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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mixing politics and sports: Turkish soccer campaigns for President Erdogan


By James M. Dorsey

Turkish soccer executives campaigned this month for major constitutional change that would grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan far reaching executive powers. The Turkish Football Federation’s (TFF) backing of Mr. Erdogan’s effort to accumulate more power put to bed any notion of a separation between politics and soccer. So did the failure of world soccer body FIFA and UEFA, its European affiliate, to condemn the TFF’s violation of a cardinal principle of international sports governance.

Speaking at a TFF conference, Mr. Erdogan punctured the fiction upheld by sports officials and politicians of a Chinese Wall that separates sports and politics. “I believe politics and football share many common aspects at the core. Just like sports, the essence of politics is competition, race... Just as a team, playing without any plan, tactic or strategy, have zero chance of winning the cup, politicians, political parties that have nothing to tell the people have no chance of success. Just like football, politics cannot be done without passion, love and dedication. You have to dedicate yourself,” Mr. Erdogan said.

If Mr. Erdogan set the ball up, TFF president Yildirim Demiroren, a businessman who built his fortune in liquid gas distribution, sealed the goal by campaigning for a vote in favour of enhancing the president’s power in a referendum scheduled for April 16. . Speaking at the same conference, Mr. Demiroren expressed the hope that Turkey would wake up on the morning of April 17 to discover that a majority of Turks had voted yes.

Turkish soccer’s partisan alignment with politics with no sanctioning by international and regional sports associations responsible for policing maintenance of the fiction of separation of politics and sports goes however further than simple endorsements. It involves sanctioning soccer officials, players, and club members for holding potentially dissenting political views.

Cumhurriyet, one of Turkey’s few remaining independent newspapers, reported last week that the TFF had suspended a referee in the Black Sea town of Sinop for publicly calling for a no vote in the referendum. The referee, Ilker Sahin, charged that the TFF was applying double standards by de factor stipulating that campaigning in favour of a yes vote was legitimate, campaigning against was not.

Similarly, Istanbul-based Galatasaray FC, one of Turkey’s leading clubs, scrambled last week to expel two prominent former players, Hakan Suker and Arif Erdem, hours after sports and youth minister Akif Cagatay Kilic, took the club to task for not already having done so.

Galatasaray had voted a day earlier not to include Messrs Sukur, Turkey’s all-time top scorer, and Erdem in the expulsion of alleged followers of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Muslim preacher, whom Mr. Erdogan blames for last year’s failed military coup. Those expelled included former provincial governors and prosecutors.

Messrs. Sukur and Erdem were members of the Galatasary squad that won the UEFA Cup in 2000. Mr. Sukur, like Mr. Gulen, has sought refuge in the United States from where both men condemned the failed military attempt to topple Mr. Erdogan.

A former recruiter for the Gulen movement, Said Alpsoy, who successfully focused on winning support for the preacher among Turkey’s top soccer stars said he had recruited half of Galatasaray’s team by the time he broke with the group in 2003.

US President Donald J. Trump’s short-lived national security advisor, Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, reportedly discussed while in office with senior Turkish government officials ways of extraditing Mr. Gulen to Turkey without going through the U.S. extradition legal process.

"Traitors to our country and our state have no business in our established sports clubs. The board's voting is inexplicable to the families of our martyrs and veterans," Mr. Kilic said.

Heavily indebted clubs like Galatasary cannot afford to cross Mr. Erdogan who prides himself on having engineered financial relief for various clubs, partly through tax amnesties. UEFA executive Andrea Traverso noted that Turkey is the only member of the European association where debts and liabilities outstrip clubs’ assets.

Turkish soccer also owes Mr. Erdogan for protecting clubs from the potentially devastating fallout of the worst match-fixing scandal in Turkish history. The scandal in 2011 was the first public skirmish between Messrs. Erdogan and Gulen, who until then had been allies, particularly in successfully asserting civilian control of the armed forces. Aziz Yildirim, the head of Fenerbahce SK, the political crown jewel of Turkish soccer, who was at the core of the scandal, has accused Mr. Gulen’s followers of engineering the scandal.

The financial troubles of Turkish clubs are aggravated by a severe drop in match attendance following the introduction of a mandatory electronic ticketing system in 2013. Fans have boycotted the system in the belief that it was designed to identify them as part of a crackdown on popular, politicized fan groups. Soccer fans played an important role in mass anti-Erdogan protests in 2013, the largest since Mr. Erdogan first became prime minister a decade earlier.

For his part, Mr. Erdogan outlawed Mr. Gulen’s Hizmet movement as a terrorist organization in the wake of the failed coup. Critics of Mr. Erdogan have questioned his assertion and accused him of exploiting the coup to label most of his critics as Gulenists and act against them.

German intelligence chief Bruno Kahl told Der Spiegel earlier this month that Turkey had been unable to convince Germany of Mr. Gulen’s guilt. “Turkey has tried to convince us on a number of different levels. But they haven't yet been successful,” Mr. Kahl said.

