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

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Saudi women gain access to stadiums: More questions than answers

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to attend sporting events in three of the country’s stadiums raises as many questions as it provide answers that go to the core of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms and the kingdom’s sports policy.

The announcement that women, long barred from stadia, would be granted access to stadiums in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam came weeks after the kingdom lifted a ban on women’s driving. The moves were designed to project Saudi Arabia in a favourable light at a time that it is seeking to attract badly needed foreign investment.

It was not immediately clear whether women would have access to any sporting event of their choice nor was it evident that the decision would affect wide-ranging restrictions on the encouragement of women’s sports.

Saudi Arabia has until recently rejected demands by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that women be granted the support and facilities to compete in all sports rather than only those disciplines mentioned in Qur’an such as equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery. Operating in a legal netherland, middle and upper class women have been able to expand into other sports such as soccer through private clubs and associations.

The partial lifting of the ban on women’s access to stadiums may also be related to concern within the IOC of greater government interference in Saudi sports, a sector that has always been tightly controlled by the state.

Saudi officials worried that the kingdom like Kuwait and Pakistan could be suspended after Turki Al Asheikh, the president of the General Sports Authority (GSA), replaced officials in virtually all Saudi sports associations with the exception of soccer, since his recent appointment. Soccer may have been excluded to ensure that Saudi Arabia’s qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was not jeopardized. The IOC suspended Kuwait and Pakistan because of alleged government interference.

Mr Asheikh’s appointees included Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, the first woman to head a mixed gender sports federation. Princess Reema, a successful entrepreneur and daughter of former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was last year appointed to a Cabinet-level position in sports governance.

The tighter Saudi grip on sports governance as well as the lifting of the bans on driving and stadium access fits the pattern of Prince Mohammed’s reforms that are focussed on economic diversification and rationalization coupled with necessary but limited social reforms and a crackdown on any form of dissent.

They also stroke with Prince Mohammed’s recent declaration that he would steer the kingdom away from the Wahhabi ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on which it was built and towards a more moderate form of the faith. The prince did not define what moderate meant and, despite his reducing the power of the religious police and allowing forms of entertainment like music, film and dance that were long banned, has yet to crackdown on religious hate speech, including against Shiites, and endorse religious pluriformity. Saudi Arabia remains a country in which non-Muslim worship is banned.

So far, Prince Mohammed’s moves fit a more general trend among autocrats who realize that their autocracies need to be upgraded to ensure survival. To achieve that goal, autocracies need to be able to deliver public goods, create jobs and economic opportunity and cater to a modicum of aspirations of largely young populations. Prince Mohammed’s reforms, laid out in a document entitled Vision 2030, were geared towards that goal.

Saudi Arabia’s need to shed its image as an inward looking ultra-conservative kingdom is fed not only by its foreign investment requirement but also by its dispute with Qatar, the world’s only other Wahhabi state, and its rivalry with Iran.

Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, has been able to project itself as a more forward-looking country, despite a five-month-old Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led boycott justified by allegations of Qatari support for militancy and political violence, because it does apply numerous restrictions associated with Wahhabism in the kingdom. As a result, in stark contrast to Saudi Arabia, Qatar boasts one of the world’s highest women’s participation in the work force.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have so far failed to garner international empathy for their refusal to enter into unconditional negotiations with Qatar. The two countries have insisted that Qatar accept a set of intrusive and humiliating demands that would curtail Qatari sovereignty before they engage in negotiations. Qatar has rejected the demands and proven so far capable of compensating for difficulties caused by the Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott.

Ironically, the partial Saudi lifting of the ban on women’s access to stadiums gives the kingdom a leg up in its rivalry with Iran, the only other country that does not allow women to attend men’s sporting events. Iran has so far successfully resisted pressure from international sports associations, but is likely to find that more difficult in the wake of the Saudi move.

