Richard Whittall:

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"

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


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

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

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


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Trump’s chaos produces results: Gulf states upgrade ties to Israel

New York Times advertisement

By James M. Dorsey

A cornerstone of the Trump administration’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian peace, involving a restructuring of relations between erstwhile Middle Eastern foes appears to be taking shape: Gulf states are making long-standing covert ties to the Jewish state overt without establishing formal diplomatic relations. In the process, the Palestinians are being pressured to fall into line.

The willingness of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to be more open about their long-standing relations with Israel reflects their growing common interest with the Jewish state in countering Iran and groups that they include in their sweeping definitions of terrorism; countering mounting criticism of their tarnished human rights records by forging closer ties to Jewish leaders in the United States; and supporting US President Donald J. Trump.

The moves boost Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who has talked for months about ‘breakthroughs’ in Israel-Arab relations and recently asserted that cooperation “is much larger than any other period in Israel’s history”.

In the clearest sign to date, of an upgrading of ties between the three Gulf states and Israel, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa authorized Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles who delivered a benediction at Mr. Trump’s inauguration, to announce a series of gestures towards Israel at a ceremony at the centre’s Museum of Tolerance.

The Bahrain-funded ceremony was attended by the king’s son, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, who as commander of Bahrain's Royal Guard and president of the country’s National Olympic Committee has been accused of abusing the human rights of opponents of the government as well as athletes and sports executives who in 2011 participated in peaceful anti-government protests. Bahrain blames the protest on Iran and views Shiite opponents as Iranian stooges.

The centre released at the event a Bahrain Declaration on Religious Tolerance authored by King Hamad, the first of its kind by an Arab head of state. Prince Nasser and Mr. Hier signed the declaration at the ceremony.

To be fair, Bahrain’s minority Sunni Muslim government, while brutally cracking down on Shiites, who constitute a majority of the population and have been demanding equal rights and an end to discrimination, has long had a record of religious tolerance towards non-Muslims.

The country has Jewish representatives in parliament and at one point had an ambassador to the United States who was both female and Jewish. Nancy Khedouri, a Jewish MP, attended a recent gathering of the World Jewish Congress where she publicly met Israeli Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz.

Gulf states hope that they can benefit from the Jewish community’s influence in the United States. Their approaches come, however, at a time that the community is split in its attitude towards Mr. Trump.

Jewish religious leaders this year backed away from organizing a conference call with the president to mark the Jewish high holidays in protest against Mr. Trump’s refusal to identify neo-Nazi’s as responsible for a the killing of a woman in Charlottesville during a white supremacist march in which anti-Semitic slogans were raised.

Mr. Heir told the ceremony that he and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the centre’s associate dean, had been authorized to make public a series of statements made to them by King Hamad during a meeting in February. In those statements, the king denounced the long-standing Arab boycott of Israel and announced his intention to build by the end of this year a museum of tolerance of his own.

Bahraini officials reportedly recently discussed with Israel the institutionalization of mutual visits, allowing Bahraini nationals to freely travel to Israel, and opportunities for trade between their two countries. Gulf states legally ban their citizens from visiting the Jewish state.

Saudi and UAE troops helped the Bahrain government crush the 2011 popular revolt. Bahrain has since hued close to Saudi policy and would not have made its gestures towards Israel without Saudi approval.

The Bahraini overtures came a month after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson castigated Bahrain for discriminating against Shiites. “Members of the Shia community there continue to report ongoing discrimination in government employment, education, and the justice system. Bahrain must stop discriminating against the Shia communities,” Mr. Tillerson said.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also in the firing line because of the brutal conduct of their 2.5-year-old ill-fated invasion of Yemen as well as iron-fisted domestic abuse of human rights.
Weeks before Bahrain’s public moves, Israeli media reported that a member of a Gulf ruling family, believed to be a Saudi prince, had secretly visited Israel in a bid to kickstart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza, said last week it was willing to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about joint rule of the strip and move towards long overdue elections. Debilitating rifts among the Palestinians have complicated failed peace talks.

Hamas’ willingness to bury its hatchet with ailing Mr. Abbas’s Fatah movement came as a result of a pincer movement in which the Palestinian leader sought to strangle Gaza economically while the UAE worked to engineer the return to Palestine of its protégé, Mohammed Dahlan, a controversial Abu Dhabi-based former security chief with presidential ambitions.