A former soccer player, Mr. Erdogan has sought to enhance his popularity in soccer-crazy Turkey in advance of the referendum by publicly identifying himself with the sport. The president was among the first to congratulate the Turkish national team on the pitch in Ankara for its defeat of Finland in a World Cup qualifier.

In doing so, Mr. Erdogan is in good company. Many world leaders see identification with a popular sports team as way to enhance their own popularity. Congratulations are, however, a far cry from turning soccer into a willing political tool. It raises questions about where the dividing line is in the alleged separation of sports and politics as well as about the integrity of international sports governance.


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 three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Defeating the Islamic State: A war mired in contradictions


By James M. Dorsey

US President Donald J. Trump’s vow to defeat what he terms radical Islamic terrorism forces the United States to manoeuvre the Middle East and North Africa’s murky world of ever shifting alliances and labyrinth of power struggles within power struggles.

The pitfalls are complex and multiple. They range from differences within the 68-member, anti-Islamic State (IS) alliance over what constitutes terrorism to diverging political priorities to varying degrees of willingness to tacitly employ jihadists to pursue geopolitical goals. The pitfalls are most evident in Yemen and Syria and involve two long-standing US allies, NATO ally Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

US Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson travels to Turkey this week as US and Russian troops create separate buffers in Syria to prevent a Turkish assault on the northern town of Manbij. Manbij, located 40 kilometres from the Turkish border, is controlled by Kurdish forces, viewed by the US as a key ground force in the fight with the Islamic State.

Until a series of devastating IS suicide bombings in Turkish cities, Turkish forces appeared to concentrate on weakening the Kurds rather than the jihadists in Syria. Stepped-up Turkish action against IS has not weakened Turkey’s resolve to prevent Kurds from emerging as one of the victors in the Syrian conflict.

At the heart of US-Turkish differences over the Kurds is the age-old-adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s liberation fighter. The US has a long history of empathy towards Kurdish cultural and national rights and enabled the emergence of a Kurdish state in waiting in northern Iraq. The differences also go to an equally large elephant in the room: the question whether Syria, Yemen and Iraq will survive as nation states in a post-war era.

That may be the real issue at the core of US-Turkish differences.  Many Turks hark back in their suspicion that foreign powers are bent on breaking up the Turkish state to the 1920 Treaty of Sevre that called for a referendum in which Kurds would determine their future.

Visionary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk carved modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. He mandated a unified Turkish identity that superseded identities of a nation whose population was to a large degree made up of refugees from far flung parts of the former empire and ethnic and religious minorities.

Turkey charges that Syrian Kurdish fighters are aligned with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), a Turkish Kurdish group that has been fighting for Kurdish rights for more than three decades and has been designated terrorist by Turkey, the United States and Europe.

US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Abkar met in the southern Turkish city of Antalya in advance of Mr. Tillerson’s visit to lower tensions that threaten planned efforts to capture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital.

In many ways, the pitfalls are similar in Yemen, where Mr. Trump has stepped up support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating intervention that this month entered its third year and has increased attacks on Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) viewed as one of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliates.

It took Al Qaeda attacks inside the kingdom in 2003-4 and jihadist operations since as well as growing international suggestions of an ideological affinity between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and jihadism for the kingdom to view Islamic militants on par with Iran, which Saudis see as an existential threat.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia, despite a litany of denials, has seen militant Islamists as useful tools in its proxy wars with Iran in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Sunni ultra-conservatives are frequently at the forefront of Saudi-led efforts to dislodge the Yemeni Houthis from their strongholds.

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen has in fact given AQAP a new lease on life. Prior to the war, AQAP had been driven to near irrelevance by the rise of IS and security crackdowns. In a report in February, the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded that AQAP was “stronger than it has ever been.”

The group “appears ever more embedded in the fabric of opposition to the Houthi/Saleh alliance …that is fighting the internationally recognised, Saudi-backed interim government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi,” the report said. It was referring to Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who are aligned with former Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.

AQAP’s resurgence is as much a result of Saudi Arabia’s single-minded focus on the Iranian threat posed in the kingdom’s perception by the Houthis as it is potentially related to a murky web of indirect or tacit relationships with the group.

“In prosecuting the war, the Saudi-led coalition has relegated confronting AQAP and IS to a second-tier priority… Saudi-led coalition statements that fighting the group is a top priority and announcements of military victories against AQAP in the south are belied by events,” the ICG said.

The kingdom’s willingness to cooperate with Islamists such as Yemen’s Islah party, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, and unclear attitude towards AQAP has sparked strains within the anti-Houthi coalition, particularly with the staunchly anti-Islamist UAE.

AQAP has been able to rearm itself through the indirect acquisition of weapons from the Saudi-led coalition as well as raids on Yemeni military camps. AQAP is believed to have received advance notice and to have coordinated with the Saudis its withdrawal from the crucial port of Mukalla before an assault by UAE and Yemeni forces, according to the ICG.

Saudi Arabia was conspicuously low key when in January a US Navy Seal died in a raid on AQAP in which the US military seized information that this month prompted the Trump administration and Britain to ban carry-on electronics aboard U.S. and London-bound flights from select airports in North Africa and the Middle East, including two in Saudi Arabia.

