-Tayeb suggests that substantial Saudi funding of large numbers of Al Azhar’s scholars as well as the kingdom’s multi-billion dollar backing of Al Sisi since his toppling in a military coup in 2013 of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader, has not bought the kingdom the kind of religious and political loyalty it expected.

Our Brothers?

A prominent Islamic legal scholar, who rejected a nomination for Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize, recalls El-Tayeb effusively thanking the kingdom during panels in recent years for its numerous donations to Al Azhar. Al Azhar scholars were said to have competed “frantically” for sabbaticals in the kingdom that could last anywhere from one to 20 years, paid substantially better, and raised a scholar’s status.

“Many of my friends and family praise Abdul Wahab in their writing,” the scholar said referring to Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, the 18th century  religious leader whose puritan interpretation of Islam became the basis for the power sharing agreement between the ruling Al Saud family and the country’s religious establishment. “They shrug their shoulders when I ask them privately if they are serious… When I asked El-Tayeb why Al Azhar was not seeing changes and avoidance of dogma, he said: ‘my hands are tied.’

To illustrate Saudi inroads, the scholar recalled being present when several years ago Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy, a former grand mufti and predecessor of El-Tayeb as imam of the Al Azhar mosque, was interviewed about Saudi funding. “What’s wrong with that?” the scholar recalls Tantawy as saying. Irritated by the question, he pulled a check for US$100,000 from a drawer and slapped it against his forehead. “Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), they are our brothers,” the scholar quoted Tantawy as saying.

Dr. 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 University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, Germany.

HERE to read this commentary online.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Israeli-Palestinian struggle returns to the soccer pitch

By James M. Dorsey

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused world soccer body FIFA of allowing FIFA-sanctioned matches to be played on occupied land in the West Bank in violation of FIFA rules and has demanded that the group ensure that future games be staged within the borders of Israel prior to the 1967 Middle East war.

The HRW allegations bring to the forefront longstanding similar assertions by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) that Israel is illegally allowing teams from Israeli settlements on occupied West Bank land to play in Israeli leagues. Palestinian efforts to get Israel sanctioned faded into the background after the Palestine Football Association (PFA) last year failed to muster sufficient votes to suspend the Israel Football Association’s (IFA) FIFA membership.

HRW released its report in advance of a FIFA meeting scheduled for October in which the group is expected to discuss barring Israeli soccer clubs from playing in the West Bank. The Israel Football Association has complained that Tokyo Sexwale, the head of a FIFA committee established to deal with Israeli-Palestinian soccer issues, would be presenting his report without giving the IFA an opportunity to review it.

HRW’s demand that Israeli West Bank teams play in Israel proper potentially muddles issues involving the legitimacy of the settlements and the occupation. By demanding that West Bank settlement teams play on pitches in pre-1967 Israeli territory, HRW effectively accepts Israeli settlement policy.

The demand further leaves Israeli military policy that restricts Palestinian access to Israeli settlements unchallenged. HRW may have been better served by demanding that Israeli settlement teams be barred from competition in Israeli leagues and be included in Palestinian ones. Such a demand would have clearly differentiated between Israel proper and the West Bank, put pressure on Israel’s military to reverse discriminatory policies, and put the PFA on the spot in terms of including settlement teams.

PFA President Jibril Rajoub unsuccessfully tried to persuade FIFA at its congress in Mexico in May to ban Israel from allowing teams from Israeli settlements to play in Israeli leagues. Mr. Jibril identified five settlement teams competing in Israel: Beitar Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Ironi Ariel, Ironi Yehuda, Beitar Ironi Ma’aleh Adumim and Hapoel Bik’at Hayarden. Sixty-six members of the European parliament this month backed the PFA demand in an open letter to FIFA.

The PFA and IFA’s position reflect the views of their respective governments. Palestine, supported by a majority in the international community views the West Bank as territory occupied by Israel for the past 49 years since it was conquered during the 1967 war. The IFA justifies participation of settlement teams in its leagues on the ground that the West Bank is disputed territory whose future has yet to be determined.

The HRW campaign against the Israeli settlement teams came as Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month that he would put forward a Security Council resolution that would condemn the Israeli outposts. Without mentioning the United States by name, Mr. Abbas called on Washington not to veto the resolution.

US President Barak Obama reportedly raised with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu on the side lines of the General Assembly “profound US concerns about the corrosive effect that that (settlements) is having on the prospects of two states.” Settlements are expected to feature prominently in a framework for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks Mr. Obama may put forward before leaving office in January. Israel has increased the construction of settlements by 40 percent this year compared to last year.

The battle between Israel and Palestine in FIFA is a forerunner of likely similar confrontations in multiple international organizations as Palestine seeks to force Israel to halt its settlement activity before engaging in any new negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

FIFA was the first international organization to accept Palestine as a member without it being an internationally recognized state. Growing international unease, including in the United States, Israel’s foremost ally, has however paved the way for Palestine to build on the FIFA example and apply to a host of UN organizations, including the International Criminal Court, as a member state.