Commenting on Prince Mohammed’s reforms, Amnesty International this week suggested five crucial elements that would give his plans credibility: an end to death penalties given that Saudi Arabia’s is one of the world’s top executioners; allowing freedom of expression; an end to discrimination of Shiites, halting discrimination of women including abolition of male guardianship, and stopping the killing of civilians in the Yemen war.

“The months since the Crown Prince’s appointment, have seen no improvements, instead, it’s already dire rights record has continued to deteriorate,” Amnesty said in a statement referring to Prince Mohammed’s promotion in June from deputy crown prince to crown prince.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Palestinian football chiefs hit out at FIFA over Israel decision (JMD quoted in Arab News)

Palestinian football chiefs hit out at FIFA over Israel decision

FIFA boss Gianni Infantino revealed the decision on Friday. (AP)
AMMAN: Palestinian sports officials have claimed they were deceived by FIFA and that the organization’s decision not to sanction Israel for having teams present in the Occupied West Bank was the result of a power struggle within the governing body.
On Friday FIFA revealed it would not reprimand Israel, instead de facto legitimizing Israeli action in the occupied territories.
Susan Shalabi, vice president of the Palestinian Football Association, told Arab News that FIFA’s decision to do nothing regarding the Palestinian complaint was “a violation of both Swiss law and international law.”
The five Israeli football clubs located in the occupied territories violate FIFA laws that stipulate clubs are not allowed to play in another country’s territory without the latter’s permission.
The UN informed FIFA that the Israeli clubs were located in occupied Palestinian territories — UN Security Council Resolution 2334, passed in December 2016, also reiterated that the settlements are illegal according to international law and all countries are forbidden from legitimizing them.
The FIFA decision came in response to three recommendations made by South Africa’s Tokyo Sexwale, the chairman of the Monitoring Committee set up by former FIFA president Sepp Blatter in May 2015 as a compromise in return for Palestine withdrawing its request to eject Israel from FIFA.
A FIFA source told Arab News that Palestinians are the victim of an internal power struggle within football’s governing body.
“Ever since the departure of Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s presidency has been weak and easily pressed from one continent to another,” the person said.
The source added that there are concerns that Sexwale is likely to receive a high position within a newly established FIFA New Projects development unit.
South African activists belonging to various civil society and faith-based organizations concerned with Palestine issued a call on Friday demanding that Sexwale resign from the international football governing body, accusing him of “delaying justice.”
“FIFA has delayed in taking action against the Israel Football Association and its violation of FIFA statutes. Instead of acting, FIFA has continuously delayed and Sexwale is part of this delaying process,” a statement by the National Coalition 4 Palestine said.
Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Federation, is holding a press conference today to respond to the FIFA decision and outline the legal steps that Palestine will consider. FIFA members have 21 days to initiate a complaint against any of the decisions by the FIFA council.
James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told Arab News that FIFA’s assertion that it is not going to take a political stand was pure fantasy.
“Whatever FIFA asserts, a decision in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was going to be political. Having said that, FIFA’s decision not to take a stand on clubs of Israeli settlements on occupied territory playing in Israeli leagues constituted a political decision by the organization not to apply its own rules,” he said.
Dorsey added: “It is those kinds of onerous decisions that undermine FIFA’s credibility as a governing body that adheres to good governance.”

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Crown Prince Mohammed’s vow to moderate Saudi Islam: Easier said than done

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent disavowal of the kingdom’s founding religious ideology had a master’s voice quality to it. His words could have literally come out of the mouth of his Emirati counterpart and mentor, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, but with one major difference: the UAE unlike the kingdom has no roots in ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

The absence of an overriding puritan religious history has made it easier for Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to campaign against Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and since the popular Arab revolts of 2011 suppress any expression of political Islam.

To that end, Prince Mohammed attempted with little evident success to counter the Qatar-backed  International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) headed by Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s foremost living scholars who is widely viewed as a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, with the creation of groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

Despite this week’s verbal assault on Wahhabism, Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have cringed when Prince Mohammed bin Zayed scored what likely was his greatest success: the exclusion of Wahhabism, the Saudi strand of ultra-conservatism, developed by Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, an 18th century preacher with whom Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s forefather forged a power-sharing agreement that has constituted the basis of Saudi national ambitions ever since, from a definition of Sunni Islam by prominent Islamic scholars.