Arab News, Saudi Arabia’s leading English-language newspaper, this week quoted Saudi officials as saying that AQAP, widely believed to be well advanced in its ability to target aircraft with explosives smuggled on board, had lost its capability to operate overseas.

The officials said that Saudi Arabia, which has cozied up to the Trump administration and endorsed the president’s ban on travel to the US from six Muslim majority countries, was concerned about IS and Shiite militants rather than AQAP. “They (AQAP) don’t have the power to export their activities,” Arab news quoted Abdullah Al-Shehri, a senior Saudi interior ministry official, as saying.

The ministry’s spokesman, Mansour Al-Turki, noted that ´ “Qaeda actually has not been involved in any real kind of terrorism-related incident in Saudi Arabia for three years. Most of the incidents came from Daesh (the Arab acronym for IS) or militant groups related to Shiites in the eastern province.”

The United States and some of its key allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, may be able to paper over differences that allow for short-term advances against IS. But in the longer term, it could be the failure to address those differences head on that will create new breeding grounds for militancy. It’s the kind of trade-off that in the past has produced short-term results only to create even greater problems down the road.


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 three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Middle East Soccer: Trump’s Israel-Palestine peace making put to the test


by James M. Dorsey

Israel and Palestine are gearing up for a crucial battle in world soccer body FIFA about the status of Israeli-occupied territory that is likely to foreshadow President Donald J. Trump’s efforts to revive long-stalled Middle East peace efforts.

At stake in the battle that will play out during FIFA’s annual congress in May in Bahrain is the status of six West Bank Israeli settlement teams that play in Israeli leagues. The Palestine Football Association (PFA) and human rights groups charge that the Israel Football Association’s (IFA) policy violates FIFA rules as well as international law that sees Israeli settlements as illegal.

Israel has argued that Israeli occupied territory involves disputed lands whose future should be determined in peace negotiations.

Past efforts by the PFA to get Israel’s FIFA membership suspended have stranded, prompting years of failed efforts by the world soccer body to negotiate a solution. FIFA negotiator Tokyo Sexwale, whose mandate ends in May, all but declared failure in a report submitted this week to the world body.

Mr. Sexwale proposed three options in a last-ditch effort, all of which are unlikely to provide relief, sources said. Mr. Sexwale reportedly suggested that FIFA could take the legal risk of throwing in the towel, give Israel six months to rectify the status of the disputed clubs, or continue to attempt to achieve a negotiated solution.

Accepting the status quo would revive efforts by the PFA and human rights groups to lobby for a sufficient majority to suspend Israel’s membership at the forthcoming congress. A suspension would complicate Mr. Trump’s Middle East peace efforts.

It would put Arab states, particularly those in the Gulf, in a bind. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have a vested interest in the Trump administration’s tougher attitude towards Iran. Gulf-backed bi-partisan draft legislation that would tighten US sanctions against Iran is pending in the US Congress.

Gulf states as well as Egypt have backed Mr. Trump’s peace-making efforts. Mr. Trump called during last month’s visit to Washington by Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu for a halt to expansion of West Bank and Jerusalem settlements despite adopting an overall far more pro-Israeli attitude than past administrations. The president has also invited Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to visit Washington in the near future.

Egyptian security last month barred PFA president and Palestinian sports czar Jibril Rajoub entry to Egypt to attend a counter-terrorism conference. Mr. Rajoub, a close associate of Mr. Abbas, is widely seen as a possible future Palestinian president.

The PFA and Human Rights Watch have argued that granting West Bank settlement teams the right to play in Israeli leagues violates United Nations Security Council resolutions, including last’s December’s condemnation of Israeli settlements, as well as the Fourth Geneva Convention that sets rules for administering occupied territory.

They also argue that tolerating the status quo would contradict FIFA’s adoption of United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Finally, the PFA and Human Rights Watch note that FIFA statutes prohibit a member association from holding games on the territory of another member association without permission. FIFA’s European affiliate, UEFA, blocked Russia from incorporating teams from occupied Crimea in its national league competitions on those grounds

Giving Israel six months to rectify the situation could offer a temporary, face-saving compromise. By implication, it would acknowledge that allowing West Bank teams to play in Israeli leagues constitutes a violation.

While Israel is certain to reject the notion, it would buy it time at a moment that countering the growing Boycott, Diversification and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to penalize Israel for continued occupation of the West Bank has become a priority. Israel recently emulated Mr. Trump’s disputed ban on travel to the United States from six majority Muslim country. It declared a ban on travel to Israel by BDS supporters.

It would also allow Arab and Gulf states to give Mr. Trump’s peace-making efforts a chance. Suspension of Israel by FIFA would constitute a major Palestinian victory in long-standing efforts to isolate Israel in international organizations.

Buying into Mr. Sexwale’s proposal for a six-month period is a risky undertaking for all. Mr. Rajoub was criticized for his dropping last year of a proposal to suspend Israel after he realized that he could not muster a quorum in the FIFA congress. Ultra-nationalists in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet who advocate annexation of the West Bank would no doubt reject the compromise.