HRW Israel and Palestine Authority director Sari Bashi argued that FIFA in the wake of adopting a human rights policy earlier this year, was not applying to Israel its rules and past practices in similar situations such as Crimea, Nagorno Karabakh and the self-declared northern Cypriot state.
European soccer body UEFA in 2014 rejected the move of Crimean clubs from Ukrainian to Russian leagues following Russia’s occupation of the territory. UEFA said Crimea would be considered a "special zone for football purposes" until the conflict has been resolved.

Similarly, FIFA has refused to recognize Northern Cyprus which unilaterally declared itself independent following a 1974 Turkish invasion or the predominantly Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh that is part of Azerbaijan but occupied by Armenia. The denial of recognition meant that teams from the two territories are barred from FIFA competitions and not allowed to participate in leagues of the occupying nation.

A report commissioned by FIFA and written by Harvard professor John Ruggie, the author of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGP), which outline the human rights responsibilities of businesses, advised the soccer body to adhere to the principles.

The HRW report asserts on the basis of the fact that both Israel and Palestine are members of FIFA that “by allowing the IFA to hold matches inside settlements, FIFA is engaging in business activity that supports Israeli settlements, contrary to the human rights commitments it recently affirmed.”

HRW said that “doing business in the settlements is inconsistent with these commitments.” It said that “settlement football clubs provide part-time employment and recreational services to settlers, making the settlements more sustainable, thus propping up a system that exists through serious human rights violations… The clubs provide services to Israelis but do not and cannot provide them to Palestinians, who are not allowed to enter settlements except as labourers bearing special permits. Because of this, football teams, for example, operating in the settlements, are available to Israelis only, and West Bank Palestinians may not participate, play on the teams or even attend games as spectators.”

The report noted that in the case of sports club Givat Ze’ev, “the IFA, and therefore FIFA as well, are holding matches on a playing field that was rendered off-limits to its Palestinian owners, two families from neighbouring Beitunia who were unable to access their land after Israel built the settlement in 1977 and prevented Palestinians from entering it. The Palestinian town of Beitunia has lost most of its agricultural land because of Israeli military orders barring access and physical barriers.”

The issue of soccer teams from Israeli settlements on the West Bank has been gaining traction in recent months. A petition organized by advocacy group Avaaz and signed by 150,000 people demanded that Mr. Sexwale “uphold FIFA’s own rules and provide fair recommendations to evict Israeli settlement teams from FIFA. There should be zero tolerance for the six teams that flagrantly ignore international law and operate in occupied territory. Settlement football teams legitimise the illegal occupation and condones the suffering the Palestinians face as a result,” the petition said.

In comments to HRW on the report, Shay Bernthal, chairman of the Ariel Football Club, a West Bank settlement team, insisted that the clubs were not discriminatory or racist. While HRW was referring to West Bank Palestinians in its assertions of discrimination, Mr. Bernthal noted that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship played for settlement teams much like they play for squads in Israel proper.

“You did not mention that the collaboration between me and clubs from the sector [Arab citizens of Israel] is excellent. You did not mention the club’s activities against racism and violence, and you did not mention what concrete action I took to try and promote peace: a game against a Palestinian club, having two Muslim players on my adult team and more,” Mr. Bernthal said.

IFA legal advisor Efraim Barak, responding to the report and contacts between the IFA and Ms. Bashi, employed the fiction upheld by all international and national sports associations that sports and politics are separate.

“We make no distinction between any of the Israeli football teams that are active in the IFA and have players from different nationalities and backgrounds playing together in comradery and full cooperation, regardless of where the clubs are located. The same holds true for clubs located in places whose final status is to be determined,” Mr. Barak wrote in what is an inherently political statement that aligns the IFA with Israeli government policy.

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, September 21, 2016

Struggling for Women’s Rights: International Sports Associations Duck the Gun

By James M. Dorsey

This is an expanded version of remarks made at Interdisciplinary Net’s Politics, Money and Sport Places, and Mega Events workshop in Oxford, 13-15 October 2016

This is a story as much about Saudi Arabia or for that matter about Iran as it is about international sports associations and how they balance upholding their principles and values with a realistic assessment of how they can best ensure compliance by member associations. In fact, this story could just as well be about whether Qatar against the backdrop of criticism of its labour regime should be allowed to host the 2022 World Cup or whether collective punishment that penalizes guilty and innocent athletes alike is the way to go in the case of Russia that stands accused of endorsing doping.

The issue in Saudi Arabia and Iran is women’s sporting rights. In Iran, it really is about only one right; the right to attend male sporting tournaments. Iranian women sports is otherwise by and large well developed. In Saudi Arabia, it’s about stadium attendance too, but it’s about much more, it’s about the right to physical exercise and the right to compete in any sporting discipline. Attitudes of international sports association towards upholding women’s sporting rights in Saudi Arabia and Iran constitutes a mixed bag. In fact, until 2012 both countries got away with restricting women’s rights with no risk to their ability to host or compete in international tournaments and no risk of being barred or their reputations being tarnished.