The frontal assault on Wahhabism as well as other Saudi-inspired interpretations of Islam, such as Salafism and Deobandism, came in a statement last year by a UAE-funded conference in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Participants included 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; Mr. 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 Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

While the Grozny statement constituted a milestone, it will take more than statements for the Saudi and UAE princes to succeed in their endeavour. Like many of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s announcements, his vow to return Saudi Arabia to “moderate Islam” was long on expressions of intent and short on details that would put flesh on the skeleton.

To be sure, since emerging almost three years ago as Saudi Arabia’s strongman, Prince Mohammed has taken several steps to roll back the influence of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment and relax its strict moral codes. The steps, including reducing the power of the religious police, lifting the ban on women’s driving, and allowing forms of entertainment like music, film and dance that were long banned, seem, however more designed to upgrade rather than abolish autocracy and enable badly needed economic reform and diversification.

Recent arrests of some of Saudi Arabia’s most popular Islamic scholars as well as human rights activists, judges and intellectuals, whose views run the gamut from ultra-conservative to liberal, coupled with Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s campaign suggest that Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s definition of “moderate Islam” is one that is primarily apolitical, quietist and adheres to a religious school of thought that teaches unconditional obedience to the ruler.

Moreover, changing deeply engrained attitudes that have been embedded in the kingdom’s education and social system since it was founded in the first half of the 20th century and shaped pre-state life will take time. While Saudi Arabia has in recent years taken steps to alter its school curriculum and remove bigoted and violent content from textbooks, it still has a long way to go, according to a 2013 study by a US State Department contractor, the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.

The study, disclosed by The New York Times, reported among multiple questionable textbook references that seventh graders were being taught that “fighting the infidels to elevate the words of Allah” was among the deeds Allah loved the most. Tenth graders learned that Muslims who abandoned Islam should be jailed for three days and, if they did not change their minds, “killed for walking away from their true religion.” Fourth graders read that non-Muslims had been “shown the truth but abandoned it, like the Jews,” or had replaced truth with “ignorance and delusion, like the Christians.”

Some of the books, prepared and distributed by the government, propagated views that were hostile to science, modernity and women’s rights. The books advocated execution for sorcerers and warned against the dangers of networking groups focussed on humanitarian issues like Rotary Club and the Lions Club that allegedly had been created “to achieve the goals of the Zionist movement.”

Even if all the questionable references were removed, changing those attitudes could be a generational task. While Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s proposed reforms have largely been welcomed by Saudi youth, who constitute a majority of the kingdom’s population, they are likely to stir mixed responses as a result of deep-seated attitudes that have been cultivated for decades.

An unpublished survey of aspirations of 100 male Saudi 20-year olds indicated the problems Prince Mohammed is likely to encounter beyond opposition from ultra-conservatives to moderating the kingdom’s adopted interpretation of Islam. The men “wanted social change but they pull back when they realize this has consequences for their sisters. Their analytical ability and critical thinking is limited,” said Abdul Al Lily, a Saudi scholar who conducted the survey and authored a book on rules that govern Saudi culture

Some 50 percent of those surveyed said they wanted to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed gender parties, dress freely, and be able to drive fast cars, Mr. Al Lily said. He said issues of political violence, racism, international interests or the dragged out Saudi war in neighbouring Yemen did not figure in their answers.

