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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, le cheikh faiseur de rois de la FIFA (JMD quoted in Le Monde)

Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, le cheikh faiseur de rois de la FIFA

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Michel Platini et le cheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, en janvier 2013, à Koweit City.
La première fois que le cheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah a croisé la route de Michel Platini, il lui a sans doute parlé de son père. Une vieille connaissance qui, durant la rencontre France-Koweït de la Coupe du monde 1982, avait débarqué sur le terrain pour faire annuler le quatrième but français, inscrit par Alain ­Giresse sur une passe du numéro 10 des Bleus. Platini n’en avait pas tenu rigueur au cheikh, frère cadet de l’émir du Koweït, acceptant de porter le maillot de l’émirat lors d’un match amical en 1988, puis d’y envoyer ses Bleus en tournée.

La dernière fois que le cheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah a croisé la route de Michel Platini, c’était dimanche 19 juillet, à l’hôtel Baur au lac de Zurich, et ils n’ont sans doute pas parlé de son père, mort il y a vingt-cinq ans en défendant le palais royal envahi par l’armée irakienne. Il était plutôt question de la Fédération internationale de football (FIFA), et de son trône – laissé vacant par Sepp Blatter –, que l’un des deux pourrait occuper à l’issue de l’élection fixée au 26 février 2016.

Le cheikh et l’ancien Ballon d’or ont en commun une bonhomie naturelle, le goût de la bonne chère et de la politique, les deux en même temps si possible. Ils sont, avec Sepp Blatter, au centre du jeu politique qui occupera le football mondial ces prochains mois et, pour l’heure du moins, ne se posent pas en adversaires puisque seul le Français a officialisé sa candidature à la présidence de la FIFA. Loin de là  : ils ne se quittent plus. Zurich le 28 mai, Berlin le 6 juin, Lausanne le 9 juin  : dans les jours qui ont suivi le coup de filet anticorruption au congrès de la FIFA, les deux hommes se sont entretenus au moins trois fois.

« Il ne faut pas minimiser le fait que le cheikh et Platini se rencontrent et se parlent, observe un fin connaisseur de la FIFA. Je pense que le cheikh est plus rusé que Platini. Ce dernier ne peut devenir président qu’avec son appui. »Notre interlocuteur n’est pas le seul à attribuer un poids considérable à cet homme de 53 ans, qui n’a pas souhaité répondre à nos questions. « On dit qu’il contrôle au moins 35 voix dans le congrès de la FIFA. Sur cette base, vous pouvez forger des alliances et faire basculer un vote », dit James Dorsey, spécialiste du Moyen-Orient et auteur du livre – et du blog – The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (non traduit, Hurst and Oxford University Press, 2014).

« Il n’est pas venu au comité exécutif pour seulement faire des connaissances  »


Avant le scandale, Guido Tognoni, ancien conseiller de Sepp Blatter, prévenait  :« Le cheikh Al-Sabah sera le prochain président de la FIFA. Il est assez jeune, a les connexions et les moyens financiers pour réussir une campagne présidentielle, et il n’est pas venu au comité exécutif pour seulement faire des connaissances. » Ce charismatique quinquagénaire aux longs cheveux bouclés, dont la précédente expérience dans le football fut un passage anecdotique comme sélectionneur de l’équipe nationale, venait alors d’intégrer l’instance suprême de la FIFA dans des circonstances valant presque déclaration de candidature.

Homme le plus puissant du football asiatique, soutien indéfectible du régime vérolé de Sepp Blatter, Al-Sabah était assuré d’obtenir l’un des trois sièges disponibles au comité exécutif. « Mais l’élection a été manipulée pour favoriser sa stratégie, qui était d’obtenir un siège pour deux ans et non quatre », relate ­James Dorsey. Le but était de se faire réélire en 2017 afin d’être en meilleure position pour se présenter à la présidence de la FIFA après le départ du Suisse, prévu initialement en 2019. Les règles de l’élection furent modifiées dans les heures précédant le vote, et tous les candidats renoncèrent à se présenter pour le mandat de deux ans, laissant la voie libre au Koweïtien.

« Le cheikh », comme tout le monde l’appelle, sait gagner une élection, pour son compte ou pour ses proches. Reprenant le flambeau à la mort de son père, il a intégré le Comité international olympique (CIO) et s’est forgé un réseau varié et fidèle à force d’accolades chaleureuses, de grands crus généreusement offerts et de services rendus. Une pratique éprouvée dans la politique intérieure koweïtienne, à en croire ce câble diplomatique américain de 2008 divulgué par WikiLeaks et le présentant comme « le seul membre de la famille royale qui ait à la fois l’ambition et la capacité de diriger le pays. Il est aussi largement considéré comme étant corrompu (…). Il a été accusé d’avoir manipulé les élections législatives en faveur des tribus afin qu’elles se rallient à lui ».