Extending negotiations essentially kicks the ball down the road at a time that Israel is emboldened by Mr. Trump’s pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim stance while Palestinians are going through the motions with little confidence that peace-making will produce tangible results. There is little reason to assume that negotiations would succeed where they have failed without real progress in overall peace-making.

The world soccer body is, nonetheless, likely to opt for the road of least resistance, extending negotiations, despite growing criticism of Israel among FIFA members. PFA vice chairwoman told the Jerusalem Post that Mr. Sexwale’s FIFA monitoring committee would hold a last-ditch meeting in early May in advance of the FIFA congress.

Mr. Rajoub told Al Jazeera that failure to resolve the issue would leave the PFA with “no other choice: we will go to the congress next May in Bahrain and ask for the imposition of sanctions against the Israeli federation.”

The PFA would be bolstered in its effort by the fact that Bahrain, it’s image already tarnished by human rights violations, may want to avoid the embarrassment of having hosted a group that fails to support Palestinian claims.

FIFA could be vulnerable to legal action that would complicate Israeli efforts to avert suspension if the group opts for maintaining the status quo or fails to extend negotiations.

Irrespective of which way FIFA decides to proceed, Israel will be fighting a backbench battle in FIFA as well as other international organizations as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved.

Counting on US backing could prove to be a slippery slope with the Trump administration losing leverage and credibility as it plans cutbacks in financial support for the United Nations as well as the State Department, the US’s key diplomatic agency.


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 three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Protest in Iran: The murky geopolitics of soccer

Source: Ahwaz Monitor

By James M. Dorsey

Thousands of Iranian Arabs last week attended an AFC Champions League soccer match between Esteghlal Ahvaz FC and Qatar’s Lekhwiya SC dressed in traditional Arab garb in protest what an opposition news website dubbed were government efforts to suppress their identity.

The English-language website, Ahwaz Monitor, said support for Esteghlal turned into anti-government protests with fans cheering their team in Arabic rather than Farsi. Fans chanted “national slogans” such as “Arabic is my identity and honour” and “Al Ahwaz for Ahwazis and all Gulf state residents are dearest to us.” Fans reportedly recited poetry celebrating their region’s Arab heritage.

Al Ahwaz is the Arabic name for the oil-rich but impoverished, south-eastern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders on Iraq and sits at the head of the Gulf. It is also the name of the province’s capital that hosts Iran’s foremost refinery.  Part of Khuzestan’s ethnic and religious mosaic, ethnic Arabs are believed to account for at least one third of its 3.7 million inhabitants. Iranian Arabs put the figure much higher.

Ahwaz Monitor started operations last summer, providing regular reports on Iranian Arabs and government efforts to suppress their identity and deprive them of their rights. It’s not clear who funds or owns the website.

Eruptions of genuine discontent in Khuzestan, particularly on soccer pitches when Asian competition matches are played against teams from the Gulf, have become a fixture in a province that for decades has been an overt and covert battlefield in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional hegemony.

Protests have focussed on identity, environmental degradation, and social issues. Iranian politicians warned of a “national threat” in February when riots erupted in 11 cities in Khuzestan after they lost power during a severe dust storm. The outages led to water shortages as water and wastewater treatment plants were knocked offline. Demonstrators chanted "Death to tyranny", "We, the people of Ahwaz, won't accept oppression" and "Clean air is our right, Ahwaz is our city."

International human rights groups have long accused Iran of discriminating against Iranian Arabs even though many are Shiites rather than Sunni Muslims. Dozens of protesters were reportedly killed during demonstrations in Ahwaz in 2011 that were inspired by the popular Arab revolts.

“Despite Khuzestan's natural resource wealth, its ethnic Arab population, which is believed to constitute a majority in the province, has long complained about the lack of socio-economic development in the region. They also allege that the Iranian government has engaged in systematic discrimination against them, particularly in the areas of employment, housing, and civil and political rights,” Human Rights Watch said at the time.

Habib Jaber Al-Ahvazi, a spokesman for the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA), a group that demands independence for Ahvaz and is believed to be responsible for bomb attacks in the city in 2005, 2006 and 2013, told online Arab nationalist Ahvaz.tv in 2015 that  soccer protests were part of an “ongoing confrontation between demonstrators and the forces of the Persian occupation.”

There is little doubt that discontent in Khuzestan is widespread and that repeated spontaneous protests in stadiums as well as on the streets of the province’s cities were genuine. Yet, determining what events and reporting is purely local and what elements may be linked to potential Saudi and Gulf attempts to destabilize Iran is difficult.

Equally, there is little doubt that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs have a long history of encouraging Iranian Arab opposition and troubling the minority’s relations with the government.
Iranian Arabs believe that the government fears that they are susceptible to foreign Arab influence. That suspicion, Iranian Arabs say, is rooted in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s bloody eight-year war against Iran that ended in 1988. Saddam falsely expected that Iranian Arabs would welcome the opportunity to gain independence from Iran.