However, Mr. Al Lily’s interviewees bolted when confronted with the notion that liberties they wanted would also apply to their womenfolk. “People ended up not doing anything when confronted with the idea that someone might want to go on a date with their sister. They pulled back when they realized the consequences,” Mr. Al Lily said.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia Is Open for Business, but Not Everybody’s Buying (JMD quoted in NYT)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — On a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur who created the Virgin Group, was so inspired by the blue waters along the Red Sea coast that he stripped down to his swimsuit before his helicopter even landed.
Since then, he has become one of the Saudi government’s biggest international business allies as it seeks to start three new megaprojects aimed at diversifying its oil-dependent economy.
The projects are staggering in their ambition, if short on details. One is a business hub run on sustainable energy and staffed by robots. Another is an entertainment city near the capital, Riyadh. Mr. Branson is considering building inside one of those and is consulting on the third, an eco-tourism complex on islands in the Red Sea.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy historically known for its oil and its hyperconservative version of Islam, which requires women to wear full-length robes in public and gives them fewer legal rights than men. That the kingdom is betting its future on solar power, high tech and entertainment — realms in which it has virtually no background — is a sign of how determined the leadership is to modernize.
But serious questions remain about its ability to execute such complex plans, which rely heavily on international interest and money. Investors could balk at putting substantial capital into an often opaque system at a time of such major economic and social change, including granting women the right to drive.
“My reading is that major investors are teased by what is happening in Saudi but are not yet convinced that they want to put their money where their mouth is,” said James M. Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “There is a lot of potential here. How realistic that potential is remains to be seen.”
The three megaprojects are the brainchildren of the 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has proposed sweeping reforms aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil and opening up Saudi society.
This week, he welcomed more than 3,500 international investors, bankers and corporate chieftains at a luxurious conference in Riyadh to entice them to invest in the kingdom. In recent years, the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, the government investing arm that hosted the conference, has put tens of billions into ventures with SoftBank, Blackstone and a Russian government fund, as well as Uber.
While some of those beneficiaries are now giving back, others have yet to make concrete investment commitments to the kingdom. And some could merely be seeking to sell goods and services to Saudi Arabia, making profits regardless of how the projects ultimately turn out.
Potential investors viewing some of the proposals that are part of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious effort to remake its economy. Credit Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times
“This is a place for dreamers that want to create something new in the world,” Prince Mohammed said on Tuesday while unveiling the proposed business and technology hub, NEOM. “We’ll have a lot of partners inside of this room and outside of this room working with us to embody this idea.”
Among the project’s goals is encouraging Saudis to spend more money at home, keeping it in the local economy and creating jobs. But the developments will require large government spending and extensive construction, neither of which will quickly increase the state’s non-oil revenue nor create jobs that young Saudis are likely to take.
“If they had the luxury of waiting for 15 or 20 years until this project generated Saudi jobs, then fine,” said Steffen Hertog, an associate professor at the London School of Economics and the author of a book on the Saudi bureaucracy. But NEOM, he said, “is a speculative project, and by itself it is not going to help with the problems they are going to have in the next five to 10 years.”
Saudi Arabia’s record on megaprojects has been mixed. It has succeeded in creating special zones that fostered heavy industry. But other plans, like a network of “economic cities” and a financial district in Riyadh, have fallen far short of their objectives.
Some say the difference this time is that Prince Mohammed, who has centralized state power under him, will push projects forward.
An investment conference in Saudi Arabia this week was held to announce that the kingdom is open for business. Credit Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times
“What you’re experiencing is something that I believe is not the regular way,” said Stephen Schwarzman, a longtime visitor to Saudi Arabia and the chief executive of the private-equity firm Blackstone. “It’s a byproduct of substantial change in the direction of the country.”