“It’s humiliating. First you belong to your father and brother, then to your husband son who can do with you what they want. It is humiliating. How can you say that women’s rights go against culture? The problem is: who cares about women’s rights?” says Darya Safai, a 41-year old Iranian student activist-turned dentist and women’s sports campaigner who was jailed in Iran before fleeing via Turkey to Belgium.

Ms. Safai, who travels the world to sporting mega events at which she unfolds a banner demanding women’s unfettered access to stadiums in Iran, sees her activism rooted in her first encounters as a child with discrimination of women. In line with Iranian dress code, her mother forced her at age six on her first day of school to exchange the clothes she liked for a body enveloping blue mantle and a head cover.  “I realized something wa wrong when I saw my neighbour’s son going to school in the same clothes he always wore. Nothing had changed for him. From that moment on, I wanted to be a boy,” Ms. Safai said.

Ms. Safai was subsequently admonished by teachers for laughing out loud because that was improper. “I was afraid in school. I look at pictures from that time and I’m never smiling because girls aren’t supposed to display their teeth. From age nine, we were taught that you would go to hell if a man sees you. I was afraid of the pain of burning in hell. Later my bicycle was taken from me. It was terrorizing children… At a given moment, the penny dropped. I realized it’s not my fault. That was my rebellion. I wanted my rights,” she said speaking fluent Dutch in an Antwerp café.

Ms. Safai had a taste of those rights in 1997 when thousands of Iranian male and female soccer fans poured into the streets of Tehran to celebrate Iran’s defeat of Australia with a last-minute goal in a World Cup qualifier that paved the way for the Islamic Republic’s joining the 1998 World Cup finals. “It was a day on which everything that was forbidden became possible. Men and women were on the streets. The veils were off, they danced and sang together. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life,” Ms. Safai recalls.

2012 was a watershed in the struggle for women’s sporting rights in the Middle East in several ways. It was the year in which world soccer body FIFA and the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that sets the rules of the game opened the door to religiously observant Muslim women to play in international competitions with their hair covered. It was also the year in which West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups the region’s national associations with the exception of Israel adopted a resolution that put the right of a women to compete on par with that of a man. Eleven of the federation’s 13 member associations, including Iran, voted in favour. Saudi Arabia and Yemen voted against. The resolution was revolutionary even if it only had symbolic value because the federation doesn’t have the teeth to enforce it.
2012 was also the year in which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the first time threatened the world’s three countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei – that had never sent a woman to an Olympic sporting event with a boycott if women were not included in their representations in London. Saudi Arabia avoided a boycott by sending two expatriate athletes. What has evolved since in both the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran is a cat and mouse game in which international sports associations effectively have thrown the towel into the ring in effect allowing the two countries to maintain misogynist policies. It has also forced human rights groups to rethink how they best can pressure international sports associations to stand up for universal rights.

To be fair, despite what I would view as a cave-in, attitudes in international sports associations have shifted. That is too say they no longer evade the issue even if they at best following a brief period of taking a stand now only pay lip service to it. Also to be fair, the results of the associations’ activism is a mixed bag. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it forced the kingdom to allow women to compete albeit in only very small numbers – in Rio the number of Saudi women doubled from two to four – and only in a very limited number of sports that are mentioned in the Qur’an. In Iran, pressure first appeared to succeed but then failed in part because associations like the International Volleyball Federation ultimately backtracked or in the case of the Asian Football Confederation either refrained from holding Iran to its promises or publicly endorsed Iranian policies.

One other thing has also changed. In the days of Jacque Rogge’s stewardship of the IOC, there was no contact between the committee and human rights groups. Rogge wanted nothing to do with them. That changed with the rise of Thomas Bach. Bach met with the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch shortly after being elected and has maintained that dialogue. Bach also initially attempted to follow through with the Saudis in the wake of the committee’s initial success with the London Olympics. The Saudis refusal to send women to the subsequent Asian Games, their refusal to allow women to compete in anything but Quranic sports, and their development of the kingdom’s first national sports plan for men only infuriated Bach. It prompted him to after first requesting restraint on the part of the human rights groups to ultimately say to them: Go for it, Saudi Arabia is yours. Yet in saying that, he effectively dropped the ball. The IOC had no intention of continuously pressuring Saudi Arabia or continuously wielding the stick of a boycott.

As a result, pressure by the IOC to force Saudi Arabia to take necessary measures, including introduction of mandatory sports lessons in girl’s schools, development of an infrastructure that would foster women’s elite sports, and adoption of policies to encourage and enable female participation, have lacked the resolve necessary to produce results that go beyond a nominal quadrennial women’s presence. Human rights groups have concluded that in the absence of being able to pressure Saudi Arabia directly, they only have an opportunity every four years to influence the IOC in the final run-up to an Olympic tournament.