Soupçons de corruption


Ancien ministre de l’information puis de l’énergie, président de l’Organisation des pays exportateurs de pétrole (OPEP) de 2003 à 2005, Al-Sabah vient de mettre de côté pour un temps ses ambitions politiques au pays, à l’issue d’un imbroglio politico-juridique qui l’a poussé, humiliation suprême, à présenter ses excuses à l’émir, son oncle, à la télévision publique.

Les soupçons de corruption escortent le cheikh depuis longtemps. Dans le handball, notamment. Il a succédé à son père à la présidence de la confédération asiatique (AHF) et a, à ce poste qu’il occupe toujours, présidé au plus grand scandale de l’histoire récente de ce sport : un match truqué permettant au Koweït, avant que le Tribunal arbitral du sport n’invalide l’escroquerie, de se qualifier pour les Jeux de Pékin en 2008 aux dépens de la ­Corée du Sud.

Le mode opératoire était connu et dénoncé un an plus tard par le Bahreïni Mohammed Abul, ancien vice-président de la confédération : « L’AHF est corrompue. Ils aiment désigner des arbitres inconnus et les payer pour qu’ils manipulent les matchs. » Lorsque le scandale a éclaté, le Koweït avait remporté les ­quatre derniers championnats d’Asie auxquels il avait participé. Depuis, le pays du cheikh n’en a plus gagné un. Mais le cheikh, lui, a été décoré par le président de la Fédération internationale, son protégé Hassan Mustafa.

C’est en 2012, en prenant la tête de la puissante Association des comités nationaux olympiques (ACNO), qu’Al-Sabah est devenu un acteur majeur. Une promotion à peine ternie par les accusations de son prédécesseur, le Mexicain Mario Vazquez Rana, selon lequel le cheikh avait offert « 50 000 “raisons convaincantes” à des dirigeants du monde du sport » de voter pour lui. Le vieux dirigeant est mort en février, et Al-Sabah n’a jamais répondu à ces accusations.

« Il a de l’influence et il l’utilise »


Si tant est que le cheikh ait un jour puisé dans sa fortune personnelle, il peut désormais s’en passer. En tant que président de l’ACNO, il tient les cordons du Fonds de solidarité olympique, une bourse de 400 millions d’euros, sur la période 2013-2016, à répartir entre les 205 comités nationaux (CNO).

« C’est une position importante puisque la grande majorité des membres du CIO proviennent des CNO. Il a de l’influence et il l’utilise », souligne le Suisse Denis Oswald, qui, en 2013, s’était incliné dans la course à la présidence du CIO face à l’Allemand Thomas Bach.

La victoire du champion olympique d’escrime devait en partie au soutien d’Al-Sabah, d’ailleurs énoncé publiquement, en contradiction avec le règlement du CIO. Lors de ce congrès de Buenos Aires, le cheikh avait aussi obtenu le maintien de la lutte aux JO et le choix de Tokyo comme ville organisatrice des Jeux 2020. S’assurer rapidement le ­soutien d’Al-Sabah avait été l’une des clés de la victoire japonaise, estime l’un de leurs conseillers.

« Il est fidèle en alliances, mais on n’a pas ­intérêt à le tromper », sourit Armand de ­Rendinger, consultant et auteur de La Tentation olympique française(France-Empire, 2014). Le président de l’organisation SportAccord, ­Marius Vizer, dont Al-Sabah avait porté la candidature face à Bernard Lapasset en 2013, s’en est aperçu en étant poussé à la démission pour avoir osé s’en prendre à ­Thomas Bach.

Difficile de mesurer l’influence du cheikh au sein de l’institution faîtière du sport mondial, tant ses 100 membres actifs sont réputés jaloux de leur indépendance. Proche des athlètes, qu’il admire, il est surtout précieux par sa capacité à susciter des rapprochements ­entre les continents ou entre les familles olympiques. « Il fait partie des grands leaders, il n’y en a pas cinq comme lui », assure ­Armand de Rendinger. 

« Je n’ai jamais roulé pour moi-même, je crois beaucoup plus au travail du groupe », disait Al-Sabah en 2014 au site spécialisé Francs Jeux, pour justifier son refus de briguer la présidence du CIO. « J’ai l’impression qu’il n’a pas besoin du pouvoir, qu’il vient pour se faire plaisir », ajoute l’un de ses nombreux admirateurs, un habitué des congrès du CIO qui apprécie son franc-parler.

Dans l’ambiance compassée de ces réunions au sommet, il arrive au cheikh de détonner en se baladant en blouson de cuir ou en habit traditionnel. « Il ne se prend pas au sérieux, ajoute l’« admirateur », il est très décontracté et dit toujours ce qu’il pense, quitte à choquer beaucoup de membres du CIO. S’il peut se le permettre, c’est qu’il est presque incontournable. »

Mega Events: Qatar is too hot, Beijing has no snow


By James M. Dorsey

2022 is promising to be the year of mega sporting events that potentially fly in the face of values professed by international sporting events and defy logic.

Consensus is near unanimous that temperatures in Qatar are too high for a summer World Cup. Similarly, Beijing lacks the snow needed for a Winter Olympics. That didn’t deter the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from awarding the 2022 tournament to Beijing.  