This week his firm completed a $20 billion Saudi government investment in its planned United States infrastructure fund. He declined to comment on whether Blackstone would invest in the megaprojects.
Prince Mohammed’s unveiling of NEOM, the high-tech business hub, was the conference’s headline event. To be built on a barren parcel of land along the Gulf of Aqaba, it is depicted as an eventual haven for sophisticated white collar jobs in biotech, alternative energy and digital services. To help draw labor and capital, it will be exempted from Saudi regulations and very likely offer visa-free travel and other incentives.
Over time, its service economy will be staffed by robots, according to promotional materials. To signal the new direction, a robot named Sophia was given Saudi citizenship on Wednesday.
The project will be overseen by Klaus Kleinfeld, a German-born executive who ran the industrial conglomerate Siemens and the aluminum company Alcoa.
Guests arriving at the convention center on the grounds of the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh to attend an investment conference. Credit Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times
In 2012, under his direction, Alcoa opened a smelter on Saudi’s eastern coast that was hailed as a model of low-cost manufacturing. Four years later, Alcoa’s mining and smelting business was spun off, leaving Mr. Kleinfeld in charge of its parts business, Arconic.
Mr. Kleinfeld was ousted from that job this year after making veiled threats to an activist investor who was pressing for changes to the company. After that, he slipped largely out of public sight before resurfacing at the Riyadh conference.
Even in its inception, NEOM has involved a number of two-way investments. SoftBank, the Japanese tech giant, recently opened an investment vehicle, the SoftBank Vision Fund, with a $45 billion contribution from Saudi Arabia. The fund is considering buying a stake in the Saudi Electricity Company, and this past week announced plans to help the utility develop solar energy next year.
Mr. Branson’s space companies will receive at least $1 billion from Saudi Arabia. He, in turn, is contemplating building “one or two” hotels in the new cities, he said during an interview in Riyadh.
And Kirill Dimitriev, the chief executive of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said Thursday that the fund would put “billions” into bringing sophisticated Russian companies into NEOM. His country received a $10 billion investment as well as its first monarchical visit from the kingdom, when King Salman, Prince Mohammed’s father, went to Moscow this month.
A proposed new business and economic hub in Saudi Arabia would run on sustainable energy and be staffed by robots. Credit Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times
“We are very impressed and amazed by the energy that we see in Saudi Arabia by him getting all of the right partners, and we know that many top technology companies are here, willing to invest in this project,” Mr. Dimitriev said.
If NEOM is imagined as Silicon Valley in the Middle East, Qiddiya, the entertainment city, could be its Walt Disney World. A conference exhibition showcasing Qiddiya featured a lion hologram as well as simulated racecar drives and roller coaster rides. Mr. Branson’s Virgin has created renderings of a possible space-tourism site, for which his Galactic space-travel unit would be a potential consultant. Six Flags said last year that it was contemplating construction of a theme park near Riyadh; its current thinking is unclear.
“Right now there’s a great deal of money that leaves the country and goes to different areas,” said Ariel Emanuel, a founder of the talent agency the Endeavor Company, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., which handles sports, television, fashion and other entertainment businesses. Six months ago, he met with Prince Mohammed in Jidda to discuss the kingdom’s vision for the new city.
“I think we could play a pretty important role kind of in bringing entertainment in many different forms,” said Mr. Emanuel. Hs company is also angling for an investment from the Saudi government fund. “We’re having conversations,” he said.
Mr. Branson’s quick dip happened near the site of the third project, The Red Sea, a location for luxury hotels and ecotourism. Mr. Branson, who owns and lives on Necker Island in the Caribbean, said he was astonished by the animal life during his visit to the Saudi islands, including manta rays and sea turtles laying eggs. He is on the project’s board and is contemplating investing there.
“One of the advantages I suppose you could say of Saudi being sort of not open — not open at all, really, since 1979 — has been that these pristine places have been preserved,” he said. “I want to help give my advice as to how to develop it so that in 50 years’ time, people can go and see it as virgin and beautiful.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 28, 2017, on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: As Saudis Open Up, Investors Tiptoe In. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Activists and Gulf crisis turn Qatar into potential model of social change