The pattern is similar in the case of Iran. The International Volleyball Federation initially declared that it would not grant Iran hosting rights as long as women were not granted unfettered access to stadia. In response, Iran promised to allow women to attend international volleyball tournaments in the Islamic republic. Similarly, Iran promised the Asian Football Confederation, the AFC, that women would be allowed to attend Asian Cup matches hosted by Iran. In both cases, Iran never stuck to its promise and at best allowed foreign women to enter. The US Volleyball Federation on the informal advice of the State Department decided not to send its woman president to Iran when the US national team played their even though the vice president of Iran is a woman and Iranian sports associations have women’s sections that are headed by women. The international federation earlier this year backed down from its threat of a boycott declaring that gender segregation in Iran was culturally so deep-seated that a boycott would not produce results. The federation argued that engagement held out more promise. The decision flew in the face of the facts. Gender segregation in volleyball in Iran was only introduced some four or five years ago.

The same is not true for soccer where segregation has been a fixture since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The AFC however went a step further. It not only failed to force Iran to stick to its promise to allow women to attend Asian matches. When Iran was upset in January last year at Australian-Iranian women cheering the Iranian soccer team at the Asian Games in Australia and players mingling with their Australian fans, AFC secretary general Alex Soosay defended Iran’s right to do what it wanted within its national borders. As an aside, Soosay was fired six months later after I published evidence of his attempt to cover up his possible involvement in corruption. Soosay has since been hired as a consultant by the AFC.
In the cases of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, I would argue that a principled stand that sanctions the two countries makes imminent sense albeit for very different reasons and that harks back to the notion of balancing adherence to principles with a realistic assessment of what can be achieved and how it can be achieved. I would argue that a firm and principled stand in the case of Saudi Arabia has a chance of success.

The reason for that optimism is that Saudi Arabia is in flux. Saudi Arabia’s strategy of letting international oil prices drop to maintain market share and squeeze Iran has failed. Shale oil has proven to be resilient and Iran in the wake of the nuclear agreement is on the rise. The failure coupled with geopolitics and the fallout of the 2011 Arab popular revolts is forcing Saudi Arabia to do what is long overdue: upgrade its autocracy and diversify its economy. Without discussing the merits of the Saudi plan formulated in a document called Vision 2030, this entails curbing the raw edges of puritan Islamic rule, bringing more women into the labour market and offering youth more opportunities not only in terms of jobs but also with regard to entertainment. Saudi Arabia’s system of government, a marriage between an autocratic ruling family and a puritan albeit opportunistic clergy, is under pressure both at home and abroad and inevitably will have to be renegotiated. At the same time, Saudi Arabia needs increased foreign investment and needs to polish its tarnished image. One reason why Saudi Arabia came up with the hair-brained idea of hosting an Olympic tournament together with Bahrain. Men would compete in Saudi, women in Bahrain.

In short, Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to pressure. It demonstrated that with its torturous but ultimate decision to allow women to compete in London in 2012 and in Rio this year. Exactly the opposite is true for Iran. International pressure is unlikely to produce results. Iran is embroiled in a power struggle in the wake of the nuclear agreement and in advance of elections next year. The nuclear agreement has produced for Iran on multiple levels, but the one area where it has yet to achieve tangible results is in the pocket of the average Iranian. At stake in the power struggle are vested interests. Iran is a country ruled by middle-aged former revolutionaries who need to maintain a façade.

For the Revolutionary Guards, who play a major controlling role in sports, particularly soccer, its about defending widespread economic interests. One battlefield in Iran is cultural, including sports. It’s a battlefield on which its easy for the conservatives and hardliners to score a goal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has to pick his battles if he wants to stand a chance for re-election. Women’s passive sporting rights, with other words the right to free access to stadiums, is not one of those battles that is crucial to Rouhani’s prospects. With other words the domestic cost of fighting that battle outweighs the cost of a refusal of international sports associations to grant Iran hosting rights. It would be a different story if the associations would ban Iran from international competition as long as it restricts women’s rights much as was the case with Saudi Arabia.

This comes as no surprise to Ms. Safai, the women’s sport activist. Mr. Rohani was secretary of the National Security Council when she was arrested in 1999 for participating in anti-government student protests that were brutally squashed. Together with Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, Mr. Rouhani denounced the protesters as dirty people seeking to undermine security and vowed to “deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.” 

The fight for women’s rights is personal for Ms. Safai, a mother of two. “I don’t care what it costs me. I love Iran, it’s my country. I want people to be equal and to have equal rights,” she says.

Ms. Safai’s campaign keeps the issue in the public eye, but is unlikely to spark change in Iran any time soon. What this means is that the International Volleyball Federation is probably correct in its conclusion that a boycott of Iran would be useless in terms of achieving concrete results. It also means that engagement will not do the trick.
As a result, the upshot of all of this is that boycotts make sense in both Iran and Saudi Arabia albeit for very different reasons. In the case of Saudi Arabia, a boycott has proven to have a chance of success. That is all the truer against the backdrop of the geopolitical, political and social issues Saudi Arabia has to deal with. In the case of Iran, its exactly the opposite. What is at stake is not chances of success, but the integrity of international sports associations in upholding their own principles as well as universal values in the absence of any chance of breaking a deadlock and encouraging progress.