If environmental concerns were not reason enough for pause, Doha and Beijing illustrate an equally disturbing trend: international sporting associations like the IOC and world soccer body FIFA are happy to give autocrats a global platform that allows them to polish their tarnished images and project themselves on the international stage.

Qatar is plagued by criticism of its controversial labour regime that puts workers at the mercy of their employers and raises questions about their safety and security. China is witnessing a crackdown on dissent.

Granted, it’s easy to level criticism at the hosting choices of international sporting associations. Achieving a balance between upholding the lofty values of international sporting associations and their choices of hosts of mega events is far more intricate and complex.

Those choices are determined to a large extent by the criteria potential hosts have to meet to qualify, legal intricacies, political concerns, and a need to ensure a level playing field on which countries are not disadvantaged because of their size or natural environment. International sporting associations have so far done a poor job in managing these issues.

Critics argue that the 2008 Beijing Olympics demonstrated that mega sporting events do little to advance an opening up of autocratic societies. China was accused of forced evictions without proper compensation and unwarranted arrests of human rights advocates in the walk-up to and during the tournament.

Moreover, China in the last two months has arrested more than 260 activists. A Chinese human rights group reported that authorities have ““arbitrarily detained” some 1,800 human rights activists since President Xi Jinping took office two years ago.

The arrests cast doubt on Chinese assurances that China will respect human rights as part of its successful bid to host the 2022 event. The Olympic Evaluation Commission said China’s "written assurances" included a commitment to press freedom, the right to demonstrate, labour rights and environmental protection in the context of the Games.

The Commission further expressed concern about Beijing’s air quality, noting that the Chinese government had promised measures to mitigate air pollution.

China’s track record is not the only reason to take those assurances with a grain of salt. The track record of international sporting associations is no more stellar. A German television documentary earlier this year that investigated the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar disclosed a guarantee by Russia as part of its contract with FIFA to suspend labour legislation related to World Cup projects.

Potentially, Qatar could offer a counter argument. Its successful World Cup bid despite persistent questions about its integrity has already produced change. Qatar, since winning, has broken ranks with its autocratic Gulf partners to become the only country in the region to engage with its critics rather than either imprison them or bar entry to the country. In cooperation with human rights and labour activists, it has developed far-reaching standards for the working and living conditions of its majority migrant labour population.

Whether Qatar indeed proves to be a rare case study of a tournament that drives social and economic, if not, political change will depend on whether it matches its words with deeds and on whether it follows through with further reforms.

The contrasting examples of China and Qatar complicate decision making. It’s hard to judge in advance of the awarding of a mega event what impact that decision will have. In China’s case, one of the world’s foremost powers determined to reshape the international order, it’s fair to assume that it will not be easily persuaded to change its ways. China’s sway is vested in its hard power.

The contrary is true for Qatar, a small country sandwiched between regional behemoths Saudi Arabia and Iran for which sports is a key tool to enhance its soft power in the absence of the kind of credible hard power that could deter its foreign distractors. As a result, Qatar is more susceptible to pressure to ensure that its soft power strategy of building friendships and alliances it can fall back on in times of emergency works.

While making those judgements is ultimately a question of assessment, there are things international sporting associations can do to reverse the trend evident in the IOC’s choice of only Almaty or Beijing of autocrats dominating bids for mega events. One such step would be to ensure that expenditure required justifies the results rather than reaffirming the legacy of debt and white elephants that many mega events leave behind.

Not dissimilar to Qatar, the IOC has promised change but has yet to implement it. Its Olympic Agenda 2020 adopted in Monaco in December envisions a more flexible bidding process and sports program, lower costs for hosting the games, and the creation of a digital channel to promote Olympic sports and values. If implemented it could lead to more cities following through on their bids. Four cities, including favourite Oslo and Boston, bowed out of the bid for the 2022 World Olympics largely because of cost.

Creating a level playing field is no less difficult than judging an event’s potential to drive change. Qatar no doubt has some of the world’s highest summer temperatures. Its proposed solution for air conditioning of stadiums remains untested and was written off by its detractors even before it had a chance to be tested.

Moreover, whether the World Cup is held in the winter when temperatures are lower or in the summer is primarily a European, not a Qatari problem. Similarly, Beijing’s need to artificially produce snow is likely to have an environmental impact. Exactly what that is remains unclear.

Bahrain, host of a Formula One race and another state with the hard power to crack down on its domestic critics but not to defend itself against external military threats, is like Qatar an example where pressure can produce some result.

Bahrain, a country that has flagrantly violated human rights since the brutal crushing of a popular revolt in 2011, is however also an example of the legal difficulty involved in balancing the values of international sporting associations with partnering with autocrats.

Formula One Group promised in April in a joint statement with advocacy group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) to “strengthen its processes in relation to human rights in accordance with the standards provided for” by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

The guidelines include respect for the human rights of those affected by a multinational’s activities consistent with a host government’s international obligations and commitments. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights obligations of the government concerned are of particular relevance in this regard,” the guidelines say.

