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


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

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James Corbett, Inside World Football


Saturday, September 30, 2017

Women’s driving: Saudi ultra-conservatives lick their wounds


By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia’s lifting of a ban on women’s driving raises a host of questions that transcend the issue of women’s rights and go to the core of the standing of the kingdom’s religious scholars and its impact on conservative opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic and social reforms.

There is little doubt that the scholars’ endorsement of the lifting of the ban amounted to the latest of a series of incidents in which Prince Mohammed imposed his will on scholars who long successfully opposed liberalization of religious and social codes based on the teachings of the 18th century ultra-conservative preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul al-Wahhab as well as Bedouin culture.

Adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia’s Shura or Advisory Council voted days after the lifting of the ban to allow women to issue fatwas or religious opinions, long a preserve of male Islamic scholars, for the first time.

Islamic scholars, many of whom enjoy celebrity status on social media, derived their ability to enforce ultra-conservative norms, including the ban on women’s driving, from a power sharing agreement concluded between the ruling Al Saud family and Ibn Abdul Wahhab’s followers that dates back to the founding of modern day Saudi Arabia.

It’s unlikely that the scholars who consistently maintained that women lacked the intelligence to drive and that driving would damage their ovaries, deprive them of their virginity and integrity, and promote immoral behaviour had a sudden, recent epiphany that convinced them that their decades-old beliefs were wrong even if those were falsely packaged as rooted in religion.

Prince Mohammed reportedly quipped a year before the lifting of the ban that “if women were allowed to ride camels (in the time of the Prophet Mohammed), perhaps we should let them drive cars, the modern-day camels.”

Commenting on the lifting of the ban, scholar Haifaa Jawad argued that “the biggest losers are undoubtedly Saudi religious scholars – legitimacy will now be questioned by millions of Muslims in the kingdom and beyond.”

That long-standing ultra-conservative values are alive and kicking among prominent scholars was evident when they felt confident enough earlier this year to voice opposition to Prince Mohammed’s loosening of social codes with the introduction of various forms of entertainment in a country in which cinemas and public concerts were banned.

Now a supporter of women’s driving, Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, warned in January that concerts and cinemas were harmful and cause immorality. Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, another member of the Council of Senior Scholars that endorsed lifting of the driving ban, called for a referendum, asserting that a majority of Saudis opposed concerts.

Other scholars targeted performers as well as, in lieu attacking the ruling family head-on, the entertainment authority established by Prince Mohammed to create an industry.

This time round Prince Mohammed made sure the ultra-conservatives would hold their fire by arresting in recent weeks scores of scholars, judges and intellectuals, whose views run the gamut from ultra-conservative to liberal. Among those arrested were scholars Salman al-Odah, Aaidh al-Qarni and Ali al-Omari, poet Ziyad bin Naheet and economist Essam al-Zamil, some of whom have more than 17 million followers on Twitter.

The detentions were also designed to silence alleged support in the kingdom for an end to the almost four-month old Gulf crisis that has pitted Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar and mounting criticism of the conduct of the kingdom’s ill-fated, 2.5-year old war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia this week lost its battle to prevent an independent United Nations investigation into abuses of human rights in Yemen by both the kingdom and Houthi rebels.

“It is hard to envisage MBS succeeding in his ambitious plans by royal decree. He needs to garner more consent. To obtain it, he must learn to tolerate debate and disagreement,” quipped The Economist, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

The arrests potentially could backfire. Those behind bars are likely to see their credibility rise while those that bent over backwards to accommodate the regime may find it increasingly difficult to justify their about-face to the more conservative segments of Saudi society.

To ensure continued buy-in into his reforms by Saudi youth, who account for more than half of the population, and counter opposition, Prince Mohammed has to both manage expectations, something he has yet to do, and start delivering on promises. The lifting of the driving ban and scores of entertainment events deliver on social aspects, but equally important will be yet-to be achieved delivery on jobs, opportunities and career paths for Saudi youth.

That is proving easier said than done as Saudis feel the cost of the prince’s unilateral rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract that promised a cradle-to-grave welfare state in exchange for surrender of political rights and acceptance of ultra-conservative moral and social codes.

Prince Mohammed was forced to re institute perks that were cancelled as part of an austerity program that saw prices, particularly of utilities, skyrocket.

The crown prince’s hopes for a $2 trillion evaluation of national oil company Aramco with the sale of a five percent stake in an initial public offering (IPO) expected next year has been called into question by potential investors who note that scrutiny could call the oil giant’s estimates of the kingdom’s oil reserves and security record into question.

Compounding the prince’s problems is the question whether and at what point the ultra-conservative religious establishment may feel that the cost of remaining silent or supporting reforms may be higher than the cost of standing against him. That decision could be influenced by the scholars’ ability to forge alliances with members of the ruling family reportedly opposed to Prince Mohammed.

Similarly, much will depend on the degree to which Prince Mohammed delivers on the expectations he has raised among an important segment of Saudi youth that aspires to jobs with career paths and a degree of social liberalization.

Despite an increasing number of entertainment opportunities and the lifting of the driving ban, Prince Mohammed has yet to manage the gap between unrealistic expectations and the timeframe within which he might be able to deliver on key economic aspects of his Vision 2030 reform program.

“The issue is how Saudis perceive change,” said Saudi scholar Abdul Al Lily in an interview last year.  He likened Vision 2030 to the wind in a Saudi proverb that says: “If there is a door that might bring wind, close the door.”

Saudi attitudes towards change are in Mr. Al Lily’s view stand-offish. “People don’t believe in change... The government doesn’t have a plan to sell Vision 2030. In addition, it has at least partially been drafted by foreigners. All of this is important. Implementing it will not be easy,” Mr. Al Lily said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, September 29, 2017

Stick to Sports? No Thanks. (JMD on Press Row)

Stick to Sports? No Thanks.

From: Press Row
 1  0  13 hours ago
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55:45
Another week of sports headlines off the field begins as Adam Zagoria from ZagsBlog.com joins the show to talk the latest in the FBI investigation of corruption and bribery in college basketball. Then, Christian breaks down the most recent moves in the NBA, including Carmelo Anthony's trade with Tommy Dee of TheKnicksBlog.com. Finally, the world of sports and politics collide as Christian is joined by James Dorsey of International Policy Digest who explains this is nothing new.
Below is a link to the podcast. I appear around the 40 minute mark. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Malaysian launderette owner stirs Asian hornet’s nest

By James M. Dorsey

Uproar about a launderette owner’s decision to bar non-Muslims from using his service has focused a spotlight on broader discriminatory attitudes in Malaysian society as well as elsewhere in Asia that are reinforced by Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam.

In contrast to many Asian leaders who have been reluctant to confront-ultra-conservatives head-on, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Sultan Iskander, the sovereign of the Malaysian state of Johor, did not mince his words in forcing the launderette owner to rescind his ban on non-Muslims and insist that Johor was “not a Taliban state.”

The silver-lining in the launderette owner’s controversial move is the fact that it sparked debate about discrimination in Malaysia. Malaysian opposition member of parliament Teo Nie Ching announced that she was considering introducing legislation to strengthen anti-discrimination in the country’s legal code. It was not immediately clear whether she would tackle Malaysia’s banning of the use of the word Allah by Christians and repression of the country's miniscule Shiite community in any proposed legislation.

Similarly, Malaysian lawyer Syahredzan Johan asked on Twitter what the difference was between what the difference was between a launderette owner refusing to service non-Muslims and Malaysian Chinese accepting only Chinese roommates or Malaysians refusing to rent properties to Africans.

“We need to look at the aspect of discrimination within our society… I think these are discussions that need to happen moving forwards instead of just pigeonholing it as something like increasing Islamisation or Talibanization,” Mr. Johan said.

The launderette uproar was but one of several incidents in Malaysia sparked by Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism. Ultra-conservatives stirred a furore over this year’s Better Beer Festival in Kuala Lumpur.

In contrast to Sultan Ibrahim’s response, Kuala Lumpur’s municipality caved in to Islamist agitation by refusing to authorize the annual event that aims to promote smaller breweries because it was politically sensitive.

Similarly, a decision by religious authorities in the Malaysian state of Kelantan to recommend counselling and impose a fine on a Muslim man for wearing shorts in public triggered fierce debate on social media. "Slowly, those educated in religious education in Middle East is trying to turn Malaysia into Taliban country,” said John Brian Anthony on Facebook.

The debate sparked by the string of incidents goes to the core of concern across Asia about a rising threat of jihadism as the Islamic State (IS) loses its territorial base in Syria and Iraq and looks for new pastures in South, Central and South-eastern Asia. A IS-affiliated group has been battling security forces in the Philippine city of Marawi for the past three months while Islamic militants are blamed for sparking the latest Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.

The challenge for Asian governments is to complement law enforcement and military measures to counter militants with inclusive policies that ensure that all segments of their populations have a stake in society.

That is proving to be a tall order for leaders like Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has used Islam to shore up his image tarnished by a massive corruption scandal, as well as Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Like others, the two leaders face popular pressure from Saudi-inspired Islamic militants. Similarly, Pakistani military and civilian leaders see militants as useful proxies in their dispute with India and geopolitical manoeuvring in Afghanistan.

There is little indication that Asian governments are capable or willing to confront deeply ingrained attitudes that have in part been fostered by a global, four-decade old, $100 billion Saudi campaign that propagated ultra-conservative visions of Islam in a bid to establish the kingdom as the leader of the Muslim world and to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of US influence in the Middle East.

The campaign has not only influenced segments of Muslim society across Asia, but also ensured that discrimination is enshrined in legislation in various countries that politically would be difficult, if not impossible, to revise.

Repealing blasphemy laws in countries like Indonesia and Pakistan would spark popular revolts. So would rolling back Saudi-inspired anti-Ahmadi legislation in Pakistan and anti-Shiite laws in Malaysia and discrimination of Ahmadis as well as gays and transgenders in various parts of Asia. Militants this year successfully blocked a Christian from running for re-election as governor of Jakarta after ensuring that he was convicted on blasphemy charges.

In Pakistan, a country in which Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism has left one of its largest footprints, supporters of a preacher who adheres to a strand of Sufism, a mystical wing of Islam denounced by ultra-conservatives, attacked a party in a region bordering on Afghanistan for playing music The incident demonstrated the pervasiveness of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism.

“If you use force to make people more religious or make them understand religion the way you understand it, then you are bringing more harm than benefit to the religion,” said Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish intellectual and journalist, minutes before boarding a plane at Kuala Lumpur International Airport after he was detained for 24 hours for giving a university lecture allegedly without having proper credentials.

In an indication of the risks of ingrained discrimination and racism, Malaysian authorities this week arrested an Indonesian supporter of IS who was on his way to Myanmar to support the Rohingya by attacking Myanmar targets.

The arrest highlighted the degree to which Asian leaders would have to think out of the box to tackle drivers of militancy and work towards religious and ethnic harmony. The Rohingya issue poses a threat that goes far beyond immediate humanitarian concerns or where to temporarily locate hundreds of thousands who in recent weeks have fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar, a patchwork of 135 predominantly Buddhist ethnic groups.

Differences of opinion about who the Rohingya are and where they belong among Myanmar Muslims and non-Muslims alike are not going to solve a problem that is fuelling militancy and potentially is becoming a rallying cry for the Muslim world.

“We don’t want to simply go back to Myanmar to be non-persons. We want to belong somewhere,” a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh was quoted by news media as saying.

The refugee hit the nail on the head. The Rohingya will continue to be a festering problem as long as no permanent solution is found. The stakes are not defining who they are or where they historically belong but creating a permanent, solution for a group whose unresolved plight goes to the future of Asia. The stakes are what kind of Asia Asians want and to what degree Asian leaders and societies are willing to confront problems head-on.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Repeal of women driving ban tests Saudi reform drive (JMD quoted on AFP)

Anuj Chopra

A woman walks down a street in Riyadh on September 27, 2017, after Saudi Arabia decided to allow women to drive from next June

Saudi Arabia's historic lifting of a ban on women driving will be a litmus test for its king-in-waiting, who has sought to sideline the kingdom's arch-conservatives as he accelerates reforms, analysts say.
The kingdom will issue driving licences to women from next June, in the most striking reform yet credited to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite the risk of a backlash from hardliners.
But after his recent crackdown on dissenters, including prominent clerics with huge followings, experts say the prince may face only a muted opposition.
"The lifting of a ban... will likely serve as a litmus test for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ability to introduce economic and social reforms despite conservative opposition," said James Dorsey, a fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"If last week's national day celebrations in which women were allowed to enter stadiums in anything to go by, the opposition is likely to be limited to protests on social media."
On Saturday, women were allowed for the first time into a sports stadium to mark national day, a move that chimes with the Prince Mohammed's "Vision 2030" reform plan.
Men and women also danced in the streets to drums and thumping electronic music, in scenes that were a stunning anomaly in a country known for its tight gender segregation and austere vision of Islam.
This gambit to loosen social restrictions in the ultra-conservative society was made possible partly by the latest crackdown, which was seen as a show of force by Prince Mohammed, experts say.
Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and former government advisor who went into exile in the United States, described a new Saudi era of "fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming" in an article published in The Washington Post.
- 'Assertion of power' -
Those arrests were not directly related to the driving ban, but apparently to an ongoing crisis with Gulf rival Qatar, said Jane Kinninmont from London-based Chatham House.
"But the arrests represented an assertion of power over the independent, politically influential clerics and sent a message that Prince Mohammed does not see himself as beholden to them as partners in government," Kinninmont told AFP.
"The fact that they have been arrested without significant unrest being triggered is likely to have made the Saudi leadership more confident that it can make (social) change without much in the way of opposition."
Prince Mohammed is set to be the first millennial to occupy the throne, in a country where half the population is under 25, when he takes over from his 81-year-old father King Salman.
"I think Prince Mohammed is ideologically committed to taking the Saudi state in a new direction: less austere, more nationalist," said Kristin Diwan, from the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
Unlike previous rulers, he has shown a willingness to tackle entrenched Saudi taboos, and is seen as catering to the aspirations of youth with an array of entertainment options and promoting more women in the workforce.
"Women should obviously have had the right to drive a long time ago -? the fact that this decision was so long in coming shows just how much has changed in Saudi Arabia with Prince Mohammed now wielding executive authority," said Perry Cammack, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
- 'Discriminatory practices' -
But hardliners could still emerge as a potent threat.
Many Saudis on social media, irked by the mixing of genders on national day, derisively compared the country to "Las Vegas".
"Patriotism does not mean sin" became a widely used hashtag, while some called for the religious police, whose powers have been curtailed in recent years, to restore moral order.
The government has sought to downplay their influence, saying that most senior clerics in the kingdom "agree that Islam does not ban women from driving".
But aside from religious hardliners, women also face opposition from a conservative society that is unaccustomed -- or fundamentally opposed -- to women drivers.
Under the country's guardianship system, a male family member -- normally the father, husband or brother -- must grant permission for a woman's study, travel and other activities.
It was unclear whether women would require their guardian's permission to apply for a driving licence.
"If by June next year women in Saudi Arabia are driving the streets without fear of arrest, then this will be a cause for celebration," said Philip Luther, from Amnesty International.
"But it is just one step. We also need to see a whole range of discriminatory laws and practices swept away."

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Women’s driving: Saudi Prince Mohammed’s litmus test

Source: Middle East Eye

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia’s long-awaited lifting of a ban on women’s driving, widely viewed as a symbol of Saudi misogyny, will likely serve as a litmus test for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to introduce economic and social reforms despite conservative opposition. 

It also distracts attention from international criticism of the kingdom’s war in Yemen and charges by human rights groups as well as some Muslim leaders that the kingdom is fostering sectarianism and prejudice against non-Muslims.

If last week’s national day celebrations in which women were for the first time allowed to enter a stadium is anything to go by, opposition is likely to be limited to protests on social media.

To be sure, thousands welcomed the move as well as the lifting of the ban and Saudi media reported that senior Islamic scholars, who for decades opposed expanding women’s rights and some of whom criticized Prince Mohammed’s effort to expand entertainment opportunities in the kingdom, said that they saw no religious objection to women’s driving.

Conservatives made their rejection of enhancing women’s rights in response to the national day celebrations.

"Patriotism does not mean sin. Of course, what is happening does not please God and his prophet. Patriotism is not dancing, free mixing, losing decency and playing music. What strange times," said one critic on Twitter.

A video of a man telling celebrating crowds that they have “no shame, no religion, no tribe" was widely shared on social media.

Hundreds of thousands used an Arabic hashtag demanding the restoration of powers to the kingdom’s religious police, whose ability to strictly enforce ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim moral codes was curbed last year.

A 24-year-old, speaking earlier this year to The Guardian, noted that ultra-conservatism maintains a hold on significant numbers of young people. “You know that the top 11 Twitter handles here are Salafi clerics, right? We are talking more than 20 million people who hang on their every word. They will not accept this sort of change. Never,” the youth said.

Talal Salama, a Saudi singer, was attacked on social media this week for singing a text from the Qur’an during the national day celebrations. “The disaster is not just that he is sitting singing the Quran, the disaster is that it was a party approved by the government that is allowing him to sing, said lawyer Musleh al-‘Udayni on Twitter.

In advance of the lifting of the ban, Saudi authorities banned Saad al-Hijri, head of fatwas (religious legal opinions) in the Asir governorate, from preaching for declaring that women should not drive because their brains shrink to a quarter the size of a man’s when they go shopping.

The suspension was the latest measure in a crackdown in which scores of Islamic scholars, including some of the kingdom’s most popular ones, judges and intellectuals, were arrested. The arrested were likely to ensure that conservative opposition to the lifting of the ban would be muted.

The kingdom’s decision to delay implementation of the decision until June next year gives the government time to neutralize opposition and serves as an indication of what it would take to ensure Saudi women’s rights.

To implement the decision, Saudi Arabia has to first eliminate bureaucratic, legal and social hurdles that prevent women from obtaining licenses, create facilities for women to learn how to drive, and train policemen to interact with female drivers in a country that enforces gender segregation and in which men largely interact only with female relatives.

The lifting of the ban is part of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan that seeks to diversify and streamline the economy and introduce limited social reform but avoid political liberalization.

With women accounting for half of the Saudi population and more than half of its university graduates, Vision 2030 indicates the limits on granting women’s rights by envisioning that women will account for only 30 percent of a reformed kingdom’s workforce.

While the lifting of the ban in a decree by King Salman allows women to apply for a license without the permission of their male guardian, the principle of male guardianship that subjects women to the will of their menfolk remains in place.

There is, moreover, for example, no indication that last week’s use of a stadium as a test case, will lead to a lifting of restrictions on women’s sporting rights, including free access to attend men’s competitions and the ability to practice and compete in a majority of sports disciplines that are not mentioned in the Qur’an.

The public relations value of the lifting of the ban was evident in the fact that it temporarily drew attention away from news that reflected badly on the kingdom, including mounting international criticism of Saudi conduct of its war in Yemen, that has pushed the country to the edge of the abyss. Saudi Arabia has desperately been seeking to avert censorship by the United Nations and defeat calls for an independent investigation.

It also put on the news backburner, a 62-page report by Human Rights Watch that, despite the banning of Mr. Al-Hijri, documented that that Saudi Arabia has permitted government-appointed religious scholars and clerics to refer to religious minorities in derogatory terms or demonize them in official documents and religious rulings that influence government decision-making.” Anti-Shia, anti-Sufi, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sentiment was evident in the Saudi education system and in the judiciary, the report published on Tuesday said.

Saudi Arabia adheres to a puritan interpretation of Islam that views Shiite Muslims as heretics and advocates avoidance by Muslims of non-Muslims.

The kingdom has spent an estimated $100 billion in the last four decades to propagate its austere vision of Islam in a bid to establish itself as the leader of the Muslim world and to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of US influence in the Middle East.

In doing so, it has contributed to Muslim societies like Malaysia and Indonesia becoming more conservative and intolerant towards minorities. Saudi ultra-conservative influence was visible earlier this week when an owner of a self-service launderette in the Malaysian state of Johor banned non-Muslims from using his services.

“Saudi Arabia has relentlessly promoted a reform narrative in recent years, yet it allows government-affiliated clerics and textbooks to openly demonize religious minorities such as Shia. This hate speech prolongs the systematic discrimination against the Shia minority and – at its worst – is employed by violent groups who attack them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Washed up: Malaysian launderette refuses non-Muslim customers

“For Muslim customers only. Leave your shoes outside,”

By James M. Dorsey

The owner of a self-service laundrette in the historic town of Muar in the Malaysian state of Johor likely had little inkling of the hornet’s nest he would stir up by putting up a sign barring non-Muslim from using his services. Yet, the sign that went viral on social media reignited debate about the nature of Islam and Malaysian culture in a country struggling with creeping Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism.

By implication, the owner, who declined to be identified, adopted in justifying his decision concepts of puritan interpretations of Islam inspired by Wahhabism and Salafism, understandings of the faith propagated by Saudi Arabia.

“For Muslim customers only. Leave your shoes outside,” read the sign in front of the launderette.

“If we look at the issue from an Islamic perspective, cleanliness is very important to us and something we must strive for at all times. There are other laundrettes available nearby. So, it wouldn’t be a problem for non-Muslims if they needed to find another place to wash their clothes,” the operator, who denied being a racist, said.

Mixed responses to the launderette owner’s decision, particularly in Johor, a state whose sovereigns have been in the forefront of voicing opposition to Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, laid bare deep divisions in Malaysian society that inform policy at both the federal and local level.

Eager to burnish its Muslim credentials, Malaysia has been together with Bangladesh and Turkey in the vanguard of those coming to the defense of Rohingya Muslims forced to flee Myanmar. An estimated 430,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks.

In a rare show of disagreement among members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia this week disassociated itself from a measured statement on the Rohingya crisis because it did not identify the Rohingya by name and constituted a "misrepresentation of the reality of the situation." Malaysia had wanted the statement to be more condemnatory of Myanmar operations against the Rohingya in Rakhine State.

Islamic militants, ultra-conservatives and political leaders eager to capitalize on an issue that evokes deep-seated emotions in the Muslim world have led the charge against Myanmar. While political leaders like Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan have condemned Myanmar, Islamic militants have called for the dispatch of fighters to Rakhine State to defend the Rohingya.

Malaysia, in a further gesture to conservatives, this week briefly detained Mustafa Akyol, a prominent Turkish journalist, intellectual, and author at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on suspicion of giving a lecture on Islam despite not having proper credentials.

Mr. Akyol, who was released after a night in detention, had been invited to give a lecture at Nottingham University’s Kuala Lumpur campus on his recently published book, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.

Malaysia, long viewed as a model of multiculturalism in a Muslim-majority state has increasingly adopted a harsher view of Islam highlighted by the banning of the use of the word Allah by Christians and repression of the country's miniscule Shiite community.

Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat and prominent intellectual, noted already two years ago a "significant and continuing narrowing of the political and social space for non-Muslims" in Malaysia. Mr. Kausikan blamed the emergence of a harsher interpretation of Islam on "Arab influences from the Middle East (that) have for several decades steadily eroded the Malay variant of Islam...replacing it with a more austere and exclusive interpretation."

Saudi Arabia has spent an estimated $100 billion in the last four decades to propagate its austere vision of Islam in a bid to establish itself as the leader of the Muslim world and to counter the revolutionary appeal of Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled a monarch and an icon of US influence in the Middle East.

In the latest manifestation of the influence of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, religious authorities in Johor came to the defense of the laundrette owner.

"If someone wants to do it, then it is a good thing because some Muslims hold doubts over laundromat services.  It is better for Muslims to be free of such doubts when it comes to cleanliness as it will help Muslims fulfil religious obligations," said Johor Mufti Datuk Mohd Tahrir Samsudin.

Johor Islamic Religious Affairs Committee chairman Abd Mutalip Abd Rahim added that “as Muslims who live in a multi-racial society, we cannot be too rigid in upholding such matters, but at the same time, should not belittle this effort taken by the operator of the laundromat either."

In contrast to the religious figures, Johor prince Tunku Idris Sultan Ibrahim, following in the footsteps of his father, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Sultan Iskander, who last year confronted Saudi-inspired purists head-on, said he was “appalled” by the laundrette’s move

In a series of postings on Instagram, Prince Tunku Idris, described the owner’s decision as ‘extreme” and noted that "the Quran says, 'speak good to people' - it doesn't say 'speak good only to Muslims'." Prince Tunku Idris said further that “Islam has taught me about tolerance and respecting people of other faith. Not about supremacy over others.”

Similarly, the prince’s straight-talking father didn’t mince words when he last year denounced Wahhabi and Salafi practices by calling on Malaysians to uphold their country’s culture and not imitate Arabs. The sultan decried what he described as creeping Arabization of the Malay language by insisting on using Malay language references to religious practices and Muslim holidays rather than Arabic ones.

“If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practise Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you. I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture. At least I am real and not a hypocrite and the people of Johor know who their ruler is,” the sultan said.

The sultan spoke out after his state’s public works department had put up a notice warning women that they would be hung by their hair in hell if they failed to cover up. The notice, which also circulated on social media, was quickly taken down on the ruler’s orders.

“Since when is JKR (the public works), whether at state or district level, being put in charge of religious matters? Their main job is to make sure the roads are properly maintained and not worry about women’s hair. It is not the business of government departments to worry about people’s dressing. Just do what you are paid to do and mind your own business,” Sultan Ibrahim said.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Shaping Eurasia’s future: Unintended consequences of abrogating Iran’s nuclear deal

Source: Nuclear News Net

By James M. Dorsey

US President Donald J. Trump’s targeting of a two-year-old agreement curtailing Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons could not only spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but also tilt European-Chinese competition for domination of Eurasia’s future energy infrastructure in China’s favour.

As Mr. Trump keeps the world in suspense by declining to disclose how he intends to correct what he calls an embarrassment, Iranian leaders are betting against the odds that European signatories of the nuclear agreement will persuade him to stop short of pulling out of the nuclear deal and avoid steps that would effectively undermine the accord.

In doing so, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is relying on common interests with Europe: a desire to keep the deal in place, prevent Iranian hardliners from getting the upper hand in his country’s power struggles, avoid a nuclear arms race, and ensure a European role in shaping the future architecture of Eurasian energy.

However, if Mr. Trump’s record is anything to go by, he is unlikely to heed European calls for keeping the nuclear deal in place, much like he ignored pressure from Europe and others not to pull out of the Paris climate accord.

A more likely scenario is that Mr. Trump will refuse to certify Iranian compliance with the deal by October 15, a quarterly requirement mandated by Congress. That would open the door to Congress re-imposing secondary sanctions lifted as part of the nuclear deal.

Renewed secondary sanctions would put Europe in an impossible position. They would not only put European companies and banks at risk of running afoul of US law if they continued to do business with Iran, but also unleash consequences that could significantly increase tension in the Middle East and ripple across Eurasia.

De facto European compliance would significantly weaken the agreement’s value to Iran, boost pro-Chinese Iranian hardliners opposed to the deal and eager to free Iran from restrictions on its nuclear program, risk a nuclear arms race in an environment in which the US is losing out in the Middle East’s quest for nuclear energy that contains tacit building blocks for programs to develop nuclear weapons, and potentially tilt Iran towards China in determining the flow of its natural gas – a key factor in the quest to shape the future architecture of Eurasian energy. 

“If the United States leaves the treaty and Europe follows, then this deal will certainly collapse and Iran will go back to what it was before and, technically speaking, to a much higher level,” said Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization.

The United States may be unprepared for the fallout of Iran pursuing an unfettered nuclear program, beyond its ability to tighten the economic screws, wield military power, and support potential efforts to destabilize Iran in a bid to achieve regime change.

A group of former senior US government and military officials recently warned that the United States in the absence of a strategy to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy was lagging behind China and Russia in helping Middle Eastern states develop programs of their own. The officials cautioned that Mr. Trump’s failure to articulate a policy undermined “Washington’s ability to shape the highest standards of non-proliferation safeguards, safety, and security.”

Noting that “the Middle East is in the process of going nuclear,” the officials went on to say that “the big question is whether the nuclearization of the region will be dominated by Russia and China, or by the host countries in partnership with the United States and its allies under a proven program that ensures absolute safety, security and standardization throughout the nuclear fuel cycle.”

Most Middle Eastern states are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They have disavowed the pursuit of nuclear weapons and called for a nuclear-free zone in the region in a bid to force Israel to declare its nuclear weapons and join the NPT and at the same time avert a nuclear arms race with Iran.

Saudi cooperation with nuclear power Pakistan has nonetheless long been a source of speculation about the kingdom’s ambition. Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, asserted that Saudi Arabia’s close ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s gave the kingdom arms’ length access to his country’s nuclear capabilities.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said earlier this year that it had uncovered evidence that future Pakistani “assistance would not involve Pakistan supplying Saudi Arabia with a full nuclear weapon or weapons; however, Pakistan may assist in other important ways, such as supplying sensitive equipment, materials, and know-how used in enrichment or reprocessing.”

The report said it was unclear whether “Pakistan and Saudi Arabia may be cooperating on sensitive nuclear technologies in Pakistan. In an extreme case, Saudi Arabia may be financing, or will finance, an unsafeguarded uranium enrichment facility in Pakistan for later use, either in a civil or military program,” the institute said.

Rather than embarking on a covert program, the institute predicted that Saudi Arabia would, for now, focus on building up its civilian nuclear infrastructure as well as a robust nuclear engineering and scientific workforce.

This would allow the kingdom to take command of all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle at some point in the future. That process could accelerate if US actions undermine the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Saudi Arabia has in recent years significantly expanded graduate programs at its five nuclear research centres as part of a $100 billion program to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2030.

Saudi King Salman earlier this year signed an agreement with China on cooperation on nuclear energy. The agreement is for a feasibility study for the construction of high-temperature gas-cooled (HTGR) nuclear power plants in the kingdom as well as cooperation in intellectual property and the development of a domestic industrial supply chain for HTGRs built in Saudi Arabia.

The agreement was one of number nuclear-related understandings concluded with China in recent years. Saudi Arabia has signed similar agreements with France, the United States, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Argentina.

Lurking in the background of the battle for the future of the Iranian nuclear agreement is an unrelated but no less important issue: the future of Eurasia’s energy architecture. US efforts to undermine the deal and de facto European compliance with US sanctions could push Iran to favour China rather than Europe in allocating its estimated surplus over the next five years of 24.6 billion cubic metres of natural gas. Iran boasts the world’s second largest natural gas reserves and its fourth largest oil reserves.

“Not enough to supply all major markets, Tehran will face a crucial geopolitical choice for the destination of its piped exports. Iran will be able to export piped gas to two of the following three markets: European Union (EU)/ Turkey via the Southern Gas Corridor centring on the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), India via an Iran-Oman-India pipeline, or China via either Turkmenistan or Pakistan. The degree to which the system of energy relationships in Eurasia will be more oriented toward the European Union or China will depend on the extent to which each secures Caspian piped gas exports through pipeline infrastructure directed to its respective markets,” said energy scholar Micha’el Tanchum.

The lifting of international sanctions as part of the nuclear agreement gave Iran a vested interest in deploying its energy wealth in ways that would allow it to balance its relations with China and Europe. A Europe incapable of developing economic ties with the Islamic republic, including the expansion of pipeline infrastructure, could undermine Iran’s calculus to China’s benefit.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Testing the waters: Saudi women get one-time access to a stadium


By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia's 85th birthday could prove to be historic -- one that could put to the test opposition to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform plans, even if he has cracked down on potential critics in recent weeks.

Saudi women, barred from stadia, are being allowed into Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium for the first time. Granted not to watch a soccer match from which they remain banned, but to attend national day celebrations. The move comes six weeks after Saudi Arabia announced that physical education for girls would for the first time be included in school curricula.

To accommodate the kingdom’s strict gender segregation, sections of the stadium are being delineated into sections for men and for families, much like what happens in other public spaces. The notion that if women can attend national day celebrations, they can also watch soccer matches will strengthen the hand of long-time proponents like the head of the Saudi Arabian Football Association (SAFF), Ahmed Eid Al-Harbi, of a lifting of the ban.

The move knocks down a psychological barrier even if it is primarily designed to project the kingdom in a more favourable light amid fierce criticism of its human rights record and conduct of the war in Yemen and to promote Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform agenda of greater economic diversification and greater social freedom.

Granting women access to the stadium also constitutes a testing of the waters. Prince Mohammed’s proposed reforms, articulated in his Vision 2030 plan, have largely been welcomed by Saudi youth, who account for more than 50 percent of the population, but criticized by religious hardliners.

Prince Mohammed’s popularity rides on expectations that his reforms will produce jobs and loosen social restrictions that he has yet to fulfil. His reforms involve a unilateral rewriting of Saudi Arabia’s social contract that amounted to a cradle-to-grave welfare state in exchange for surrender of all political rights and acceptance of Wahhabism’s strict moral codes.

Many Saudis have vented their frustration and anger on social media, the one space in which the kingdom until recently tolerated a limited degree of criticism. In one instance, Saudi writer Turki Al Shalhoub, who has 70,000 followers on Twitter, tweeted in April a cartoon showing Saudis being crushed under newly imposed taxes. He referred to prince Mohammed’s plan as “the vision of poverty.”

Grumbling and online protests persuaded the government in April to roll back some of its austerity measures and restore most of the perks enjoyed by government employees.

“The problem is that Vision 2030 has become synonymous with cutting salaries, taxing people and stop-ping benefits,” said Mark C. Thompson, a Middle East scholar at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, who conducted a survey of young Saudi men.

Ultra-conservative backlash has pockmarked every bend of Prince Mohammed’s path. Saudi Arabia’s Middle East Broadcasting Center Group (MBC Group), owned by Waleed bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim, scion of a family with close ties to the Al Sauds, was forced to revoke and apologize for a campaign aimed at empowering women. Some viewers called for a boycott of MBC.

A crackdown in recent weeks on the prince’s potential critics, involving the arrest of scores of popular Islamic scholars, academics, intellectuals and judges, and the dismissal of university staff believed to support the Muslim Brotherhood, makes it easier for Prince Mohammed to test the waters.

To maintain support for his agenda, which is as much designed to initiate badly needed economic and social change as it is intended to prevent any form of political liberalization, Prince Mohammed has in recent weeks employed two strategies: using soccer to boost his image in a football-crazy country, and building an entertainment industry in a kingdom in which concepts of fun were long frowned upon, if not banned.

Sports is a key pillar of Vision 2030 as part of a bid to improve health in a country that has some of the world’s highest obesity and diabetes rates.

In line with a long-standing practice of Arab autocrats to hitch their popularity to their country’s soccer success, Prince Mohammed earlier this month granted fans, men only, free access to the stadium to attend a World Cup qualifier against Japan. Prince Mohammed made sure that he was in the stadium to witness the national team’s success.

The sensitivity involved in granting women access to the stadium for the national day celebrations became evident when a imam was criticized for describing Saudi Arabia’s defeat of Japan that paved the way for the kingdom’s participation in the 2018 World Cup as a blessing from God.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly in the last five tears floated the notion of granting women access to stadiums, only to drop the idea because of hard-line religious opposition. In bowing to pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow women to compete in Olympic games, the kingdom fielded women athletes for the first time in 2012. It has since said that women would only be allowed to compete in disciplines mentioned in the Qur’an.

Saudi Arabia’s Shura or Advisory Council earlier this year rejected a proposal to establish sports colleges for women.

In a bid to cater to aspirations of Saudi youth, the government announced that it was investing $2.7 billion in the creation of an entertainment industry in a country that bans cinemas and theatres. As part of the initiative, the government plans to build beach resorts, hotels and residential units on about 160 kilometres of sandy coastline on the Red Sea. It was not clear whether the region would adopt more liberal social codes on issues such as women’s dress.

"By the end of 2030, the company's projects aim to serve more than 50 million visitors annually and create more than 22,000 jobs in the Kingdom, which will contribute around 8 billion Saudi Riyals ($2 billion) to the GDP," the state-owned Saudi Press Agency said.
The kingdom’s religious establishment has repeatedly criticised Prince Mohammed’s social liberalization effort, including introduction of modern forms entertainment, but largely endorsed his economic plans.

A 24-year-old speaking earlier this year to The Guardian, noted that ultra-conservatism maintain a hold on significant numbers of young people. “You know that the top 11 Twitter handles here are Salafi clerics, right? We are talking more than 20 million people who hang on their every word. They will not accept this sort of change. Never,” the youth said

Prince Mohammed’s crackdown is likely to pre-empt any criticism of women entering the stadium for national day. That, however, simply pushes criticism out of the public eye. If anything, the crackdown suggests that Prince Mohammed feels less confident and reverts to Arab autocratic tradition: repress rather than engage.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and four forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as The Gulf Crisis: Small States Battle It Out, Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.