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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Saudi Arabia’s Lebanon gamble may pay off

Source: MyBeirut@hronicles

By James M. Dorsey

Time will tell, but Saudi Arabia’s gamble to pressure Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed, Lebanese Shiite militia, by forcing Saad Hariri, the country’s prime minister, to resign, may be paying off despite widespread perceptions that the manoeuvre backfired.

Broad international support for Mr. Hariri following his announcement from Riyadh in a speech in which he denounced Hezbollah as an Iranian proxy that was wreaking havoc in the Middle East and the prime minister’s decision to put his resignation on hold once he returned to Beirut to a rock star’s welcome reinforced the belief that Saudi Arabia had overplayed his hand.

Mr. Hariri’s decision has, however, opened the door to backroom negotiations in which Hezbollah, a major Lebanese political force, is finding that it may have to compromise to avoid a political breakdown in Lebanon and secure achievement of its most immediate goals.

Mr. Hariri is believed to be demanding that Hezbollah halt its support to Houthi rebels in Yemen and withdraw from Syria where its fighters supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in line with Lebanese government policy not to become involved in conflicts raging elsewhere in the region.

Hezbollah signalled a willingness to compromise by urging Mr. Hariri to withdraw his resignation, calling for calm, advising its supporters not to take to the streets, and announcing that it was withdrawing some of its units from Syria and Iraq, where they supported Shiite militias in their fight against the Islamic State.

Mr. Hariri, who signalled this week that he may withdraw his resignation, put it earlier on hold at the request of Lebanese President of Michel Aoun, a Christian ally of Hezbollah, who allowed the militia in recent years to outmanoeuvre the prime minister. At the same time, Hezbollah charged that Mr. Hariri had not announced his resignation of his own free will but had been forced to do so by Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Hariri, who blames Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, his father and prime minister at the time of his death, agreed to Mr. Aoun’s election as president and to become head of a government that was dominated by Hezbollah in the false belief that Mr. Aoun would ensure that the militia would not endanger Lebanon’s effort to avoid being sucked into the civil war raging in neighbouring Syria.

Bruised by his inability to force Hezbollah’s hand, Mr. Hariri appears to have reversed his slide in popularity with his threat to resign and enhanced his prospects in forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Mr. Hariri’s newly found popularity and leverage, despite Saudi Arabia’s zero-sum-game approach to its proxy wars with Iran in Lebanon and elsewhere, may enable him to cut a deal that would allow Hezbollah to focus on its all-important goal of securing Lebanese-Syrian relations at the expense of the Houthis in Yemen.

To be fair, Hezbollah and Iran view the Houthis as an opportunity to complicate life for Saudi Arabia in the kingdom’s backyard rather than as a strategic priority. Far more crucial is ensuring that Lebanon maintains close ties to the government of Mr. Al-Assad. Curbing the Houthis, who recently fired a ballistic missile at the international airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh, is at the top of the kingdom’s agenda.

Hezbollah, Syria and Iran need Lebanon to have normal, if not close ties to an-Al Assad government once the guns fall silent given that international and US sanctions against Syria as well as Mr, Al-Assad and his associates are likely to remain in place. Lebanon has long been Syria’s vehicle to circumvent the sanctions.

That becomes even more important against the backdrop of China suggesting that it would contribute to post-war Syrian reconstruction and could see Syria becoming an important node in its Belt and Road initiative that intends to enmesh Eurasia in a web of infrastructure, transportation and telecommunication links that would link Europe and much of Asia to China.

Like so often in recent years, Saudi Arabia could prove to be its own worst enemy in its effort to curb Iranian influence and win tactical victories in what amounts to a dangerous regional chess games in which Saudi players have not always thought their moves through.

A wild card in Mr. Hariri’s efforts to cut a deal that would weaken Iranian influence in Yemen and force Hezbollah to act more as a Lebanese rather than a regional player while at the same time allowing it to protect Syrian interests is staunchly anti-Iranian Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan, a major influence on Crown Prince Mohammed’s regional strategy.

A former military attaché in Lebanon and the kingdom’s first ambassador to Iraq since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Iraq, who was asked by the Iraqi government to leave after only nine months in Baghdad, Mr. Al-Sabhan has successfully advised Prince Mohammed to adopt an uncompromising approach towards Hezbollah.

US officials, according to Associated Press, accused Mr. Al-Sabhan when he visited Washington earlier this month of undermining US policy in Lebanon that involves strengthening the Lebanese armed forces to enable it to match Hezbollah’s military power and supporting Lebanon’s hosting of more than a million Syrian refugees.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged Mr. Al-Sabhan’s influence by denouncing him in a recent speech as a “hairy monkey” and “man acting like a child.”

In response, Mr. Al-Sabhan tweeted that “if an incompetent man criticizes me, this is proof that I am a whole man.”

A deal between Mr. Hariri and Hezbollah is unlikely to make the likes of Mr. A-Sabhan happy because it would continue to legitimize the Iranian ally. Nonetheless, it could help the kingdom with its ill-fated intervention in Yemen that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis and cost Saudi Arabia enormous reputational capital.


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.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

'UK and Saudi Arabia are interested in changing the perception of the war in Yemen' - James M. Dorsey on Radio Sputnik

Gulf Crisis Creates Opportunity for Asian Nations (JMD on Pragati)

Gulf Crisis Creates Opportunity for Asian Nations

The rift between the Gulf
countries and Qatar has
created a space for Asian
countries to step in to
engage with the small
peninsular state.

There’s a silver lining for Asian countries in the
six-month old crisis in the Gulf that pits a UAE-
Saudi-led alliance against Qatar. That is as long
as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates
shy away from attempting to harness their
financial muscle to shore up lagging
international support for their diplomatic and
economic boycott of the idiosyncratic Gulf state.

Asian nations, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka,
Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, whose
nationals populate the Gulf’s labour force, have
already reaped initial benefits with Qatar, eager to
put its best foot forward, significantly reforming its
Qatar recently became the first Gulf state to introduce
a minimum wage, albeit criticized by human rights
groups for being at $200 below earning levels in
many of the labour-supplying states. It has also
sought to improve workers’ rights and committed to
improving their living conditions.

Qatar was under pressure to reform the kafala
system long before the Gulf crisis erupted, but the
dispute with its Gulf neighbours strengthened its
interest in being seen to be doing the right thing.
Its moves are over time likely to persuade other
Gulf states to follow suit.

The boycott as a result of its refusal to accept 
UAE-Saudi demands that would curtail its
independence has forced Qatar to restructure
trade relationships, diversify sources for goods
and services, creative alternative port alliances,
and recalibrate the strategy of its national carrier,
Qatar Airways.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and their allies insist that
Qatar unconditionally break its ties to various
political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood,
adhere to Saudi and UAE foreign policy, reduce
relations with Iran, shutter the Al Jazeera television
network, and accept monitoring of its compliance.
Qatar has rejected any infringement of its sovereignty
and called for a negotiated solution.

The two countries have so far shown no willingness to
compromise on their insistence on unconditional Qatari
acceptance, but have also shied away from escalating the
dispute, by among others pressuring third parties to
choose sides.

The dispute has further divided the Arab world with some
countries like Egypt and Bahrain siding with the UAE and
Saudi Arabia, others like Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and
Algeria sitting on the side lines and calling for a negotiated
solution, and finally nations like Oman and Algeria who have
stepped in to help Qatar offset the impact of the boycott.

The fracturing of the Arab world was on display at a meeting
in Cairo in mid-November of Arab foreign ministers. Saudi
Arabia was able to wrest a statement condemning Iran and its
Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, but failed to achieve a consensus as
Lebanon teetered on the balance because of Saudi pressure.

Without breaking the stalemate and the initiation of
negotiations that at best would achieve a face saving formula
that falls short of a fundamental resolution, the dispute is likely
to settle in as a fact of life and further undermine the Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) that groups the six Gulf states. Saudi
Arabia and its allies have said they were not contemplating
military intervention even if they have sought to foster tribal
opposition to Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani
led by lesser known members of the ruling family.

The UAE’s articulate ambassador to Russia, Omar Ghobash,
suggested in June that “there are certain economic sanctions that
we can take which are being considered right now. One possibility
would be to impose conditions on our own trading partners and
say you want to work with us then you have got to make a
commercial choice.”

Six months later, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have yet to act on their
threat, creating business opportunities as Qatar settles in for the
long haul and structurally ensures that it will no longer depend
primarily on its Gulf neighbours.

Food is one key area, making food security a Qatari priority. 
Turkey and Iran were quick to step in to fill the gap created by the
Saudi ban on export to Qatar of dairy and other products. With the
import of some 4,000 cows, Qatar has sought to achieve a degree of
self-sufficiency with domestic production within a matter of months
accounting for approximately 30 percent of consumption. Nonetheless,
with a minimal food processing industry, Qatar will seek to diversify
its sources, creating opportunity for Asian producers.

With the loss of some 20 Gulf destinations as a result of the boycott,
state-owned Qatar Airways, the region’s second largest airline, may
be the Qatari entity most affected by the crisis. Against the backdrop
of a likely annual loss, Qatar Airways is looking to expand its route
network elsewhere and weighing stakes in other airlines.

Asia is an obvious target. Qatar is scheduled to initiate flights to
Canberra in Australia, Chiang Mai and Utapao in Thailand, and
Chittagong in Bangladesh in the next year. The airline has rejected
proposals that it bid for Air India, but plans to move ahead with plans
for the launch of a domestic Indian airline. Elsewhere, Qatar Airways
acquired a 9.61 percent stake in troubled Hong Kong-based 
Cathay Pacific for $662 million.

Similarly, Qatar has had to compensate for its loss of port facilities,
primarily in the UAE by diverting to Salalah in Oman and Singapore.
While that solved the Gulf state’s immediate bottlenecks, it is probable
that Qatar will take an interest in other Asian ports in competition with
Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Given Saudi interest in China-backed ventures such as Pakistan’s
Gwadar and the Maldives, Qatar could well look at Indian alternatives,
including the Indian-supported Iranian port of Chabahar, a mere 75
kilometres further up the coat from Gwadar. Singapore port has stepped
in with Qatar availing itself of shipping and logistical services. Vietnam
and India see opportunities in the sale of food and construction materials.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Asian countries like India, in a bid to ensure
the security of their energy supplies, are looking at diversifying their
sources and increasing the non-Middle Eastern portion from producers like
the United States. Indian Oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan adopted a tough
stand in recent talks with OPEC Secretary General Sanusi Mohammad
Barkindo, advising him that India was looking at alternative sourcing. India
recently cut crude oil imports from Iran because of stalled negotiations over
the development of an offshore gas deposit in the Gulf, forcing Iran to look 
for alternative buyers in Europe.

The Gulf, irrespective of if and how the crisis may be resolved, is unlikely to
return to the status quo ante. As a result, the crisis is certain to influence
political, economic and commercial relationships for decades to come. That
creates opportunity that Asian nations potentially can capitalize on.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Targeting Islamic scholars from Malaysia to Tunisia, Saudia Arabia puts itself in the bull’s eye

Source: Sabsetej
By James M. Dorsey

By declaring the Qatar-based International Union of Islamic Scholars (ILUM) a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia is confronting some of the world’s foremost Islamic political parties and religious personalities, opening itself up to criticism for its overtures to Israel, and fuelling controversy in countries like Malaysia and Tunisia.

In a statement earlier this week, Saudi Arabia charged that ILUM was “using Islamic rhetoric as a cover to facilitate terrorist activities.” The banning of ILUM goes to the heart of the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar and is driven by United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam.

The UAE for several years has sought with little evident success to counter ILUM’s influence by establishing groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam and marks a next phase in a four-decade long, $100 billion campaign waged by the kingdom to counter Iran by spreading for the longest period of time Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, that often served as an ideological inspiration for jihadist philosophy – an iteration ultra-conservatives have condemned.

ILUM “worked on destroying major religious institutions in the Muslim world, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar in Egypt,” one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning, charged Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist and columnist for Al Arabiya.

Al Arabiya’s owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, was among the kingdom’s top media barons arrested in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen under the mum of anti-corruption.

“The terrorism project hiding under Islam launched its work around the same time organizations which issue extremist fatwas (religious legal opinions) were founded. Like al-Qaeda and ISIS (an acronym for the Islamic State), these jurisprudential groups said they refuse to be local as they view themselves as global organizations that cross borders. The most dangerous aspect of terrorism is extremist ideology. We realize this well now,” Mr Al-Rashed said.

The Council of Senior Scholars, despite having endorsed Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a bid to salvage what it can of the power sharing agreement that from the kingdom’s founding granted his ruling Al Saud family legitimacy, is a body of ultra-conservative Islamic scholars.

Various statements by the council and its members critical of aspects of Prince Mohammed’s economic and social reform since his rise in 2015 suggest that support among its scholars is not deep-seated.

Prince Mohammed recently vowed to move the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism and towards what he described as a more “moderate” form of Islam.

Speaking to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed argued that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed  there were musical theatres, an absence of segregation of men and women, and respect for Christians and Jews, who were anointed People of the Book in the Qur’an. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman! Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?” Prince Mohammed asked.

Authorities days later banned pilgrims from taking photos and videos in Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in line with an ultra-conservative precept that forbids human images. The ban was imposed after Israeli blogger Ben Tzion posted a selfie in Mecca on social media. Authorities bar non-Muslims from entering the two holy cities.

In a statement, authorities said the ban was intended to protect and preserve Islam's holiest sites, prevent the disturbance of worshippers, and ensure tranquillity while performing acts of worship.

Founded by controversial Egyptian-born scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most prominent living clerics and believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, ILUM members include Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahada Party, and Malaysian member of parliament and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) head Abdul Hadi bin Awang.

Mr. Al-Qaradawi, a naturalized Qatari citizen who in the past justified suicide bombings in Israel but has since condemned them,  was labelled a terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The UAE-Saudi-led alliance demanded that Qatar act against Mr. El-Qaradawi and scores of others as a condition for lifting the six-month-old boycott.

Mr. El-Ghannouchi was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy's Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011. He was also awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize. Mr. El-Ghannouchi is widely credited for ensuring that Tunisia became the only Arab country to have successfully emerged from the 2011 Arab popular revolts as a democracy.

The banning of ILUM has, moreover, sparked political controversy in Malaysia. Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, recently noted a deepening involvement of Malaysia’s religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”

“Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,” added Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad

Critics of PAS  demanded that Mr. Bin Awang, a vice-president of the group, “come clean that he does not preach hatred” in the words of former PAS leader Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and called on the government to ask Saudi Arabia for information to back up its charges against the union.

Mr Bin Awang, referring to Saudi King Salman, asserted last week that he relied on the “Qur’an (for guidance) although the ruler who is the servant of the Two Holy Cities has forged intimate ties with Israel and the United States, because my faith is not with the Kaaba but with Allah.” One of the most sacred sites in Mecca, Muslims turn to the Kaaba when praying.

“Just like Qatar, PAS had tried to ingratiate itself with Iran in an attempt to cover both bases, along with Saudi. Now the chicken has come home to roost, and just like Qatar, global minnows like PAS find themselves caught in the middle between the two Muslim world influencers,” said Malaysian columnist Zurairi Ar.

Among other members of ILUM is controversial Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah, who was among clerics, intellectuals, judges and activists arrested in the kingdom weeks before the most recent purge.

With millions of followers on social media, Mr. Al-Odah, a once militant scholar, turned a decade ago against jihadis like Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the kingdom’s program to rehabilitate militants, but retained his opposition to the monarchy.


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.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Trouble in sport's paradise: Can Qatar overcome the diplomatic crisis?


By James M. Dorsey

The crisis in the Gulf that pits Qatar against a UAE-Saudi-led alliance is Qatar’s least problem when it comes to the 2022 World Cup.

Beyond the fact that efforts by Gulf states, first and foremost among which the United Arab Emirates, have sought to discredit Qatar as a host long before the UAE and Saudi Arabia in June declared their diplomatic and economic boycott, Qatar has proven capable of addressing potential disruptions.

The import of construction materials may have become more expensive and they may have to travel a longer route, but that does not impair the Gulf state’s ability to complete infrastructure on time.

In some ways, if the Gulf crisis were to last another five years until the World Cup, attendance may prove to be a more important issue. Not because Qatar would still be involved in a dispute with its neighbours. The crisis has already become the new normal. Even if it were resolved today, regional relationships will never return to the status quo ante.

The reason why attendance may be an issue is that the demography of fans attending the World Cup in Qatar may very well be a different one than at past tournaments. Qatar is likely to attract a far greater number of fans from the Middle East as well as from Africa and Asia.

Governments in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, if they were still maintaining their travel bans, could find themselves in a difficult position if they were depriving their nationals from attending the first ever World Cup not only in the region, but also in an Arab country. How those governments would handle that, would have consequences for the nature of the boycott given that not only have they banned travel, they’ve also closed borders and closed air and sea links.

The Asian Football Confederation’s Competition Committee recently urged governments to exempt football teams from travel bans. The call was in response to the travel ban Saudi Arabia announced last year following the rupture in relations with Iran as well as the more recent bans on travel to Qatar. The question is why that advice should not also be applicable to fans.

Equally immediate and significant is the fact that particularly the UAE is not going to give up its covert efforts to get Qatar deprived of the World Cup. Qatar is vulnerable in that battle, not because the UAE is so powerful, but because of one of the two main issues that were at the core of the controversy about its hosting rights, the integrity of Qatar’s bid.

That integrity remains in question with the legal proceedings in New York and Zurich involving corruption in world soccer body FIFA and potential wrongdoing in the awarding of World Cups, irrespective of the fact that Qatar has categorically and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. The legal proceedings, while disturbing, are likely to drag on for a considerable period of time and as such may not pose an immediate threat.

What is more immediate is the reputational damage Qatar has suffered. To be sure, the Gulf crisis has enhanced Qatar’s reputation to some degree. After all, the perceptions of the Gulf crisis are one of David vs Goliath, Qatar as the resilient underdog defending its independence and right as a small state to chart its own course.

Qatar deserves credit for reforms being introduced to its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system that are likely to become a model for the region. In doing so, it cemented the 2022 World Cup as one of the few mega-events with a real potential of leaving a legacy of change. Qatar started laying the foundations for that change by early on becoming the first and only Gulf state to engage with its critics, international human rights groups and trade unions.

The problem is that by the time that engagement produced real results, the reputational damage had been done. Qatar is realizing that reputations are easy to tarnish and difficult to polish. There is little doubt that the World Cup more recently was not the only driver in labour reform, one critics’ major bone of contention. So was the International Labour Organization (ILO) that was about to censor Qatar and the Gulf crisis.

There is no doubt that Qatar has learnt from mistakes it made in the public diplomacy and public relations aspects of the labour issue. That is evident in Qatar’s markedly different handling of the Gulf crisis. It’s a far cry from the ostrich that puts its head in the sand, hoping that the storm will pass only to find that by the time it rears its head the wound has festered and its lost strategic advantage.

That leaves Qatar with the issue of the integrity of its bid, which may be in terms of public diplomacy the toughest nut to crack. On the principle of where there is smoke, there is fire, Qatar is in a bind. Nonetheless, some greater degree of transparency, including regarding relationships with Mohammed bin Hammam, the disgraced FIFA executive committee member and head of the Asian Football Confederation AFC at the time of the Qatari bid, would have been helpful.

The integrity issue, Qatar’s weak point,  will without doubt be exploited by its detractors, first and foremost in the Gulf. For critics of Qatar, there are two questions. One is, who do they want to get in bed with? Qatar’s detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia hardly have stellar human and labour rights records. If anything, their records are worse than that of Qatar, which admittedly does not glow.

It is doubtful that the World Cup is at the core of the Gulf crisis, despite a declaration by Dubai’s top security official, Lt. General Khalfan, that the crisis would be resolved if Qatar surrendered its hosting rights. Nonetheless, it is an important enough symbol and vehicle for reputational capital for Qatar’s detractors, and particularly the UAE, to target.

That is evident from the emails of the UAE ambassador in Washington, Youssef al-Otaiba, whose account was either hacked or leaked by an insider. Al-Otaiba had devised a complex financial manoeuvre to undermine Qatar’s currency and deprive the Gulf state of its hosting rights. While Qatar has sought to counter the UAE efforts, its noticeable that it has not adopted a similar tactic by, for example, targeting the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.

The second question critics have to ask themselves is how best to leverage the World Cup, irrespective of whether the Qatari bid was compromised or not. On the assumption that it may have been compromised, the question is less how to exact retribution for a wrong doing that was common practice in global football governance. Leveraging should focus on how to achieve a fundamental reform of global sports governance that has yet to emerge six years into a crisis that was in part sparked by the Qatar World Cup. This goes to the heart of the fact that untouched in the governance crisis is the corrupting, ungoverned, and incestuous relationship between sports and politics.

The future of the Qatar World Cup and the Gulf crisis speaks to the pervasiveness of politics in sports. The World Cup is political by definition. Retaining Qatar’s hosting rights or depriving the Gulf state of the right to host the tournament is ultimately a choice with political consequences. As long as the crisis continues, retaining rights is a testimony to Qatar’s resilience, deprival would be a victory for its detractors. It is with good reason that the UAE no doubt will continue its covert campaign to undermine Qatar’s hosting rights.

The real yardstick in the debate about the Qatari World Cup should be how the sport and the integrity of the sport benefit most. And even than, politics is never far from what the outcome of that debate is. Obviously, instinctively, the optics of no retribution raises the question of how that benefits integrity.

Yet, the potential legacy of social and economic change that is already evident with the Qatar World Cup is more important than the feel-good effect of having done the right thing with retribution or the notion of setting an example. Add to that the fact that in current circumstances, a withdrawal of hosting rights would likely be interpreted as a victory of one side over the other, further divide the Arab and Muslim world, and enhance a sense among many Muslims of being on the defensive and under attack.

To be clear, the rot in sports governance goes far beyond financial and performance corruption. That is evident in the way that the Gulf crisis, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly permeate soccer with a mounting number of decisions that upend the notion of a separation of sports and politics. They also put an end to the principle of judging professionals on their merits rather than nationality and make a mockery of the ideal of soccer as a bridge builder rather than a divider.

In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events, FIFA president Gianni Infantino in June rejected involving the group in the Gulf crisis by saying that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics."

Yet, on the same day that he made his statement, Mr. Infantino waded into the Gulf crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors. In FIFA’s decision, politics trumped professionalism, no pun intended.

A demand this month by the Egyptian Football Federation (EFA) to disbar a Qatari from refereeing Egyptian and Saudi matches during next year’s World Cup in Russia puts FIFA in a position in which it will have to decide to either opt for professionalism over politics or also disbar from refereeing politically sensitive matches game officials from Qatar’s distractors– Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – who have likewise been appointed for the tournament.

FIFA’s tying itself up in knots in response to the Gulf crisis like the politics underlying corruption charges in New York and Zurich cries out for putting the inextricable relationship between sports and politics on the table and developing ways to govern a relationship that is a fact of life. It is a relationship that sports executives, politicians and government officials deny even though it is public, recognizable and undeniable.

If the Qatar World Cup because of the controversy that surrounds it and because of its World Cup having become a geopolitical football leads ultimately to an honest and open debate about the relationship of politics and sports, Qatar, unwittingly rather than wittingly, would have made a fundamental contribution to a healthier governance of sports in general and soccer in particular.

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. This article is based on James’ remarks at Play the Game’s 2017 Riding the Wave of Change conference