The Iranian Arab refusal to side with Saddam failed, however, to earn Arabs in Ahwaz the credit they deserved. Government suspicions have been fuelled by recent conversions to Sunni Islam of a number of Iranian Arabs.

Distrust is further fuelled by the fact that much opposition news in Khuzestan is generated by organizations associated with the exiled People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a militant left-wing group that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime and traces its roots to resistance against the shah who was toppled in the 1979 revolution.

The Mujahedin based themselves in Iraq during the Saudi-backed Iraqi war against Iran. More recently the group appears to enjoy increased support from the kingdom. In a clear demonstration of Saudi support, former Saudi intelligence chief and envoy to Britain and the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal, told a Mujahedeen rally in Paris last year that "your legitimate struggle against the (Iranian) regime will achieve its goal, sooner or later. I, too, want the fall of the regime.”

Prince Turki’s remarks fit a pattern of Arab calls for independence of Khuzestan. Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic who has since been dropped from the paper’s roster after she wrote positively about Israel, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that “the al-Ahwaz district in Iran...is an Arab territory... Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925... It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.”

The notion that external forces may be exploiting discontent in Khuzestan has broader implications amid reports that President Donald J. Trump could revert to a policy of regime change in Iran. Iran has in the past accused the United States and Saudi Arabia as well as Israel and Britain of supporting nationalist insurgents in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan.

The province borders on the Pakistani region of Balochistan where nationalists and jihadists have targeted Chinese investment that is key to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. Some analysts have suggested that US and Saudi support for dissidents in various Iranian provinces may be designed to force Iran to weaken, if not withdraw, support for the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Pakistani General Qamar Javed Bajwa, apparently concerned that potential efforts to destabilize Iran could aggravate volatility in Balochistan, noted earlier this month that “enhanced Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation will have a positive impact on regional peace and stability.”


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 three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Spreading the Gospel: Asian Leaders Wary of Saudi Religious Diplomacy

Source: Imgur

By James M. Dorsey

Critics in the Maldives likely sighed relief when Saudi King Salman this week postponed his visit because of an outbreak of flu. The flu is however unlikely to halt a planned massive Saudi investment or the impact on Maldives society of the kingdom’s religion-driven public diplomacy.

Big ticket investments and countering political violence dominated the headlines of the king’s tour of Asia together with the extravagance of his travel – an entourage of at least 1,000, 459 tonnes of luggage, a golden electric elevator for the monarch to descend from his private plane, and a specially built toilet for his visit to a Jakarta mosque.

Yet, religion often was an elephant in the room on most stops on King Salman’s trip that took him to Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, China and Japan and that was supposed to also include the Maldives.

All countries on the king’s intinerary feel the impact of a more than four-decade long Saudi soft power effort to spread Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in a bid to counter the potential appeal of Iran, whose regime came to power in a popular revolt and that in contrast to the autocratic kingdom recognizes some degree of popular sovereignty.

The Saudi effort, the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, has fostered across the Muslim world greater conservatism, anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi sectarianism, intolerance, and a roll back of basic freedoms through among others tough anti-blasphemy laws.

To be sure, the Saudi campaign is one of several initiatives by Eurasian powers to assert influence across a swath of land stretching from Turkey to China. Yet, it is the one with the largest war chest except for China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

The Saudi campaign moreover focuses on changing societies rather than exclusively on economics and security as in the case of China or Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Other powers build their efforts on ethnic or historic kinship as Turkey does with its neo-Ottomanism or India by forging closer ties to its Diaspora.

In some countries, such as Malaysia and Brunei, whose rulers seek legitimacy through greater public piety and association with Islam, Saudi religious diplomacy is a welcome contribution. In his role as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a reference to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, King Salman bestowed with his visit religious legitimacy on his hosts.

Saudi Arabia’s public diplomacy may also be boosted by mounting repression in Egypt that threatens foreign students at Cairo’s Al Azhar University, long the citadel of Islamic learning. Al Azhar is often viewed as an anti-dote to the ultra-conservatism of Saudi religious education. Repression in Egypt could, however, drive students to Saudi institutions instead.

Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh, Malaysia’s minister of higher education, told reporters in February that his ministry was no longer giving scholarships for study in Egypt. An estimated 11,000 Malaysians study in the North African country. “Right now, the situation in Egypt has not fully settled down, our embassy there is still monitoring the security situation there,” Mr. Idris said.

The risks involved in an embrace of Saudi-inspired Sunni ultra-conservatism are never far. Decades of Saudi funding often creates an environment that is not inherently violent in and of itself but enables breeding grounds for more militant interpretations of the faith that target not only local environments but also the kingdom itself.

“Saudi oil money has been changing the religious make-up of Malaysians since the 1970s, but more direct penetration of Saudis in the religious sphere may change the outlook of ordinary Malaysians further,” said Malaysia scholar Norshahril Saat in a recent commentary on King Salman’s visit.

Malaysia detained at least seven suspects in advance of King Salman’s arrival who allegedly were planning to attack the monarch.  Two months earlier, police opened an investigation into a Saudi-backed university in Selangor, the International University of Al-Madinah, after two of its students were detained on suspicion of being militants.