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 Aof 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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Politics and Soccer in the Middle East (JMD on Football Scholars Forum)

Politics and Soccer in the Middle East

By Peter Alegi | September 19th, 2016 No Comments

The Football Scholars Forum opened its 2016-17 season on September 19, with a discussion of James Dorsey’s long-awaited new book, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

A journalist and Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, Dorsey’s blog “(has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture” on Middle East soccer and politics, according to FSF member Alon Raab, who teaches at the University of California Irvine.

The forum’s twenty participants spread out across North and South America, Africa, Europe, and, naturally, the Middle East, engaged in a lively discussion with the author. Dorsey began by describing the origin of the project and a disclaimer that he is neither a player or fan of the game. The book, he stated, is about politics, not soccer. But he immediately qualified this quasi-heretical statement (among fútbologists, at least) by stressing that sports and politics are always linked, though at different levels of intensity depending on the place and time.

Dorsey emphasized the importance of young Egyptian ultras in the overthrow of Mubarak and of stadiums as spaces of mobilization, dissent, and censorship. A particularly interesting thread of the forum was the focus on social media as scholarly sources–“cyber-ethnography–and also as an invaluable space for public discourse.

Prompted by new questions, Dorsey shared his thoughts on gender issues; the limited influence of “Muscular Islam” in its diverse interpretations (from conservative to liberal) on the region’s football culture; racial and ethnic discrimination in the region; and how the failed July 15 coup in Turkey means soccer fans have been caught in the wider web of repression carried out by the Erdogan regime.

Despite the grim status quo for people and football in war-ravaged Syria, Dorsey closed on an optimistic note, arguing that we are at the beginning of a long process of potentially positive change in the Middle East. Time will tell, but what is certain is that the game will continue to serve “as an arena where struggles for political control, protest and resistance, self-respect and gender rights are played out.”

Click here for an audio recording of the session.

For information about the next Football Scholars Forum on October 27, please

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Egypt hopes soccer will help polish its tarnished image

By James M Dorsey

An Egyptian businessman with close ties to general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has submitted a bid for the broadcasting rights of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in a move that is widely seen as an effort to polish the image of Egypt, tarnished by massive abuse of human rights, failing economic policies, and a military coup that put in 2013 put an end to the country’s first democratic experiment.

The $600 million bid also challenges the predominance among Arab satellite broadcasters of BelN, the Qatar-owned sports network that is part of Al Jazeera, and has bought broadcasting rights across the globe.

Finally, if successful, the bid could help improve Mr. Al-Sisi’s domestic standing at a time that the president is struggling economically and being propped up by funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Many Egyptians cannot afford BelN’s subscription rates that range from $7.5 to $54 a month.

Relations between Qatar, a supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Egypt have been strained ever since Mr. Al-Sisi three years ago toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Mr. Morsi was sentenced in June to 25 years in prison for passing state secrets to Qatar in a case in which several Al Jazeera journalists were convicted in absentia to either death of long prison terms. Al Jazeera was taken off the air within hours of the 2013 coup and three of its journalists were held in prison and sentenced to years in jail before ultimately being released.

The businessman, Ahmed Abou Hashima, a steel and media magnate with close ties to Mr. Al-Sisi, has the support of members of parliament close to the Egyptian leader despite Arab media reports that the Brotherhood supported him in 2012 when Mr. Morsi was in office.
Mr. Abou Hashima sought help at the time, the reports said, in his high-profile divorce, reportedly involving a $30 million settlement, from Haifa Wehbe, one of the Arab world’s most prominent singers and actors.

Mr. Abou Hashima’s effort to improve Egypt’s international image by buying African broadcasting rights builds on Egypt’s past African soccer glory. Egypt’s national team is the African Cup of Nation’s most crowned squad, winning the title in the three consecutive years that preceded the 2011 popular revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.

"We do our best to project Egypt's name in all sectors in Africa, especially sport," Mr. Abou Hashima said in a Facebook posting on August 30.

Pro-Sisi deputies linked Mr. Abou Hashima’s bid more directly to the mass anti-Morsi protests in the summer of 2013 that had been supported by the military and security forces and paved the way for Mr. Al-Sisi’s takeover.

"The proposal the Egyptian company presented to buy the broadcasting rights of African football honours the Egyptian people after the 30 June glorious revolution," Hamdy al-Sisi, a namesake of the president, lawmaker and member of the lower house’s Youth and Sports Committee, told Al-Monitor.

"Egypt is the main key driver of the Middle East and it remains the pulse of the Arab world. The fact that an Egyptian company obtains the broadcasting rights of matches indicates a lot, including Egypt's recovery from its crisis as it has come back to the African arena," added Mahmoud al-Sayyed, another lawmaker and committee member.

Proper marketing of the broadcasting rights would project Egypt despite a violent insurgency in the Sinai as stable, demonstrate public support for Mr. Al-Sisi, and boost tourism, Mr. Al-Sayyed said.
Mr. Abou Hashima’s bid appears also to be part of broader government strategy to harness soccer in its effort to garner domestic popularity. The bid was announced days after Mr. Al-Sisi ordered a feasibility study for the construction of a new stadium in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, one of Egypt’s least populated and most neglected governorates. 