In a statement included in the legal notices on its website, Formula One said its human rights efforts were focussed on “those areas which are within our own direct influence.” It said it would take “proportionate steps” to monitor the potential human rights impacts of its activities, identify and assess, potential adverse human rights impacts, and “engage in meaningful consultation with relevant stakeholders in relation to any issues raised as a result of our due diligence.”

Formula One said human rights included the freedom to associate and organise and the right to engage in collective bargaining. It cautioned however that it would have to ensure that it does not violate domestic laws in cases where local “laws and regulations conflict with internationally recognised human rights.

Bahrain, a country that lacks freedom to associate and organize and does not allow collective bargaining, raises the question whether international sporting associations can balance their commitment to human rights with operations in autocratic environments. That is all the more true with Formula One races in Bahrain in recent years becoming platforms for confrontation between large numbers of protesters and security forces determined to suppress dissent.

On the surface of it, international sporting associations engage in a balancing act in which domestic laws ultimately force them to compromise their ideals. That is true in a majority of cases. Qatar is the litmus test of whether in some cases engagement does not simply mean questionable compromise but can in line with sporting ideals drive change.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Qatar’s quagmire: existential fears and missed opportunities


By James M. Dorsey

Walking around Qatar’s monumental Aspire Dome sports academy, coach Fred Engh noticed kids playing soccer on an indoor field big enough to accommodate four teams simultaneously during a break in an annual gathering of hundreds of sports leaders designed to project the Gulf state as an innovative, socially responsible global sports hub.

Mr. Engh’s initial impression that the government was catering to the whole of its population, a majority of whom are poorly paid migrant workers whose restrictive labour and working conditions have become a focal point of criticism since Qatar won the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup were however quickly dashed.

“It looked great and I was happy to see that the Qatar people cared enough to allow kids to come in and play in this magnificent facility. I was wrong. Not every local kid was allowed. It was open to only those that had money,” Mr. Engh said in a recent Huffington Post column.

Chatting with a group of nearby migrant workers recruited to keep Aspire Dome clean, Mr. Engh quickly discovered that neither they nor their children had access to the soccer field. In response to Mr. Engh’s question whether any of their children were among those, the workers “looked at me as if I were some kind of world-class comedian trying my best to humour them,” he wrote. Asked what facilities were available for poor kids, the workers replied: "Nowhere."

Nobody seemed bothered by Qatar’s segregation of rich and poor and marginalization of a majority of the population when Mr. Engh recited his experience during one of the gathering’s many sessions that are often geared to projecting Qatar’s support for the disadvantaged. It was, he wrote, “Business as usual. The haves and the have-nots, Qatar style.”

Mr. Engh’s encounter with the workers happened three years ago. Qatar has since announced lofty standards for the working and living conditions of migrant workers, including the construction of seven new cities to accommodate those working on World Cup-related construction sight. It has also said that reforms of its controversial kafala or sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers would be enshrined in law by the end of this year.

For now, Qatar’s promises remain just that, promises. Credibility Qatar built in recent years by announcing the standards in for a conservative, autocratic Gulf state unprecedented collaboration with human rights and labour activists has been thoroughly wasted.

Qatar’s credibility has been undermined by its failure to take meaningful steps that would have enhanced confidence even if in some instances they would have broached the existential issues underlying Qatari resistance to change or addressed material concerns. It was further jeopardized by seeming Qatari backtracking on baby steps that held out the promise of change, and its repeated detention of foreign journalists seeking to report independently and unfettered on the plight of migrant workers.

At the core of Qatari resistance, is the fear of the Gulf state’s citizenry, who account for a mere 12 percent of the population, that granting foreigners any rights risks opening a Pandora’s Box that could lead to non-Qataris gaining political rights and easier access to citizenship. Similarly, many Qataris are anxious that engagement with the non-Qatari majority that could give it a stake in society would amount to acknowledging that their multi-ethnic, multi-religious demography is in fact a multicultural society in more than just a slogan – a step that would threaten to delude the Gulf state’s conservative, tribal, mono-culture.

Mr. Engh put his finger on the problem but appears to have overlooked these real life issues underlying effective segregation at the Aspire Dome. His observations did however put a hole in Qatari rhetoric of the value it attributes to foreigner that are helping it build a state-of-the art infrastructure.

They highlighted the fact that Qatar like other Gulf states at best views foreigners as guests obliged to leave when their professional contracts expire. Rather than adhering to universally accepted concept of a guest who is made to feel at home, Qatari policy is designed to ensure that non-Qataris do not develop ties that could persuade them to want to make Qatar their permanent home.

To be fair, Qatar is not unique in this. Even traditional immigration societies like Australia appear hostile to migrants and the mood in Europe has soured as tens of thousands of refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and repressive regimes in Africa force their way onto the continent. Yet Qatar in line with all Gulf states has preferred to fund aid to the refugees rather than open its own doors.

Nonetheless, Qatar two years ago appeared to be tinkering with its non-integration policy when it organized its first ever tournament for soccer teams of foreign workers in which 16 teams participated. Qatari officials at the time said they were considering a competition in which foreign worker teams would play their Qatari counterpart.