The UAE effort, coupled with Gulf gestures towards Israel, stroke with the Trump administration’s efforts to create an environment conducive to Israeli-Palestinian peace by first strengthening informal ties between the Jewish state and key Arab nations. The administration has been pushing for more open relations on issues like trade as well as more open contact built on a common front against Iran and militant Islam.

The UAE in effect initiated the process when in 2015 it allowed Israel to open its first diplomatic mission in the Gulf.

Gulf states have offered to establish relations with Israel if it were to accept a 1982 Arab-endorsed Saudi plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace that called for an Israeli withdrawal from territory occupied during the 1967 Middle East war and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. As a result, Israel’s mission is accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi rather than the UAE government but serves as an unofficial embassy to the Gulf.

The ink on Bahrain’s declaration of religious freedom had barely dried by the time that the gestures towards Israel became mired in the 3.5-month-old Gulf crisis that pits Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Jewish leaders targeted by the three countries condemned efforts by Qatar emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to meet with the Jewish community during his visit to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Sheikh Tamim hired a Jewish PR firm to organize meetings.

Reflecting the divisions among American Jewry, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach organized a full-page ad in The New York Times to denounce Jews willing to meet with the Qatari leader. “It is a shameful episode for our community when those who fund the murder of Jews in Israel are being embraced by Jews in the United States,” the ad said, referring to Qatari relations with Hamas that have been endorsed by the United States.


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 book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Signs of hope in the Middle East? Don’t hold your breath


By James M. Dorsey

Optimists see hopeful signs that the Middle East may be exiting from a dark tunnel of violence, civil war, sectarian strife, and debilitating regional rivalries.

The Islamic State (IS) is on the cusp of territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia may be groping for an exit from its devastating military intervention in Yemen. Gulf states are embarking on economic and social reform aimed at preparing for the end of oil.

Haltingly, Gulf states may be forced to find a face-saving solution to their more than three-month-old crisis that has pitted a UAE-Saudi led alliance against Qatar and there may even be an effort to dial down tension between the kingdom and Iran.

Hamas, the Islamist faction that controls Gaza said it was willing to negotiate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas about joint rule of the strip and move towards long overdue elections.

At first glance, reasons for optimism. But don’t hold your breath. Optimists base their hopes on shifting sands and tentative suggestions that protagonists may be looking for ways out of the malaise.

Yet, none of the indicators involve actions that would tackle root causes of the Middle East multiple conflicts and problems. In fact, some of the solutions tossed around amount to little more than window dressing, while others set the stage for a next phase of conflict and strife.

Talks between the feuding Palestinian factions have repeatedly failed. It was not clear whether Hamas would be ready as part of a deal to put its armed wing under Mr. Abbas’s control – a key demand of the Palestinian president that the Islamists have so far rejected. It also remains to be seen how Israel would respond. Israel together with the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sees Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Beyond Palestine, the contours of future conflict are already discernible. If Myanmar’s Rohingya are the 21st century’s rallying cry of the Muslim world, the Kurds could be one of its major fault lines.

Disputes over territory, power and resources between and among Sunni Muslims, Shiites and Kurds that fuelled the rise of IS in Iraq are resurfacing with its demise. In a twist of irony, a recent poll showed Sunnis were for the first time more positive about Iraq’s future than the country’s majority Shiites.

Reconstruction of Sunni cities in the north destroyed by the fight against IS is key to maintaining a semblance of Iraqi unity. With no signs of massive reconstruction gaining momentum, old wounds that have driven insurgencies for more than a decade could reignite IS in new forms. “All the writing is on the wall that there will be another ISIS,” said former Iraqi foreign minister and Kurdish politician Hoshyar Zebari, referring to the group by another of its acronyms.

The initial flash in the pan threatens to be the fact that Iraqi Kurds are certain to vote for independence in a unilateral referendum scheduled for September 25. If the independence issue did not provide enough explosives in and of itself, the Kurds’ insistence on including in the referendum the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk and adjacent areas further fuelled the fire.

The referendum and the dispute over Kirkuk reopen the question of what Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders are even if the Kurds opt not to act immediately on a vote for independence and to remain part of an Iraqi federation for the time being.