Seventy-two members of Ultra Ahlawy, one of the militant soccer support groups that played a key role in the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak and subsequent resistance to military rule died in Port Said’s existing stadium in 2012 in a controversial, politically loaded brawl. It was Egypt’s worst ever sporting incident. Port Said did not figure in the government’s investment plan that was presented last year to an economic development conference.

Many in Port Said resent the fact that court proceedings have laid blame for the incident with militant supporters of Al Masri SC, some of whom have been sentenced to death, and two security officials in the city. Seven other security officers were acquitted. The defendants have appealed the verdicts.
Mr. Al-Sisi sought to co-opt Ultras Ahlawy earlier this year on the fourth anniversary of the incident by offering them to independently investigate what happened. The ultras turned the offer down, arguing that they could not simultaneously act as accuser and judge.

Mr. Al-Sisi made his offer as militant soccer fans formed the backbone of anti-government student protests that were brutally squashed. The protests were not only against the harsh repression of the Al-Sisi regime but also against its economic and social policies which failed to create public sector jobs for graduates and more places for students at universities.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s effort to use sports to his advantage sought to exploit the fact that physical exercise, including, jogging and biking, enjoys unprecedented popularity among Egyptian youth. In one event, Mr. Al-Sis led military academy cadets in 2014 on a well-publicized bicycle ride around Cairo.

“The young people can’t go out demonstrating, but they can go out to run,” sports coach Ramy A. Saleh told The New York Times.  “It’s connected with the withdrawal from public life by young people,” added political scientist Ezzedine C. Fishere.

“Everyone who had participated in 2011 (in the popular revolt0 started to move to the private sphere, some took refuge in depression, some in nihilistic activities and many in fitness — not just fitness, but taking care of oneself,” Mr. Fishere said.

Sports may for now prove to be a way for Mr. Al-Sisi to engage with youth who in the absence of post-2011 politics find expression in physical activity. If history is however any guide, sports could also turn on him as was evident with soccer fans being the foremost group to resist the Mubarak regime physically in the years before the president’s downfall.

Mr. Al-Sisi appears to recognize that with Egyptian stadiums remaining largely closed to the public for much of the years since 2011. That didn’t stop Ultras Ahlawy from rioting in July during a match against a Moroccan team. Some 80 ultras were arrested.

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 Aof 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, September 3, 2016

Book launch Lost in Transition: Comparative Political Transitions in Southeast Asia and the Middle East

Remarks by James M. Dorsey at the Asian Research Institute on 30 August 2016

Political transitions are processes, not momentary events. They can take a quarter of century if not more.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is as much an expression of a global trend driven by economic, political and geopolitical uncertainty and security and safety fears that produces lack of confidence in the system and existing leadership as are Donal Trump, the 2011 Arab popular revolts; the rise of the far right in Europe; tensions between concepts of freedom, privacy and security; and the wind in the sails of democratically elected, illiberal leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey,  Vladimir Putin in Russia, Benyamin Netanyahu in Israel and Narendra Modi in India.

Nonetheless, there are specific reasons why the transition process has moved forward in Southeast Asia despite the military coup in Thailand and the corruption and governance issues that Malaysia is confronting whereas the process in the Middle East is far more torturous, volatile and violent. Three of those reasons stand out:
  •       Southeast Asia has benefitted from the fact that it does not have the equivalent of Saudi Arabia, an arch-conservative absolute monarchy with regional hegemonic ambitions whose ruling family will not shy away from anything to ensure its survival;

  •          Southeast Asia further had the advantage that it is not wracked by regional rivalries like those between Saudi Arabia and Iran or Iran and Turkey and is not populated by countries whose ambition is to dominate others. Equally important is that no country in Southeast Asia had the kind of revolutionary ambition that Iran, Egypt, Libya or Algeria had at given times in their more recent history;

  •       Differences between Southeast Asian nations are not fought on the battlefield and Southeast Asians do not employ militant and violent proxies to influence events in other countries. With other words, there is no equivalent in Southeast Asia to Hezbollah, Hamas or the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units nor is there a pattern of support by any one Southeast Asian nation for restless ethnic or religious in another country in the region such as Saudi support for restless Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan or Baluchis in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province.

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Geopolitics aside, there are some fundamental lessons to be learnt from the Southeast Asian experience:

First and foremost, there is no successful transition without the participation of at least a significant faction of the military that sees the preservation of its vested interests in change rather than maintenance of the status quo. In Myanmar, the military took the lead, in Indonesia and the Philippines, a faction of the military reached out to civil society groups. And it was that alliance that pushed the process of toppling an autocrat forward.

No military or faction of a military in the Middle East and North Africa saw or sees the preservation of its interests best served by a transition from autocratic or military rule to a more liberal, more democratic civilian rule. On the contrary, autocrats and militaries in the Middle East and North Africa have worked out a number of models to sustain autocratic rule that gives militaries a vested interest in the status quo.