The plan never materialized and the chances of foreign workers and their kids being allowed to play in the Aspire Dome are without a demonstration of political will to introduce real reform virtually zero. Qatar’s credibility was further damaged by its crude efforts in the last year to fill stadia during international matches by bussing in foreign workers who were paid to attend a match rather than given the opportunity and access that spectators would expect to have.

An announcement earlier this month by California-based big data software company Sysorex that it had concluded a contract to deploy in Qatar a mobile “worker locationing and asset management platform” that would track migrant workers in their living quarters as well as in living quarters, recreation, healthcare, and retail facilities that they frequent sparked criticism from human rights and labour activists.

They denounced the move despite Sysorex’s effort to project the platform as a tool that would provide “insight into how residents flow through the community, which facilities are most popular, and where improvements can be made” as well as a technology that would improve first response in cases of emergency.

Citing the multiple problems with the sponsorship system, Human Rights Watch’s Nicholas McGeehan quipped: “Passport confiscation, recruitment fees, sponsorship-based employment, the prohibition of trade unions, and absence of grievance mechanisms combine to a toxic effect in Qatar. The last thing we need is yet another control mechanism.”


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

AMarriage on the Rocks? Saudis Look Beyond U.S. After Iran Deal (JMD quoted on Bloomberg)

July 30, 2015 — 7:01 AM SGT

Former Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal once compared the bond with the U.S. to a “Muslim marriage,” or one that wasn’t necessarily monogamous.

The kingdom’s recent overtures to other partners suggest the relationship is going through another reappraisal because of the landmark accord with regional rival Iran. After visiting Russia and France last month, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman returned home with $23 billion of aircraft and energy contracts.

“Trust between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. has been damaged by the Iran nuclear deal,” said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University in Washington. “Many in Saudi Arabia feel abandoned by the U.S.”

The U.S., the world’s largest arms supplier, and China each accounted for about 13 percent of Saudi trade last year

They have hit the rocks before, most notably in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks mainly by Saudi citizens. Yet the U.S.-led rapprochement with Iran raises the prospect of a tectonic shift in the Middle East that the Saudis haven’t had to contend with since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran.

For the Saudis, business with Russia can dilute dependence on the U.S., while for the more isolated Russians it’s all about winning friends and getting investment.

“Historically, the relationship between Russia and Saudi Arabia is one of mistrust,” said Hani Sabra, head analyst for the Middle East at Eurasia Group. “However, as a result of changing regional and global geopolitics, the opportunity for both sides to consider closer ties in the future is ripe.”

More Assertive

Changes made to the Saudi royal court by King Salman marked a shift toward a younger generation and underscored its more assertive role as the Middle East endures one of its most violent periods. Mohammed bin Salman, 29, was elevated to deputy crown prince after taking the post of defense minister in January and leading the campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.

In Riyadh, Saudi officials tell diplomats that they worry Iran will use the nuclear agreement to deepen its involvement in Arab affairs as sanctions are lifted and its economy and revenue expand. Former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Bandar bin Sultan, wrote this month in a newspaper editorial that the Iran deal would “wreak havoc” on the Middle East.

“Considering the unprecedented turmoil in the region, the Saudis are trying to keep all their options open,” said Fahad Nazer, a political analyst at consulting company JTG Inc. in Virginia who has worked for the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Like Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin is an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose opponents in a four-year civil war are backed by the Saudis. Putin’s support, though, is seen in Riyadh as wavering, said Nazer.
New Direction?

During the deputy crown prince’s visit to St. Petersburg in June, the Public Investment Fund agreed to jointly spend $10 billion with Russia on projects involving infrastructure, agriculture, medicine and logistics. In previous years, the Saudi fund wasn’t openly pursuing foreign investment.

After meeting with Putin, he flew to Paris, where 12 billion euros ($13.3 billion) in contracts were signed. They included a 3 billion-euro export finance accord between credit insurer Coface SA and the Public Investment Fund. The two countries also agreed to feasibility studies for two nuclear reactors, and Saudi Arabia agreed to buy 30 Airbus A320s and 20 Airbus A330s for 8 billion euros.

“There is a more strategic direction to investing abroad now that follows wider foreign policy interests,” said John Sfakianakis, the Riyadh-based director of the Middle East at investment company Ashmore Group.

‘Dollar Diplomacy’

Saudi Arabia has looked elsewhere before to demonstrate it’s not dependent on the U.S. After the collapse of trust following the terror attacks in which 15 of the 19 perpetrators were Saudi citizens, trade with China duly increased.

The U.S., the world’s largest arms supplier, and China each accounted for about 13 percent of Saudi trade last year. In 2001, U.S. imports and exports made up 19 percent of Saudi trade versus 4 percent for China. Russia, the second-largest seller of military hardware, barely registered either year.

“Financial muscle gets you only so far,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow in international studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “I doubt it will fundamentally sway Washington. Saudi leadership realizes that irrespective of its views of U.S. reliability and policies, there is no country that can substitute it.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter met with King Salman and Prince Mohammed on July 22 in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, where he tried to reassure them that the U.S. wasn’t wavering in its security commitment.

Saudi Arabia had the biggest percentage increase among the top 15 spenders on defense worldwide last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Outlays rose 17 percent to $80.8 billion. That’s as the halving of oil prices from 12 months ago reduces government revenue.

“For now, that will not stop it from engaging in dollar diplomacy,” said Dorsey. “It’s one of its foremost assets.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Cairo derby: Politics vs. repression


By James M. Dorsey

This month’s premier league final between Cairo’s two storied clubs, Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC, once the world’s most violent derby, was more than a clash between two soccer giants. It was a clash between management styles and diametrically opposed approaches towards militant, highly politicized, street battle-hardened soccer fans. The clash highlighted the advantages of engagement as opposed to the risk of radicalization and escalating political violence.

On the pitch like on the streets and university campuses of Egypt, Zamalek’s emergence as this year’s Egyptian champion despite Ahli having won the derby itself would seem to legitimize the club’s aggressive effort to criminalize its fan base.

The facts on the ground, however, suggest that Al Ahli’s engagement with its supporters has produced far better results, including greater cooperation with a group that like its Zamalek counterpart played a key role in the toppling in 2011 of President Hosni Mubarak and protests against all his successors in the past four years.

Members of Ultras Ahlawy, the Al Ahli support group, and Ultras White Knights (UWK), the
Zamalek fan group, form the core of prominent student and youth groups that have been targeted by the government of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who in 2013 toppled Egypt’s only democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in a military coup. More than a thousand protesters have been killed on Mr. Al Sisi’s watch while tens of thousands have been incarcerated and thousands expelled from universities.

Zamalek president Mortada Mansour, a larger than life figure, whose at times comical outbursts often persuade the government to maintain a distance even though they support Mr. Al Sisi’s policies, charged that Al Ahli’s victory on the pitch was due to “ghosts and jinns" and that his assertions are “written in the holy Quran.”

More seriously, Mr. Mortada has identified the UWK and other militant fans or ultras as enemies of the state aligned with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. He succeeded earlier this year in persuading a court to ban ultras as terrorists on par with the Muslim Brothers. In February, Mr. Mortada took pride in taking responsibility for a confrontation at a Cairo stadium between security forces and fans in which at least 20 supporters were killed.

Mr. Mortada, whose hard line mirrors the government’s tough approach towards its opponents, took his battle earlier this month to Al Ahli after thousands of Ultras Ahlawy were allowed to attend a training of their team in preparation for the derby.

UWK, whom Mr. Mortada accuses of having tried to assassinate him, are barred from Zamalek events. The Ahli fans reportedly used the training to mock Mr. Mortada in chants and hurl abuse at him not only because he heads their arch rival but as a result of his hard-line anti-ultras, pro-government stance. They also demanded a lifting of the ban on spectators attending soccer matches that has been in place for much of the four years since the fall of Mr. Mubarak.

In response, Mr. Mortada accused Al Ahli president Mahmoud Taha of allowing fans to “terrorise citizens” and of displaying a lack of respect for the ministries of defense and interior that controls the security forces. The interior ministry has been the main driver behind the ban. Mr. Mortada said he had filed charges against Al Ahli president Mahmoud Taher for hosting a terrorist organization.

Mr. Taha refused to be drawn by Mr. Mortada, noting in a veiled criticism of the ban on spectators that the ultras had “set an example to follow in terms of discipline, given how they had entered and left the stadium despite their large numbers. Ahli, the leader of Arab and African sports with its titles and trophies, refuses to be drawn into such matters … while stressing its respect for different opinions and views,” Mr. Taha said.

While Mr. Mortada’s hard line reflects government policy, Mr. Taha’s approach proved its value in December when Ahlawy fans stormed a stadium hours before it was to host an African championship final in support of their demand that they be allowed to attend the match.

In an unprecedented move, Mr. Taha stopped security forces from violently evicting the fans and negotiated their peaceful departure in exchange for interior ministry agreement to allow them into the stadium during the match. The fans agreed as part of the deal to subject themselves to security checks and not to disrupt the match, a promise they kept.

For a brief moment, the incident held out hope that the government may be persuaded that engagement rather than brutal repression is more likely to reduce tension and prevent radicalization among frustrated and angry youth who lack social and economic prospects.

Ultimately, the government’s willingness to work with Mr. Taha did not indicate a change of heart but a desire to ensure that the match from which Al Ahli emerged as the continent’s champion went off without a hitch.

If Mr. Taha’s soccer-focused approach has proven that engagement produces results, Mr. Mortada and the government’s insistence on brutal confrontation risks further escalation in a country that is fighting an armed insurgency in the Sinai and is witnessing the sprouting of militant urban groups that target security and judicial authorities.