By James M. Dorsey

Potential Qatari moves to become the first Gulf state to effectively abolish the region’s onerous kafala or labour sponsorship system, denounced as a form of modern slavery, could produce a rare World Cup that leaves a true legacy of social and economic change.

In a rare kudo, Qatar’s fiercest labour critic, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), hailed a Qatari announcement that it was introducing far-reaching reforms as a “breakthrough.”

The ITUC and human rights groups have campaigned for labour reform and abolition of kafala since FIFA awarded Qatar the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup in December 2010. Despite activists’ frustration at the slow pace of change in Qatar since then, Qatar’s response to the criticism amounted to the sporting event creating a legacy of change even before it was held.

Qatar became the first autocratic Gulf state to engage with its critics rather than refusing to talk to them and barring them entry to the country – a standard practice in most of the Gulf countries. It also acknowledged early on that the kafala system that puts migrant workers at the mercy of their employers needed to be change.

The ITUC was quick to claim credit for a Qatari announcement this week promising far reaching reforms. The reforms that have yet to be enshrined in law would include safeguards preventing employers from unilaterally changing labour contracts, abolish exit visas, introduce a minimum wage, and relieve employers of controlling workers’ documents.

The ITUC and human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were crucial in pushing Qatar towards reforms that would put it in the lead of labour change in the Gulf. 

The timing of the promised reforms was however likely determined by Qatar’s need to fend off being penalized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as well as the almost five month-old Gulf crisis that pits the Gulf state against an alliance led by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The ILO had threatened to slap Qatar with one its harshest penalties if the Gulf state failed to credibly address criticism of its labour regime by the time the group meets in November. The announced reforms kill two birds with one stone. It no doubt will go to some length in satisfying the ILO while allowing Qatar to project itself internationally as a good international citizen at a time that the UAE-Saudi alliance have imposed a diplomatic and economic boycott in a bid to force it to adhere to their policies rather than chart an independent course.

In the first joint action since the feud erupted among the Gulf states, Qatar this week joined Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as well as the United States in imposing sanctions on several individuals and entities accused of supporting the Islamic State and al-Qaida in Yemen. By joining, Qatar ensured that it remained on the right side of US President Donald J. Trump and countered Gulf allegations that it supported militancy and political violence.

If implemented, the labour reforms would also weaken a covert UAE-Saudi campaign to persuade world soccer body FIFA to deprive Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights. Qatar’s detractors have used the labour issue in a pot is blaming the kettle campaign against the World Cup being held in the Gulf state. Dubai’s idiosyncratic police chief, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, went as far as saying that the UAE and Saudi Arabia would lift their boycott if Qatar surrendered its hosting rights – a demand that was rejected by Qatar out of hand.

The labour reforms would also serve to deflect allegations of wrong doing in the Qatari bid for the World Cup. Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the head of Paris St. Germain and CEO of beIN Media Group, the Al Jazeera television network's sports franchise, became the first Qatari official to be investigated for briberyof a FIFA official in Qatar's bid for the World Cup hosting rights. Mr. Al-Khelaifi was this week grilled by Swiss investigators for seven hours. He has denied any wrong doing.

Claiming Qatar’s announced reforms as a trade union victory, ITUC general secretary Sharon Burrow said that “the new guidance from Qatar signals the start of real reforms in Qatar which will bring to an end the use of modern slavery and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligations nation on workers’ rights. Following discussions in Doha there is a clear government commitment to normalise industrial protections for migrant workers.”

In contrast to the ITUC which was unequivocal in its praise of Qatar, human rights groups like Amnesty International extended a more cautious welcome to Qatar’s planned reforms.

An Amnesty International spokesperson suggested that it was too early to judge. “We are not able to assess the significance of these developments until we have seen the full details of the government’s commitments. However, today’s announcements have clear potential to have a positive impact on migrant workers’ lives, depending on how they’re implemented,” the spokesperson said.

Former Human Rights Watch Gulf expert Nicholas McGeehan noted that Qatar’s road towards labour reform has been littered with promises that were either partially kept or not fulfilled at all. “All we have today are promises, and promises have been broken before. I feel we need to put expressions of optimism on hold until we see full details, changes in the law where necessary, and a time frame for promised reforms to be implemented,” Mr. McGeehan said.

Against the backdrop of the Gulf crisis, Qatar has a vested interest in making good on its promises. Labour reform would project the state, despite being an autocracy, as a 21st century nation that embraces some degree of change not only for others in the greater Middle East, but also for itself. It potentially would position the 2022 World Cup as a rare mega-sporting event to have served as a catalyst of change. That would be a legacy that international sporting associations aspire to through major tournaments, but seldom achieve.