Protesters in Egypt in 2011 chanted the military and the people are one when the military refused to step in to crush the revolt. The transition in Egypt however was initially one from autocratic rule in which the military and the security forces were the dominant players to outright military rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. A brief democratic transition was brutally ended with a military coup that was backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The explanation for the differences in attitude between Southeast Asian militaries and militaries in the Middle East and North Africa lies for a large part in differences in the relationship between autocrats and militaries. It also lies in different approaches to the two regions by international donors, particularly the United States, towards the militaries and civil society.

Western donors worked with Southeast Asian militaries on issues such as civil-military relations and human rights. They also were able to give relatively unfettered support to civil society groups. The result was greater differentiated thinking within Southeast Asian militaries and the existence of a civil society that was able to rise to the occasion. In a study of civil military relations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)) concluded that there was ample opportunity for serious work on civil military relations in the Philippines. Despite at times rocky relations with former President Suharto in Indonesia, the US also had programs on civil military relations for the Indonesian military.

The study constituted a rare US look at the potential for similar programs in the Middle East and North Africa. Its conclusion for that region was radically different. The study said flat out that the Middle East and North Africa was not ripe for concepts of civil-military relations. The conclusion was in line with US policy that saw autocracy rather than transition as the guarantor of regional stability. 

As a result, the United States allowed Middle Eastern and North African autocrats like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to decide which civil society groups could receive US support and which ones could not. Hardly, a recipe for development of a robust and independent civil society.
The alliance between the military and civil society in Southeast Asia produced one other key ingredient for relative success: the ability of the street to better evaluate when best to surrender the protest site and move from contentious to more conventional politics and the ability to manage post-revolt expectations.

Civil society was effectively locked out of the transition process once Mubarak resigned on the 11th of February 2011. Its power was significantly diminished with the evacuation of Tahrir Square even if mass protests continued for another nine months with an ever rising number of casualties. The military coup two years later was made possible of course by the missteps of Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

It was however also made possible by dashed social and economic expectations that the revolt would produce immediate and tangible social and economic benefits strengthened by a manipulative military and security service.

None of these Southeast Asian lessons provide quick fixes for the multiple crises in the Middle East. What it does however demonstrate is that even if popular revolts are often in and of themselves spontaneous events, the run-up to watershed protests are as much a process as is the post-revolt transition. In sum, the Middle East and North Africa has much to learn from the Southeast Asian experience even if Southeast Asia’s path was in some ways easier because it did not have to contend with some of the Middle East and North Africa’s complicating factors.

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

BOOK LAUNCH: Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa (Remarks by Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario)

Remarks by Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario at the Asian Research Institute on 30 August 2016

In November 2015 when we submitted the final manuscript, the overall tone of the book was upbeat for Southeast Asia.  Except for Thailand, the countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Myanmar, and the Philippines, seemed poised to complete their democratic transition, rebuild institutions founded on the principles of democratic governance, and enshrine the principles and practices of open participatory systems.  The one bright light in the Middle East/North Africa is Tunisia whose Quartet for Democracy had just won a Nobel Peace Prize for its role in the democratic transition.

In the past two months, since the Philippine electorate gave a whopping mandate to Rodrigo Duterte, some 2000 Filipinos have died, mostly on allegations of drug use/abuse, none of them having had the opportunity to seek redress through the judicial system.  Rule of law seems to have been usurped by executioners-on-motorcycles.  He has gone to war with a female Senator who wants to investigate extrajudicial killings, as well as the female Supreme Court chief justice with whom he is also in a war of words over warrantless arrests.   He is threatening to pull out of the UN.  

Similarly, In a very recent cabinet reshuffle in Indonesia, former General Wiranto who “is among senior officers indicted by UN prosecutors over gross human rights abuses during the 24-year occupation of East Timor” as quoted in the Straits Times of 27 July 2016, (, was appointed to the sensitive post of security minister.  “Activists have called it a step backwards for human rights,” quoting again from The Straits Times.

This, then, raises the question about Southeast Asia:  are we seeing a democratic rollback?  In the book’s introduction, we referred to two authors who asked the same questions.  Erik Paul’s book Obstacles to Democratization concluded that the ASEAN nation-states are a “passing phenomenon” caught up in superpower contests mainly between the US and China, and citizens are swallowed up and gobbled up by the forces of global capitalism, international financial institutions, and geopolitical players who compete militarily in their struggle for global hegemony.” 

Mely Anthony-Caballero, in her edited book Political Change, Democratic Transition, and Security in Southeast Asia, echoed the same disappointment over the failure of democratic consolidation in Southeast Asia after the euphoria of the first wave of democratization in the 1980s that began in the Philippines.  Several country case studies in Caballero’s book point towards the entrenchment of patronage politics, the lack of attitudinal requirements among the citizenry to embrace democratic ethos, and the preference for stability and material prosperity rather than the mess and the noise of rambunctious participatory politics. 

Thailand remains the foremost example for an authoritarian resurgence in this century, not once, but twice, when military coups in 2006 and 2014 effectively ended the legitimately-elected governments of Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra respectively.