Established in 2006, the university’s religious teachings have long been suspected by authorities of promoting extremism. The university has denied the allegations. But a top Malaysian counter-terrorism official, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, said that efforts to persuade the university to change its syllabi had so far come to naught.

While symbolism may have worked in favour of the rulers of Malaysia and Brunei, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, president of a country that prides itself on its tolerant version of Islam, appears to have subtly turned the tables on King Salman. In an effort to portray himself as the leader of all Indonesian Muslims and to counter growing ultra-conservative influence, Mr. Widodo employed Javanese cultural concepts of tolerance and dialogue.

Symbolism was evident in differing welcomes of the king in Java and Bali. Nude statues that dot the botanic gardens at the Presidential Palace in Bogor, about 40 kilometres outside of Jakarta, were covered with potted plants to avoid offending the Saudis. Predominantly Hindu Bali decided to do nothing of the sort.

In meetings with major Indonesian Islamic organizations, including Nahdlatul Ulama, a 91-year old, traditionalist movement that has opposition to Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative strand of Islam that legitimizes the rule of the Sauds, written into its DNA, King Salman said Indonesia and his country had agreed to promote a more moderate version of the faith.

“It’s all sublime messaging and imaging. Jokowi played Salman beautifully. Masterful his use of Javanese culture. The Saudi's just don't know yet,” said Leonard Sebastian, a leading Indonesia expert at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

To be sure, King Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah already started cautiously reaching out to other strands of Islam as well as other faiths. Moreover, Vision 2030, the plan to diversify the Saudi economy and upgrade the kingdom’s autocracy, seeks to deprive ultra-conservatism in Saudi Arabia of its rough edges and bring it more in line with the 21st century.

It also seeks to counter militant ideological offspring, including jihadism, by promoting an interpretation of Islam that dictates unconditional obedience to the ruler. The problem is that more than four decades of Saudi support has created a family of worldviews that leads their own lives, no longer are dependent on Saudi funding, and includes activist segments critical of the Al Sauds as well as their own rulers.

It’s not clear to what degree ideological reforms King Salman’s son and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is introducing in the kingdom trickle down to Saudi-funded institutions elsewhere. Saudi Arabia said during King Salman’s visit that it would be opening two new campuses in Makassar and Medan of its Jakarta-based Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia (LIPIA), a branch of Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh.

Mounting concern about growing ultra-conservatism in China’s troubled north-western Xinjiang province, home to the Uyghurs, ethnic Turks who stubbornly seek to preserve their culture and identity as well as among the Hui, a wholly integrated Muslim community, could complicate relations with Saudi Arabia.

China and Saudi Arabia trumpeted their strategic relations during King Salman’s visit, yet Beijing has done little to counter rising Islamophobia in the media and among Chinese officials.

To lay the groundwork for a $10bn investment that would give the kingdom control of an Indian Ocean atoll, Saudi Arabia funded religious institutions in the Maldives and offered scholarships for students to pursue religious studies at the it’s ultra-conservative universities.

The funding has pushed the Maldives, a popular high-end tourist destination, towards greater intolerance and public piety. Public partying, mixed dancing and Western beach garb have become acceptable only within expensive tourist resorts.

The Saudis “have had a good run of propagating their world view to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to the view that they have enough sympathy to get a foothold,” said former Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed 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 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 three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Pakistani military engagement: Walking a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran


By James M. Dorsey

Pakistan is emerging as an important military player in the Gulf as its struggles to balance complex relations with regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran and diverging approaches by different branches of its government.

Pakistan’s military engagement with the Gulf goes far beyond increased involvement in a Saudi-led, 41-nation military alliance that officially was established to counter terrorism, but is widely suspected to also be a bid to garner support for the kingdom’s troubled intervention in Yemen and create an anti-Iranian Sunni Muslim grouping.

As it discusses the deployment of troops to the Saudi-Yemeni border and a senior, recently retired Pakistani military commander appears poised to take command of the Riyadh-based alliance, Pakistan alongside Turkey and China is also emerging as a more cost-effective supplier of military hardware to a region that is home to the world’s largest arms importers.

"You can’t afford having these very expensive contracts with western companies and contractors, so what (the Gulf) will do is go toward cheaper contractors, so that’s why they are looking towards China, towards Pakistan, towards Turkey – it’s just the natural move.,” Andreas Krieg, a professor at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom’s Joint Command and Staff College, told The National.

Pakistani engagement in terms of troops may be most advanced with Saudi Arabia, while Qatar appears focused on cooperation in development and production of hardware. “Over the last two years the Qataris have really turned their backs towards the West and looked toward the East, as all the Gulf countries are doing right now,” Mr. Krieg said.

Qatar is discussing with Turkey and Pakistan joint production of new defence systems, including Turkey’s T-129 attack and reconnaissance helicopter. Qatar has also expressed interest in the fifth generation JF-17 fighter jet which Pakistan developed with China. Pakistani pilots of the JF-17 last year demonstrated their skills in a display in Qatar. The Pakistan Ordnance Factory, moreover, recently opened a marketing and sales office in Dubai.