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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt’s football Ultras fight on in battle over stadiums (JMD quoted in New Arab)

Egypt’s football Ultras fight on in battle over stadiumsOpen in fullscreen

Egypt’s football Ultras fight on in battle over stadiums

Egyptian security forces have tightened an ongoing crackdown on football fans [Getty]
Date of publication: 25 October, 2017
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In-depth: After Egypt qualified for the 2018 World Cup, parliamentarians have called on President Sisi to allow 'Ultras' football fans to attend matches and release those imprisoned, reports Jo Schietti.


While Egypt is still in 
euphoria over its
qualification for the 
2018 World Cup, the
most dedicated football 
fans - Ultras – 
are facing an intensified 
crackdown from
Egyptian security forces in 
a long-fought
battle for access to stadiums.

After Egypt qualified for the 
World Cup in Russia, 
parliamentarians called on
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi 
to allow the Ultras to attend 
matches - and release
hundreds of them who are 
still languishing in prison. 

No presidential pardon has followed.

Barred from stadiums for the much of the past six years, Ultras have been bearing the brunt of a growing security crackdown on social movements in Egypt since the military coup against President
Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

"There is much resistance from the interior ministry and security forces
to the potential for stadiums to become venues for protests," said
James M Dorsey, senior fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of
International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

Ultras, well experienced at organising large numbers of people facing 
police lines, were in the backbone of Egypt's 2011 uprising that ended
the rule of dictator Hosni Mubarak. They went on to play a key role in
the student movement that drove anti-government protests in the
aftermath of Morsi's overthrow.

"Ultras fan groups have a history of clashes with security officers," 
explained Dorsey. "They are battle-hardened, anti-authoritarian fans 
claiming ownership of the stadium, willing to put up with a lot more
than other protest groups can."

Dalia Abdel Hameed's MA thesis focused on Ultras movements in
Egypt. "Who has the right to access stadiums is the central question,"
she told The New Arab. "The stadium is a very contested space, and
the police wants to control it."

The crowd ban, valid for domestic rather than international matches, continues 
- though authorities have occasionally been temporarily

lifting it to test the waters.
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It still unknown whether the ban will be fully lifted or not. Football games have often been a flashpoint for violence in Egypt. The infamous Port Said stadium massacre in 2012 saw left 74 fans dead after a match between al-Ahly and Masry clubs. Many allege security personnel were responsible.

The ban was re-imposed after that tragedy. In 2015, at least 20 fans were killed in a stampede outside Cairo's Air Defense Stadium, caused by the police's mishandling of the situation as supporters tried to push their way into the venue.

The clash came ahead of a game between Zamalek and ENPPI teams. It was one of
the first premier league games open to the public since the ban on fans following Port
Said. The government reinstated the ban afterwards.

Last month, two people were sentenced to life in prison and 12 others
were jailed forbetween two and ten years for their part in the deadly stadium 
stampede in Cairo.
Tarek Awady, the attorney who represents Zamalek's Ultras White
Knights (UWK), noted that the prosecutor-general blamed both the
Muslim Brotherhood - outlawed as a "terrorist group" in 2013 - and
the UWK for the tragedy, claiming the group instigated the violence
as a way to "spread chaos".
It was a way to exempt the police from all responsibility, the lawyer added. 

"Since 2013, the state has been targeting all kinds of assemblies, especially
youth gatherings, as authorities want to avoid another 25 January revolution," 
Awady said. "Local media would typically defame such fan groups, with the 
police capturing fans."
Abdel Hameed, the gender and women's rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative 
for Personal Rights (EIPR), described how Ultras were organised until the 
2011 revolution.

Divided according to urban neighbourhoods, or "sections", Ultras used
to gather and hang out in cafes, spray graffiti, writing and 
recording their own songs and singing them in marches and on
stadium bleachers.

"Capos" (or bosses) were always standing on the stadium's amplifiers,
with their backs to the playing field, facing the fans, giving them
constant instructions and leading the chants, said Hameed. A smaller
inner group, the "secret group", was responsible for making decisions,
and updating the section with news related to the whole group of Ultras.
Over the past few months, the Egyptian security apparatus has
heightened its ongoing crackdown on Ultras UWK and Al-Ahly.

In September, security forces arrested 150 Al-Ahly fans (Ultras Ahlawy)
at the Borg al-Arab stadium in Alexandria. This was the most recent in
a string of arrests targeting members of Egypt's football fan associations.

Fans were arrested for wearing shirts bearing the number 74, a
reference in remembrance of those killed during the 2012 Port Said violence.

Similar arrests of fans were made in July - also during matches at Borg
al-Arab stadium, where most Egyptian teams play in Africa-wide competitions.
The state fears the ways in which Ultras organise; it is
trying to contain or diminish whatever is left of these groups.
They are still the second strongest organisation after the Muslim Brotherhood
Although local football games have not been attended by fans since the Port Said 
massacre and further violence at Cairo's Air Defense Stadium, the Confederation of 
African Football has put pressure on the Egyptian Football Association to allow them to 
attend games in the African Cup of Nations - which has led to increasing tensions and 
arrests in the past couple of years.
Special coverage: Police State Egypt

"This escalation is part of the larger oppressive climate in today's Egypt, where there is zero tolerance of any type of organisation, and anyone can be targeted," said Hameed, the EIPR researcher. She hinted at the hundreds of fans still behind bars and several others referred to military courts.

In May 2015, a Cairo court banned all Ultras groups in Egypt - and their activities - and ordered security officials to seize their meeting locations and funds. The trouble is, Ultras have neither - since they do not belong to a formal organisation.

Awady, who has followed most Ultras-related legal cases, denied that the Ultras groups 
were categorised as "terrorist organisations" as Egyptian and foreign media reported. 
He called the court a decision a "political sentence".

While Ultras have often insisted they have nothing to do with politics, they are essentially 
political by nature given the challenge they pose to authority, and their fight for ownership 
of the stadium as a public space. That's before considering their well-known involvement 
in Egypt's unrest in 2011.

That said, Egyptian Ultras groups withdrew from the political scene after they realised that 
their engagement in the revolution had altered the collective identity of the groups, argued 
Mohamed Elgohari, assistant director of the Atlantic Council's Hariri Center for the Middle 

Based on his findings, the revolution, with the involvement of many Ultras members, and 
the killings in Port Said, exposed the groups to political activism which affected the 
cohesiveness of their internal organisation - which had been centred on love and loyalty 
to the club.

This later led Ultras groups to focus on challenging the ban on allowing fans into stadiums.

With much negative rhetoric from the state and government-run media, Ultras are today 
largely perceived to be hardliners, confrontational - thus spoiling the image of Egypt's 
football, which is now relegated to a middle-class "non-threatening" audience.

After 2011 and the two tragic stadium events of 2012 and 2015, alongside the toppling of 
Morsi in 2013, football fans are still trying to continue their struggle despite the repressive 
state machine.

Besides demanding to attend matches to cheer on their teams, they hold commemorative 
events to mourn those fans who have died in football riots, and to remember those 

"The state fears the ways in which Ultras organise; it is trying to contain or diminish 
whatever is left of these groups," Abdel Hameed pointed out. "They are still the second 
strongest organisation after the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It is fascinating that the more oppressive the regime gets, the more fearful it turns too."

According to Dorsey, also author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, in a 
country where "football evokes the same deep-seated emotions that religion does" young 
crowds in Egypt with little future prospect have no other options to vent social and 
economic pressures.

This year, Ultras groups appear to be reclaiming public space in the stands.

"Ultras have been around for over ten years. They are still organised and present," the 
UWK's lawyer said.

But whether the high spirits over Egypt's qualification for the World Cup could shape the 
atmosphere around the country's football clubs, and have an effect on bringing back fans 
to the stands remains doubtful amid such post-revolutionary tension with Egyptian