“We had high hopes. We staged the revolution in 2011. The new generation has nothing to lose. We recognize that football is political. That’s why we are involved not only in football but also in politics. We oppose the brutality of this regime and its pawns. Neither Sisi nor Mortada are interested in politics. Their language is exclusively the language of repression,” said an ultra who is also a student leader.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Monday, July 20, 2015

‘Sports bodies must be monitored to end corruption’ (JMD in Today)

‘Sports bodies must be monitored to end corruption’

‘Sports bodies must be monitored to end corruption’
The Swiss authorities launched an investigation into FIFA’s awarding of hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Photo: Getty Images
Monies meant for distribution should be kept withindependent agency, says award-winning journalist
PUBLISHED: 4:16 AM, JULY 18, 2015
UPDATED: 5:30 AM, JULY 18, 2015
(PAGE 1 OF 1) - PAGINATE
SINGAPORE — Getting rid of the patronage system and having independent bodies that monitor the monies global sports groups collect can stop the scourge of corruption that has plagued many sports organisations, including football’s world governing body FIFA, said award-winning investigative journalist James Dorsey.
These two fundamental reforms are needed, he said, for the billions of dollars governing bodies earned through channels like international television rights to benefit the sports constituencies they serve and not corrupt individuals.
In May, FIFA president Sepp Blatter abruptly announced his resignation four days after securing a fifth term in office after a United States-led arrest of several FIFA officials and senior sports marketing executives in a corruption probe believed to involve more than US$100 million (S$136.5 million) spanning more than two decades.
The Swiss authorities also launched an investigation into the Zurich-based FIFA’s awarding of hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively which was shrouded by bribery allegations.
There is now a movement to limit the term of the FIFA presidency, but Dorsey, currently a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), said this is not enough.
“Term limitations are fine, but there are two fundamental reforms that are sine qua non,” Dorsey, 63, told TODAY.
“Without those reforms there will be no real change. The first is the eradication of the patronage system.
“FIFA, as an NGO, has a large income that for a significant extent is distributed to national football associations (NFAs) to develop football. FIFA distributes this money and ultimately the president distributes it to who he likes and who he doesn’t.”
Dorsey suggests the monies meant for distribution to NFAs should be parked with an independent institution such a board of trustees to guarantee they will be used as intended.
FIFA, which made US$4.8 billion from last year’s World Cup in Brazil, may be part of the board, but it must also have other stakeholders, especially the NFAs and representatives of players, fans, sponsors as well as others not directly associated with the sport.
Added Dorsey: “It must be totally independent of FIFA, in terms of what happens with those monies, who gets them, and on what basis they are given out. This has been totally lacking.”
The second reform cited by Dorsey is for sports organisations like FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to have independent bodies that monitor them in the same way countries regulate financial institutions.
“They need some form of governance. Part of the problem of global sports is that associations like FIFA, the IOC and AFC, whoever they may be, are essentially a law unto themselves. There is no reason why they should be that,” said Dorsey, a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.
The AFC, in particular, has been in Dorsey’s sights since 2011. Three months ago he handed incriminating documents and a video to the Malay Mail that led to AFC general secretary Alex Soosay resigning over allegations that he ordered a cover-up during a 2012 PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) audit of the organisation’s accounts.
At that time, Dorsey had broken a story that a PwC report asserted AFC’s disgraced former president Mohammed bin Hammam had “used the AFC’s company bank accounts to facilitate personal transactions as if they were his personal bank accounts”. Bin Hammam was previously charged by FIFA in 2011 with offering bribes in his attempt to run against Blatter for control of the world body and has since been banned for life from the sport.
In an interview with TODAY, Dorsey noted that almost a third of the members of the AFC 25-member board are from the Middle East, including current president Salman Khalifa of Bahrain who was elected in 2013. “They are all members of either autocratic ruling families that govern their companies or family corporations. The last two presidents are from the Middle East and they rule the AFC the way their countries are ruled,” said Dorsey.
“The centrepoint of Salman’s last two years in office has been the centralisation of power, burying any attempt at reform or investigating allegations of corruption in the PwC report.”

James Dorsey is an award-winning journalist who won the 2003 Dolf van den Broek prize, and has written for publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is to deliver a lecture entitled “FIFA’s Crisis: The Geopolitics of Football” at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies on Monday (July 20) at 3.30pm.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Israeli soccer violence moves racism up the government’s agenda


By James M. Dorsey

A violent display of racism by extreme nationalist supporters of storied Israeli football club Beitar Jerusalem coupled with recent Ethiopian Israeli protests against discrimination and the government’s handling of the capture of two Israelis by Hamas has moved racist attitudes towards dark-skinned Jews and Israeli Palestinian up the government’s agenda.

Driving calls for the banning of La Familia, the racist anti-Arab, anti-Muslim fan group of Beitar is concern about damage the group did to Israel’s image abroad rather than a worrisome trend in society at a time that Israel is anxious about the gathering momentum of calls to boycott, disinvest from and sanction the Jewish state for its policy towards the West Bank and Gaza.

Israeli foreign ministry officials charged that an incident in Belgium in which Beitar fans waved flags of the outlawed racist Kach party founded by assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane and threw flares and smoke guns on to the pitch as well as a missile that hit a goalkeeper during their club’s Europa League qualifier against Charleloi SC had damaged Israel’s international image. La Familia hung the Kach flags next to the Israeli flag in the stadium. The Israeli fans were welcomed in the stadium by neo-Nazi supporters of Charleroi with swastikas and Palestinian flags.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the incident, saying that he had discussed possible legal action against La Familia, believed to have several thousand followers, with internal security minister Gilad Erdan. “We will not allow them to besmirch the club’s entire fan base or harm the country’s image,” Netanyahu said.

In an editorial liberal newspaper Haaretz warned that “the problem is not Israel’s image in the world, but the overt racism that is fuelled by exactly those same officials who are now condemning it. Netanyahu and (culture and sports minister Miri) Regev are preaching to others what they themselves do not practice. With their racist remarks (‘The Arabs are flocking to the polling stations’), their conduct (threatening the funding of Arab cultural institutions) and their antidemocratic legislation – which is so typical of the government they head – they legitimize the phenomenon called Beitar Jerusalem,” Haaretz said. The paper was referring to Mr. Netanyahu’s fearmongering during the May election in which he warned that strong Palestinian participation threatened the outcome of the vote.

Founded by the revanchist wing of the Zionist movement with strong links to the right-wing nationalist Jewish underground in pre-state Palestine, Beitar has long been a darling of the Israeli right that counted nationalist leaders, including Mr. Netanyahu, among its supporters.

The only club to have consistently refused to hire a Palestinian in a country in which Palestinians ranks among its top players, Beitar has maintained its racist stance despite repeatedly being penalized by the Israel Football Association (IFA).

The economy ministry’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a historic break with past IFA and government policy of only mildly chastising Beitar, summoned the club days before the Belgium incident to justify its racist hiring policies.

The move came weeks after the IFA had narrowly pre-empted adoption of a resolution put forward by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) to suspend Israel’s membership in world soccer body FIFA in part because of its failure to crack down on racism in Israeli soccer. In a compromise, the PFA withdrew its demand in favour of the establishment of a FIFA committee that would monitor Israeli efforts to address Palestinian grievances.

“The more deeply one looks into the reasons and motives for Beitar’s racist conduct, the more strongly the impression emerges that the problem stems from the forgiving attitude of the authorities around it – from the Israel Football Association to the league administration, all the way to ministerial level. These bodies, using various and sundry pretexts, lend a hand to the phenomenon and allow it to exist – whether by turning a blind eye to it or giving convoluted and evasive explanations,” Haaretz said.

“The time has come to stop talking about image, ‘education’ or ‘processes,’ and start taking practical steps. Alongside harsh penalties for manifestations of racism, Beitar Jerusalem must be given a limited window of time during which it will be required to sign Arab players – even at the cost of a major confrontation with its fans. Instead of condemnation, the time has come to act,” the paper said.

The focus on Beitar’s racism further comes on the heels of protests in recent months by Ethiopian Israelis who first demonstrated against the beating up in April by police of an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian extraction and the subsequent closing of an investigation into the incident.

Ethiopian activists have since agreed to a request by the family of Avera Mengistu not to protest against the government’s handling of his disappearance in Gaza some ten months ago. The government issued a gag order on reporting of the incident that was lifted earlier this month under pressure from the media and various politicians. As a result of the gag order, even members of Mr. Netanyahu’s security cabinet and parliament’s foreign affairs and security committee were kept in the dark

Similarly, Mr. Netanyahu did not visit the Ethiopian family until earlier this month and only after his hostages and missing persons coordinator, Col. (Res.) Lior Lotan, was forced to apologize for telling the family that their son's release would be delayed if they criticized the prime minister.

Col. Lotan also insisted that the family refrain from connecting the government’s handling of their son’s case to the Ethiopian protests against discrimination. “I’m going to tell you this in the toughest way possible: Whoever puts on Avera the story of what’s between the Ethiopians and the State of Israel will leave him in Gaza for another year,” Col. Lotan was heard saying on tape.

Mr. Mengistu was detained after he climbed over a fence to enter Gaza. Hamas said it had released him after questioning but was still holding an Israeli Bedouin who legally crossed into Gaza in April. Mr. Mengistu is still missing.

Israeli media charged that the government had kept Mr. Mengistu’s disappearance secret because of his skin colour, noting that his family speaks poor Hebrew, lives in poverty, and does not have the wherewithal to stand up for their son’s rights.

Some analysts argue that the government’s handling of the case of Mr. Mengistu and the Bedouin, whose name has not been released, are not unique. Families of past Hamas prisoners and soldiers missing in action who are not of Ethiopian or Arab descent said they too had been humiliated and forcibly silenced by the government during their ordeal.

Nevertheless, the combustible mix of Israel’s image being on the line as a result of the violence of Beitar fans as well as Palestinian soccer efforts to force changes in Israeli policy, the protests against discrimination against dark-skinned Israelis, and the disappearance of Israeli nationals in Gaza puts Israeli racism in the spotlight. Israel cannot afford to be seen to be ignoring a dark side of its society and culture.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.