Qatar is further discussing the possibility of Pakistani forces providing security during the 2022 World Cup.

Similarly, Turkey last year deployed 3,000 ground troops as well as air and naval units, military trainers and special operations forces to a newly created base in Qatar.

Pakistani engagement in the Middle East has a long and storied history. It dispatched pilots in 1969 to fly Saudi air force Lightning jets that repulsed a South Yemeni incursion into the kingdom’s southern border. In the preceding years, Pakistan had helped the kingdom attempt to build its first war warplanes and trained Saudi pilots. Pakistani pilots again flew missions during the 1973 Middle East War in defense of Saudi Arabia’s borders.

Pakistan bolstered its position over the following years with military missions in 22 countries, training facilities for the region and by becoming the world’s largest exporter of military personnel. Pakistanis currently provide training to armed forces in various Gulf countries and thousands serve in Gulf uniforms in many of the region’s militaries, including entire battalions of Pakistanis in the Saudi military.

Historically, Pakistan’s largest contingent of 20,000 soldier was initially based in the 1970s in the triangle where the borders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel bump up against each other. Pakistani combat troops were also dispatched to the kingdom after a group of religious Saudi militants attacked the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979.

By the mid-1980s, most Pakistani units had shifted to the predominantly Shiite Eastern Province, home to the kingdom’s oil fields. Pakistani Air Force units were stationed on the northern Gulf coast to shield the fields from a fallout from the Iran-Iraq war.

More Pakistani troops were dispatched in 1990 to ostensibly protect the Muslim holy cities in the kingdom as part of the Pakistani military’s circumvention of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s inclination to include a Pakistani contingent in the US-led coalition assembled to roll back the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

Ironically it is Mr. Sharif who 25 years later appears to be circumventing. This time it would be to circumvent a refusal by parliament in 2015 to contribute troops to the Saudi war in Yemen despite Pakistan being the world’s foremost beneficiary of Saudi largesse and its dependency on remittances 
from Pakistani workers in the kingdom.

Ironically, Mr. Sharif’s willingness in 2015 to comply with the Saudi request was opposed by Pakistani corps commanders, including Lieutenant General Qamar Javed Bajwa. That was before General Bajwa succeeded General Raheel Sharif (no relative of the prime minister) as commander-in-chief. In contrast to General Bajwa, General Sharif is believed to have favoured deploying troops in support of Saudi Arabia.

“Yemen was hotly debated within the military. Ultimately the military feared that there would be a sectarian backlash within the military itself if it got involved in the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen,” said Abdullah Gul, the son of former Islamist ISI chief, Hamid Gul, who maintains close ties to the command of Pakistan’s armed forces.

Those concerns appear to have been abandoned with the likelihood of a Pakistani combat brigade being sent to areas of the Saudi-Yemeni border vulnerable to attack by the anti-Saudi Houthis as well as jihadi groups. The deployment would not violate the Pakistani parliament resolution as long as Pakistani troops remain on the Saudi side of the border.

General Sharif may be rewarded for his support of the Saudis by taking over the command of the Riyadh-based military alliance, dubbed the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism.

General Raheel’s appointment would give the alliance credibility it needs: a non-Arab commander from one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries who commanded not only one of the Muslim world’s largest militaries, but also one that possesses nuclear weapons.

Yet, accepting the command risks putting Pakistan more firmly than ever in the camp of Saudi-led confrontation with Iran that Saudi political and religious leaders as well as their militant Pakistani allies often frame not only in geopolitical but also sectarian terms.

Pakistani Shiite leaders as well as some Sunni politicians have warned that General Raheel’s appointment would put an end to Pakistan’s ability to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan borders on Iran and is home to the world’s largest Shiite minority.

General Raheel has reportedly told his Saudi counterparts that he would seek to involve Iran in the alliance. Similarly, General Bajwa appeared to be hedging his bets by declaring that “enhanced Pakistan-Iran military-to-military cooperation will have a positive impact on regional peace and stability.”

Saudi conditions for a reconciliation with Iran appear to all but rule out any effort by General Raheel and complicate General Bajwa’s balancing act.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, in a speech last month’s Munich Security Conference, charged that “Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has as part of its constitution the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite, the ‘dispossessed’, as Iran calls them, all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. And this is unacceptable for us in the kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world.”

Mr. Al-Jubeir stipulated that “until and unless Iran changes its behaviour, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this.”

The possible deployment of troops and General Raheel’s appointment comes as the Pakistani parliament is forging closer relations with its Iranian counterpart in an effort to nurture economic and political cooperation.

It also comes in the wake of the deportation by Saudi Arabia of 39,000 Pakistanis as part of a crackdown on militants and the arrest and alleged torture of Pakistani transgenders in the kingdom.

Transgenders may not garner significant public empathy in conservative Pakistan but workers’ rights do, particularly at a time of reduced remittances. “The government and the military are walking a tightrope that is dangerously balanced both in terms of domestic as well as in terms of geopolitics,” said one Pakistani political analyst.


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 two forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism.