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Surely, these gripes and grievances are not without merit, but the scenarios are not altogether grim. 

Civil society remains a vibrant pro-democracy force in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines, where civil society and public participation have been enshrined in their respective constitutions. A very active and robust human rights community in Cambodia undertakes a variety of rights-related campaigns, ranging from land grabs to anti-trafficking.  In Myanmar, 180 CSOs signed a petition o parliament to reject four proposed bills by a Buddhist organization called the Association for the protection of Race and Religion. Civil society activists view these bills as potentially “inciting hatred, discrimination, conflict and tension.”    

Malaysia’s Bersih (literally means clean) continues to be at the forefront of collective mobilization for a variety of social causes despite the Internal Security Act of 1960.  As Prime Minister Najib Razak fights for regime survival, the wide entanglement with CSOs in this particular instance is a display of Southeast Asia’s ability for political engagement, regardless of formal restrictions and limitations.

But the most striking feature of Southeast Asia’s transition is the decline of mass atrocities, what Alex Bellamy terms “the other Asian miracle.”  It is a region that, in the last four decades, has enjoyed a more “peaceful present,” leaving behind a violent past. Unlike the Iraq or Syria, there are no overt conflicts within and among nation states, nor are there border disputes that would pit nation states against each other.  Sovereignty claims are, by and large, respected even after the “invasion” of Sabah in 2013 by the forces of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, one of the claimants from the Sulu Sultanate in the southern Philippines to Sabah in Malaysia.    According to The Economist, the invasion, as amphibious assaults go, was “admittedly tame.”

The Greater Mekong Sub region, a predominantly economic sub-regional program encompassing five Southeast Asian countries, once the backyard of intense conflict and violence now hosts The East–West Corridor, a massive infrastructure program that consists of a road, railway, and energy network has established “connectivity” among the five countries and has stimulated trade among them.  The battlefields of the 1960s and 1970s has been transformed into a vibrant competitive marketplace, with formal and informal institutions to mediate and facilitate interregional relationships.

It is a truism today that the so-called “peace dividend” in Southeast Asia has converted past warriors into entrepreneurs and consumers, and where current generations engage in the competition for market share rather than the struggle for military supremacy and territorial conquest.

It is perhaps these features of the other Asian miracle that constitute the starkest contrast between Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

One primary lesson from this comparative study is that civil society is indispensable in building the necessary “political constituency for democracy.  New democracies are beleaguered by old regime forces.  Civil society participation is even more necessary during such period to prevent the forces of authoritarianism from subverting gains and preserve newly-opened hence fragile spaces of civic life.  Newly-installed democratic regimes, on the other hand, should be even more reliant on their partnership with civil society organizations during these precarious transition periods.

And then a second valuable lesson.  In the morning-after situation when the protest sites have been emptied, the activists need to heed the call of the “politics of the boardroom” where several hundred decision-makers rather than millions of street protesters undertake the tasks of creating, allocating, and distributing public goods and services.  These require joining the executive branch of the government particularly its messy tangle of bureaucratic offices and agencies.  Hold-overs from the old regime are bound to interact with the new appointees. 

The ability to seek common ground and to prevent bureaucracy from being held hostage by competing forces so that ordinary citizens can rely on continuous and uninterrupted services is a task that requires different leadership skills.  In addition, new entrants need to learn very quickly the mechanics of managing large organizations, steering them towards the accomplishment of concrete goals, and marshalling the human and other material resources to fulfil socio-economic objectives.

No matter the political or ideological colour, or one’s confessional affiliation, garbage needs to be collected, revenues raised, water and electricity services provided.  Former activists in Indonesia and the Philippines have joined and pursued long-term careers in governments.  They run and manage ministries and public commissions on national budgets, education, anti-poverty and human rights; they attend legislative hearings and negotiate with donors; they create committees to decide on projects; and they work with the media and academics to ensure that the message of government services reaches the public.  The same is happening in Myanmar today.  Joining government is not a straightforward process.  The path of transition is littered with uneasy compromises.

Professor Randy David at the University of the Philippines who was one of the original “people power warriors” in 1986, wrote an op-ed in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 28 August.   In Ulaanbaatar he exchanged views among fellow activists and intellectuals on democratic transitions.  He wrote of his own pessimism regarding the Philippines before he left for Ulaanbaatar.  But while there, in dialogue with fellow people power activists from Fiji, Nepal, Mongolia, and Myanmar, he wrote:

“The Ulaanbaatar forum left me with more questions than answers.  But I came away from the discussions feeling renewed and hopeful.  For once I understood what the sociologist Niklas Luhmann meant when he referred to democracy as “an evolutionary achievement of society.”  A nation must grow into democracy.   Unlike us Filipinos, the Mongolians who spent centuries defending their land against their powerful neighbours know only too well how long it will take them still to complete their own democratic transition.”

Thank you

Dr. Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. She is the author of The State and the Advocate:  Development Policy in Asia  and also just published Lost in Transition:  Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. James M. Dorsey.