The issue could blow a further hole into Iraq’s already fragile existence as a united nation state. Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has denounced the referendum. His efforts to persuade the Iraqi parliament to fire Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim for backing the poll as well as for calls for parliament to withdraw confidence in Iraqi President Fuad Masum and sack ministers and other senior officials of 

Kurdish descent could push the Kurds over the edge.
Iraqi military officials as well as the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are aligned with the military have vowed to prevent the referendum from being held in Kirkuk. “Kirkuk belongs to Iraq. We would by no means give up on Kirkuk even if this were to cause major bloodshed," said Ayoub Faleh aka Abu Azrael, the commander of Imam Ali Division, an Iran-backed Iraqi Shiite militia.

A possible fight may not be contained to Kirkuk. Kurdish and Iraqi government forces vie for control of areas from which IS has been driven out stretch westwards along the length of northern Iraq. Mr. Al-Abadi warned that he would intervene militarily if the referendum, which he described as unconstitutional, provoked violence.

Add to that, the ganging up on the Kurds by Iran, Turkey and the United States. The US backs the Iraqi government even if it put Kurdistan on course towards independence when it allowed the autonomous enclave to emerge under a protective no-fly zone that kept the forces of Saddam Hussein at bay. Breaking with the US and its Arab allies, Israel has endorsed Kurdish independence.

Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Iranian Al Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani have warned the Kurds on visits to Iraqi Kurdistan to back away from the referendum. Iran has threatened to close its borders with the region.

Describing the referendum as “a matter of national security,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that "no one should have doubt that we will take all the necessary steps in this matter.” Turkey fears that Kurdish independence would spur secessionist aspirations among its own Kurds, who account for up to 20 percent of its population and that an independent Kurdistan would harbour Turkish Kurdish insurgents already operating from the region.

Mr. Al-Abadi alluded to possible Turkish and/or Iranian military intervention to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdistan by suggesting that the referendum would be “a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders... The Turks are very angry about it because they have a large Kurdish population inside Turkey and they feel that their national security is threatened because it is a huge problem for them. And, of course, the Iranians are on the same line,” Mr. Al-Abadi said.

The Kurdish quest for some form of self-rule is likely to manifest itself in Syria too. The US backs a Syrian Kurdish militia aligned with Turkish Kurdish militants in its fight against IS. The militia that prides itself on its women fighters is among the forces besieging the IS capital of Raqqa.

The Kurds are hoping that an end to the war in Syria will leave them with an Iraq-style autonomous region on the Turkish border – an aspiration that Turkey, like in Iraq, vehemently opposes. The target of strikes by the Turkish air force, the Kurds hope to benefit from the force’s shortage of pilots because of mass purges in the wake of last year’s failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The air force last month ordered all former fighter pilots flying for Turkish airlines to report for service.

The Kurds may provide the first flashpoint for another round of volatility and violence, but they are not the only ones. Nor are sectarian and other ethnic divisions that are likely to wrack Iraq and Syria once the current round of fighting subsides.  

Eager to find a face-saving exit from its ill-fated invasion of Yemen that has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss, Saudi Arabia is will have to cope with a populous country on its border, many of whose citizens harbour deep-seated anger at the devastation and human suffering caused by the Saudis that will take years to reverse.

Similarly, the three-month-old rift between Qatar and an alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is likely to leave deep-seated scars that will hamper integration among the six Gulf states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Middle East’s only functioning regional organization prior to the crisis. A failure of talks between Qatar and its detractors, mediated by US President Donald J. Trump, even before they got started, suggested that a resolution to the crisis is nowhere in sight.

Coping with the fallout of the crisis and the Yemen war, simply adds to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s woes as he prepares to at some point succeed his ailing father, King Salman. Prince Mohammed, who is popular among the country’s youth in expectation of economic and social change, has already had to backtrack on some of the promised change. Foreign lenders have moreover indicated a lack of confidence as they head for the exit rather than explore new opportunities.

In addition, Prince Mohammed has signalled concern about opposition to his proposed reforms within the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family, determination to avoid political change, and willingness to rule with an iron fist. Prominent religious scholars with significant followings and activists have been arrested in recent weeks while dissenting members of the ruling family have been put under house arrest.

The optimistic view may be that the Middle East is six years into an era of political, economic and social change. If historic yardsticks are applicable, that amounts to one third of a process of transition that can take up to quarter of a century to work itself out. There is little reason to believe that the next third will be any less volatile or violent.


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 book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Friday, September 15, 2017

Saudi Crackdown on Dissent Wins Backing From Religious Body (JMD quoted on Bloomberg)

Saudi Crackdown on 
Dissent Wins Backing
From Religious Body
By 
Glen Carey
 and 
Vivian Nereim
September 14, 2017, 1:21 AM GMT+8 September 14, 2017, 7:41 PM GMT+8
·        Neutralized Saudis working for ‘foreign’ powers: government
·        Papers accuse those arrested of supporting Muslim Brotherhood


Saudi authorities have launched the most severe crackdown on 
dissent in years, arresting prominent clerics and activists amid 
growing speculation that King Salman will abdicate in favor of his 
powerful son.

Given the absolute powers enjoyed by Saudi rulers, any
succession is sensitive. But that would especially be the case
now with the 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman 
promoting unprecedented economic change, at the same time
as pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy that includes the
war in Yemen and the four-nation boycott of Gulf neighbour
Qatar.

Some of the people detained had ties to the brand of political
Islam that Saudi rulers have long opposed. The country’s top 
religious body and media publicly supported the arrests of
those who have criticized the monarchy in the past, after the 
government announced it had neutralized a threat from Saudis 
working for “foreign powers.”

In a statement posted on Twitter on Wednesday, the Council
of Senior Scholars declared there was “no place for political
or ideological parties” in a nation “based on the book of God
and the guidance of his messenger.” Newspapers accused
those arrested of being aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood,
an Islamist organization that several Gulf monarchies have 
designated as a terrorist group.

Among those detained by Saudi authorities are clerics
Salman Al-Oudah and Awad al-Qarni -- who are both
independent of the official religious establishment -- 
as well as a well-known poet, Ziad bin Nahit, Islamic studies
professor Mustafa Al Al Hassan and businessman Essam Al
Zamil, according to Twitter posts and and interviews with
activists, relatives and friends.

‘Foreign Powers’

Bloomberg was unable to independently verify their detention. 
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi commentator and former
government adviser, said on Twitter that Saudi citizens aren’t
yet fully aware of the prevailing “atmosphere of detention and 
intimidation.”

The crackdown comes as some of Prince Mohammed’s policies
Face setbacks. Saudi Arabia is preparing contingency plans for a 
possible delay  to the initial public offering of its state-owned
oil company – his signature economic aim -- by a few months
into 2019, according to people familiar with the matter. The
Saudi-led military alliance has failed to defeat Iranian-backed
Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen more than two years into the
conflict; Qatar has claimed an attack on its sovereignty and
moved closer to chief Saudi foe Iran.

After news of the arrests surfaced, the State Security
Presidency said it had “neutralized and arrested” Saudis
working for “the benefit of foreign powers” against the
security of the kingdom. It didn’t identify who had been held.
The government’s Center for International Communications
and the Saudi Human Rights Commission didn’t immediately
respond to requests for comment.

‘More Risky’

A sweep of this scale would represent a significant rounding
up of conservative scholars and activists likely to be resistant
to some of the changes featured in the Saudi reform push,
according to analysts.

“It’s hard not to call it a crackdown,” said James Dorsey, a  
senior fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at
Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, adding he
didn’t want to speculate on the timing of the move. Existing
Saudi restrictions on expressing criticismalready make
“pushing through economic and social reforms that are
likely to spark debate -- if not opposition -- more risky,” he
said. Saudi authorities have denied King Salman is about to
step down but that hasn’t stopped the speculation. New
York-based Eurasia Group  wrote in a report last week that
the Royal Court was planning for Prince Mohammed’s
ascension.

At least two of those detained expressed hope for a solution
to the more than three month Gulf standoff with Qatar,
which Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse of supporting of
terrorism and sustaining links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Al
Zamil has in the past posted comments on Twitter that were
critical of elements of the government’s reform plan, which is 
designed to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil.

Subsidy Cuts

More importantly for many Saudis, authorities have cut energy
and utility subsidies and want citizens to seek employment opportunities 
in the private sector instead of relying on government jobs. Al-Oudah, 
who has more than 14 million Twitter followers, was jailed in the 1990s 
for advocating the Islamic militancy espoused by al-Qaeda.

After he was released from prison, the religious scholar
didn’t publicly comment on political Islam, though in March
2013 he published a letter online saying rulers must take
steps to stamp out political and business corruption and
warned of risks when religious and political symbolslose
their value.

Saudi papers have joined in. Okaz and Al Watan accused
those detained of being supporters of the Muslim
Brotherhood and working for Qatari intelligence.  One of
the men arrested was “one of the most famous faces of the
Muslim Brotherhood” who played a “hidden role” in
preparing the youth "to lead  demonstrations and protests
in Gulf countries, especially in Saudi Arabia," Okaz said.

According to Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf
State Analytics in Washington  D.C., the crackdown could
be related to the problems the crown princes faces at home
and abroad.

There’s the war in Yemen and “the impasse with Qatar.
Domestically, there is resistance to his economic and social
agenda from different corners of society,” Karasik said.
Bad news will likely bring a reaction, he said by email, “and
there is a lot of bad news.”

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Rohingya plight feeds Muslim assertiveness

Source: Flickr

By James M. Dorsey

The plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority is becoming the Muslim world’s latest rallying call emulating the emotional appeal of the Palestinians in the second half of the 20th century.

Like the cause of the Palestinians, the Rohingya, albeit with a twist, have also become a battlefield for the Muslim world’s multiple rivalries and power struggles. Calls for military intervention on behalf of the Rohingya reflect efforts by competing Muslim states and non-state forces to be seen as defenders of a community under attack.

They also echo a greater assertiveness of Muslim states amid perceptions of waning US power and global shifts in the balance of power as well as a jihadist effort to reposition themselves in the wake of the demise of the Islamic State’s territorial base in Iraq and Syria.

To be sure, Muslim states are unlikely to marshal an expeditionary force capable of intervening in Myanmar. Nonetheless, calls for action signal thinking especially among bitter Middle Eastern rivals, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran, that favours Muslim states projecting independent military force.

That thinking is reinforced by concerns about expansion of jihadist groups beyond the Middle East into regions like Southeast Asia and worry that the militants will gain an upper hand in projecting themselves as the true defenders of the faith compared to Muslim governments who do little more than pay lip service and at best provide humanitarian relief.

Beyond Middle Eastern rivalries and competition with militants for hearts and minds, the plight of the Rohingya could complicate Pakistan’s rejection of US pressure to halt support for select extremist groups, put it at odds with China that has backed the Myanmar government, and potentially move Chinese suppression of its Uighur minority in the north-western province of Xinjiang into the Muslim firing line.

Iranian Deputy Parliament Speaker Ali Motahar  this week raised the bar by calling on the Muslim world to raise a Muslim expeditionary force to come to the rescue of the Rohingya. “Why aren’t we Muslims thinking about forming a NATO-like joint military force that can intervene in such situations? The crimes of the government of Myanmar will not be halted without using military force,” Mr. Motahar was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Mr. Motahar’s call took on added significance by not only taking the 57-member, Riyadh-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to task for not convening an emergency meeting to discuss the plight of the predominantly Sunni Muslim Rohingya, but also criticizing his own government to prevent the issue from becoming mired in the Muslim world’s sectarian divide.

“Unfortunately, we think more about the Shiites than Islam, which constitutes both Shiites and Sunnis. Turkey’s response was better than ours. It told Bangladesh to accept Muslims driven out from Myanmar and Turkey would pay for their stay in Bangladesh,” Mr. Motahar said. Iran unlike other Muslim nations has yet to offer the Rohingya humanitarian aid.

Yet, the deputy speaker’s remarks were at the same time a stab at Iran’s arch rival, Saudi Arabia, which cemented the trend towards greater Muslim military assertiveness with the creation two years ago of a 37-nation military alliance commanded by a Riyadh-based retired Pakistani general. The alliance failed in its initial aim of marshalling Muslim support for Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated intervention in Yemen.

Mr. Motahar’s remarks also sought to reinforce the perception that the alliance was more about bolstering Saudi Arabia in its rivalry with Iran than about confronting the scourge of political violence.

Mohsen Rezaee, the secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council and former chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards, sought to further put the Saudis on the spot by calling on Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq to establish an Army of the Prophet. Predominantly Sunni Muslim Turkey would provide the alliance its non-sectarian credentials.

The Iranian call has little chance of being taken up. Iran is already involved in multiple conflicts; Syria and Iraq are battling demons of their own, and Turkey is likely to restrict itself to being the Muslim world’s improbable moral voice and ensuring that Kurds in neighbouring states do not carve out an independent existence of their own.

The Iranian call, nonetheless, competes with that of various militant Islamist and jihadist groups that have called on fighters to come to the aid of their Rohingya counterparts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The militants could prove to be truer to their word.

The calls by both Iran and the militants have prompted Saudi Arabia to counter Tehran’s criticism and brandish its credentials as a leading defender of Muslim rights. The kingdom asserted that it is the one country that has long stood up for the Rohingya.

“The Kingdom has exerted all possible efforts to help Myanmar’s Muslims in this human tragedy. The Kingdom is all about action, and not words. Nobody can claim that they have exerted more efforts for the Rohingya people than the Kingdom has during the past 70 years, as history stands witness that the Kingdom was one of the first states that supported their case at the international level and in the UN Human Rights Council,” said Waleed Al-Khereiji, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Turkey.

So far, competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran seems when it comes to the Rohingya a battle between paper tigers. The two countries are each other’s match in rhetoric and lack of deeds.

As a result, accusations by Myanmar that Muslim countries are supporting Rohingya militants may be less targeted at Saudi Arabia and Iran and more at Turkey that has delivered aid to Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh and described the crackdown as a genocide, and Pakistan.

Myanmar press reports quoted Bangladesh and Indian intelligence as having intercepted two phone calls between Hafiz Tohar, a leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), a militant group that sparked the crackdown with attacks in late August on Myanmar security forces, and an alleged operative of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, as well as a third call with an alleged representative of the Islamic State (IS), who was calling from Iraq.

Providing excerpts of the calls, the reports suggested that the ARSA attacks were timed to follow a report by a group headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan that warned that Myanmar risked fuelling “extremism” if it did not lift restrictions on the freedom of movement and right to citizenship of its Rohingya minority.

There was no independent confirmation of the press reports nor was it immediately clear what interest Pakistan would have in destabilizing Myanmar and causing Bangladesh heartburn. Similarly, Pakistan has been a target of IS attacks and there was no obvious reason why its intelligence would coordinate with the jihadist group.

That is not to say that there are no links between the Rohingya militants and Pakistan as well as Saudi Arabia. ARSA leaders are believed to have roots in Saudi Arabia, to have been trained in Pakistan, and gained experience in Afghanistan. The group is moreover believed to be funded by unidentified wealthy donors in the kingdom. ARSA, nonetheless, insists that it has no ties to militants outside Rakhine state and that its aim is to protect the Rohingya rather than wage global jihad.

All of this suggests at best indirect links to Pakistani intelligence and does not explain why Pakistan would have been involved in the most recent events in Myanmar. It also does not prove any official Saudi backing of the group.

Allegations of a Pakistani link, nonetheless, come at a time that the United States has put Pakistani association with various militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, as well as proscribed proxies that it allegedly uses against India and in disputed Kashmir, high on its agenda.

It also comes at a time that China is discreetly debating its hands-off approach to Pakistani links to militancy. China has so far shielded Islamabad by vetoing UN Security Council designation as a terrorist of Masood Azhar, the fugitive leader of an anti-Indian group. China has also defended Pakistan against US criticism.

The Rohingya could swing the pendle in the Chinese debate. China, like India, has invested in Myanmar infrastructure. The last thing China wants is to be on the receiving end of inflamed Muslim public opinion that embraces the plight of the Rohingya and targets supporters of the government. That is even truer given China’s Achilles heel: brutal suppression of basic rights of the Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim group in Xinjiang.

China’s massive energy imports and huge infrastructure investments in the Muslim world as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative have so spared it criticism of its crackdown in Xinjiang that targets the Uighur’s religious identity. That could change if the plight of the Rohingya becomes the Muslim world’s new rallying cry.


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 book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.