Monday, March 13, 2017

WHY SAUDI ARABIA, CHINA AND ISLAMIC STATE ARE COURTING THE MALDIVES (JMD in SCMP)

WHY SAUDI ARABIA, CHINA AND ISLAMIC STATE ARE COURTING THE MALDIVES

As Riyadh and Beijing nurture grandiose plans for military bases, New Delhi fears the archipelago could become a breeding ground for the terrorist group


12 MAR 2017

Saudi King Salman welcomes the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to Riyadh in 2016. Photo: AFP

Saudi King Salman welcomes the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom to Riyadh in 2016. Photo: AFP

Saudi King Salman’s stop in the Maldives on his month-long tour of Asia brings into focus how this tiny archipelago – best known for high-end tourism and an existential battle against climate change – has emerged as a key player in a regional struggle for influence.

Both Riyadh and Beijing are currying favour with the strategically located 820km-long chain of Indian Ocean atolls, in efforts analysts believe are aimed at gaining concessions for military bases.

China sees the islands as a node in its “string of pearls” – a row of ports on key trade and oil routes linking the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East – while for Saudi Arabia, the atolls have the added advantage of lying a straight three-hour shot from the coast of regional rival and arch-foe, Iran.

The possible building of Chinese and/or Saudi military bases here would also complement the independent development of both nations’ military outposts in Djibouti, an East African nation on a key energy export route at the mouth of the Red Sea.

Exiled former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, speaks at a climate roundtable at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo: AFP
Exiled former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, who lost power in 2012 following protests over rising commodity prices and the nation’s poor economy, has no doubt regarding Chinese and Saudi intentions.

They “want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard trade routes – their oil routes – to their new markets. To have strategic installations, infrastructure,” Climate Change News quoted Nasheed as saying.

Increased military cooperation

The heightened Saudi and Chinese interest in the Maldives comes against a backdrop of increased military cooperation between the two nations.

“China is willing to push military relations with Saudi Arabia to a new level,” Chinese defence minister Chang Wanquan (常萬全) told his visiting Saudi counterpart, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, last August. Months later, in October, counterterrorism forces from the two countries held the first ever joint exercise between the Chinese military and an Arab armed force.

King Salman’s visit also comes as the kingdom negotiates the US$10 billion development, if not wholesale acquisition, of Faafu, 19 low-lying islands 120km south of the Maldivian capital of Male. That project would involve building seaports, airports, high-end housing and resorts and the creation of special economic zones.

Legal experts suggest Saudi Arabia will probably be granted a freehold on the land if 70 per cent of the project is executed on reclaimed ground.


President of the Republic of Maldives Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom meets Saudi King Salman in Riyadh. Photo: AFP
Transparency Maldives, the local branch of Transparency International, has called on the government to publish its plans for Faafu amid protests against the proposed Saudi investment and allegations of widespread corruption.

Critics claim the Saudis have gone out of their way to silence opponents by greasing their palms. In one incident, journalists reporting on the potential deal were handed cash-filled envelopes during an event at the Saudi embassy in Male
.
Saudi Arabia, to lay the ground for the investment, has in recent years funded religious institutions in the Maldives and offered scholarships for students wanting to pursue religious studies at the kingdom’s ultra-conservative universities in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The funding has pushed the Maldives, a popular high-end tourist destination, towards greater intolerance and public piety. Public partying, mixed dancing and Western beach garb have become acceptable only within expensive tourist resorts.

The Saudis “have had a good run of propagating their world view to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to the view that they have enough sympathy to get a foothold,” Nasheed said.

Potential threats

Riyadh sees its soft power in the Maldives as a way of convincing China it is Saudi Arabia – and not its regional rival, Iran – that is the key link in Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link Eurasia to the Middle Kingdom through Chinese-funded infrastructure.


Chinese President Xi Jinping at his welcoming ceremony at the Republic Square in Male in 2014. Photo: AFP
King Salman’s visit follows a 2014 trip to the Maldives by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) during which Beijing announced the construction of a US$210 million Friendship Bridge that would connect Male’s eastern edge to the western corner of the island of Hulhule, where the international airport is located.

China also agreed to build a new airport runway as well as a port in Laamu, an atoll south of Faafu. That port would be a “pearl” in China’s string alongside those it has already established in Djibouti, Pakistan’s Gwadar, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and its US$10.7 billion development of an industrial city next to the Omani port of Duqm.

But while recent focus has been on the military bases Beijing and Riyadh may want to build, another regional player, New Delhi, fears the archipelago could become a base of a very different kind.

Indian intelligence sources claim hundreds of Maldivians have joined the ranks of Islamic State in Syria – raising the worrying prospect of a hub for the terror group just off the sub-continental mainland.

Nasheed, the former president who now lives in London, has long railed that climate change will lead to the Maldives sinking and vanishing into the Indian Ocean. That concern has been replaced by worries that the atolls will become mired in mounting regional rivalry and stymied by ultra-conservatism that ultimately could threaten grandiose Saudi and Chinese 
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This story appeared in the South China Morning Post which holds all rights

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 two forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism.