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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Countering Extremism: Jihadist Ideology Reigns Supreme

By James M. Dorsey

Edited remarks at India Foundation conference, Changing Contours of Global Terror, Gurugram, Haryana, 14-16 March 2018

The sad truth is that governments, law enforcement, security forces, intellectuals and journalists do not have an ideological response to political violence’s latest reiteration, jihadism. Moreover, the struggle against political violence, is not one that is predominantly ideological.

To add to this, mistakes are being repeated. Al Qaeda produced the counterterrorism industry in the context of a response that was focussed on law enforcement, security and military engagement. To be sure, that has produced significant results. It has enhanced security across the globe, stopped plots before they could be executed, driven Al Qaeda into caves, and deprived the Islamic State of its territorial base.

All of that, however has not solved the problem, nor has it fundamentally reduced the attraction of religiously-cloaked extremism. No doubt, social media has provided militants with a megaphone. But let’s be clear: social media are vehicles, media channels, they are not drivers. Yet, much like the terrorism industry, the call for a counter-narrative has produced an industry of its own. Like the terrorism industry, it has vested interests of its own: its sustainability is dependent on the continued existence of perceived real threats.

Further troubling the waters is the fact that the public and private anti-terrorism and counternarrative industries see human rights as second to ensuring security and safety; have little interest in addressing the problem through notions of alienation, marginalization, socio-economic disenfranchisement, youth aspirations and basic rights in which counterterrorism and counter-narratives would be embedded. Aiding and abetting the problem are the ever more evident campaigns by non-egalitarian and non-inclusive democratic societies as well as autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes that either have reduced interest in independent analysis and reporting, seek to restrict freedoms of expression and the press, or define any form of dissent as terrorism.

The notion that one can eradicate political violence is illusionary. Political violence has been a fixture of human history since day one and is likely to remain a fact of life. Its ebbs and flows often co-relate to economic, social and political up and down turns. In other words, counterterrorism and counternarratives will only be effective if they are embedded in far broader policies that tackle root causes.

And that is where the shoe pinches. To develop policies that tackle root causes, that are inclusive and aim to ensure that at least the vast majority, if not everyone, has a stake in society, the economy and the political system involves painful decisions, revising often long-standing policies and tackling vested interests. Few politicians and bureaucrats are inclined to do so.

Starting with Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, militants have benefitted from the fact that the world was entering a cyclical period in which populations lose confidence in political systems and leaderships. The single largest success of Osama bin Laden and subsequent militants is the fact that they were able to disrupt efforts to forge inclusive, multicultural societies, nowhere more so than first in Europe, then the United States with the rise of Donald Trump, and exploit ripple effects in Asia.

The result is the rise of secular and religious nationalism, populism, greater acceptance of autocratic or illiberal rule, and the erosion of democratic values and institutions. Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of ethnic and religious prejudice that no doubt existed but lived under a cloud of primarily social taboos and have become socially acceptable and often politically convenient. Of course, the refugee crisis put oil on the fire. 

Nonetheless, what makes this cycle of lack of confidence more worrisome and goes directly to the question of the ideological challenge is how it differs from the late 1960s, the last time that we witnessed a breakdown in confidence and leadership on a global scale.

The difference between then and now is that then there were all kinds of worldviews on offer: anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, socialism, communism, concepts of extra-parliamentary opposition, and in the Middle East and North Africa, Arab nationalism and Arab socialism. Today, the only thing on offer are militant interpretations of Islam and jihadism.

Human rights activist and former Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki was asked in a Wall Street Journal interview why it was not only those who lacked opportunity and felt that they had no prospects and no hopes but also educated Tunisians with jobs who were joining the Islamic State. His answer was: “It’s not simply a matter of tackling socioeconomic roots. You have to go deeper and understand that these guys have a dream—and we don’t. We had a dream—our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate.”

Its hard to build an ideological challenge or develop counternarratives without a dream. With democracy on the defense, free market enterprise having failed significant segments of the public, and newly found legitimacy for prejudice, bias and bigotry, democratic governments are incapable of credibly projecting a dream, one that is backed up by policies that hold out realistic hope of producing results.

Autocrats are in a no better situation. The mayhem in the Middle East and North Africa is not exclusively, but in many ways, due to their inability and failure to deliver public goods and services. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared to be holding out a dream for his kingdom. But that dream increasingly is being shattered both in Yemen and at home. Autocrats in the Middle East and North Africa are about upgrading and modernizing their regimes to ensure their survival, not about real sustainable change. Elsewhere, populists and nationalists advocating racial, ethnic and religious purity and protectionist economic policies are unlikely to fare any better.

What this means is that identifying the root causes of political violence demands self-inspection on the part of governments and societies across the globe. It is those governments and societies that are both part of the problem and part of the solution. It is those governments and elites that are at the root of loss of confidence.

Translating the need to tackle root causes into policy is proving difficult, primarily because it is based on a truth that has far-reaching consequences for every member of the international community. It involves governments putting their money where their mouth is and changing long-standing, ingrained policies at home that marginalize, exclude, stereotype and stigmatize significant segments of society; emphasize security at the expense of freedoms that encourage healthy debate; and in more autocratic states that are abetted by the West, seek to reduce citizens to obedient subjects through harsh repression and adaptations of religious and political beliefs to suit the interests of rulers.

The result is a vicious circle: government policies often clash with the state or regime’s professed values. As a result, dividing lines sharpen as already marginalized, disenfranchised or discriminated segments of society see the contradiction between policies and values as hypocritical and re-confirmation of the basis of their discontent.

Creating a policy framework that is conducive to an environment in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia that would favour pluralism and respect of human rights and counter the appeal of jihadism and emerging sectarian-based nationalism is not simply a question of encouraging and supporting voices in the region, first and foremost those of youth, or of revisiting assumptions of Western foreign policies and definitions of national security. 

It involves fostering inclusive national identities that can accommodate ethnic, sectarian and tribal sub-identities as legitimate and fully accepted sub-identities in Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian, as well as in Western countries. It involves changing domestic policies towards minorities, refugees and migrants.

Inclusiveness means, that victory has to be secured as much in militant strongholds in a swath of land that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean as in the dismal banlieues, run-down, primarily minority-populated, suburbs of French cities that furnished the Islamic State with its largest contingent of European foreign fighters; in the popular neighbourhoods in Tunisia that accounted for the single largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq; in Riyadh, seat of a government whose citizens accounted for the second largest number of foreign fighters and whose well-funded, decades-long effort to propagate a puritan, intolerant, interpretation of Islam has been a far more important feeding ground for jihadist thinking than the writings of militant Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb; and in Western capitals with Washington in the lead who view retrograde, repressive regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

In territorial terms, the Islamic States has been defeated but the problem remains unresolved. Al Qaeda was degraded, to use the language of the Obama administration. In the process, it weakened a jihadist force that increasingly had advocated a gradual approach to the establishment of its harsh interpretation of Islamic law in a bid to ensure public support. Instead of reducing the threat of political violence, the largely military effort to defeat Al Qaeda produced ever more virulent forms of jihadism as embodied by the Islamic State. It may be hard to imagine anything more brutal than the group, but it is a fair assumption that defeating the Islamic State without tackling root causes could lead to something that is even more violent and more vicious.

Defining repressive, autocratic rule and the Islamic State as the greatest threat to stability and security and the furthering of more liberal notions is problematic. In the case of the Islamic State, that definition elevates jihadism – the violent establishment of Pan-Islamic rule based on narrow interpretations of Islamic law and scripture -- to the status of a root cause rather than a symptom and expression of a greater and more complex problem. It is an approach that focuses on the immediate nature of the threat and ways to neutralize it rather than on what sparked it. It also neglects the fact that the ideological debate in the Muslim world is to a large extent dominated by schools of thought that do not advocate more open, liberal and pluralistic interpretations of Islam.

That is where one real challenge lies. It is a challenge first and foremost to Muslims, but also to an international community that would give more liberal Muslim voices significant credibility if it put its money where its mouth is. Support for self-serving regimes and their religious supporters, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reduces the international community’s choices to one between bad and worse, rather than to a palate of policy options that take a stab at rooting out the problem and its underlying causes.

There are no quick solutions or short cuts and the value of partial solutions is questionable. The key is the articulation of policies that over the medium term can help generate an environment more conducive to change rather than the continuous opting for knee-jerk reactions to events and facts on the ground.

One place to look for alternative approaches is Norway. In contrast to most reactions to political violence and expression of pro-jihadist sentiment, Norway’s response to right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik’s traumatic attacks in 2011 that killed 77 people stands as a model for how societies can and should uphold concepts of pluralism and human rights. Norway refrained from declaring war on terror, treated Breivik as a common criminal, and refused to compromise on its democratic values. In doing so, Norway offered a successful example of refusing to stigmatise any one group in society by adopting inclusiveness rather than profiling and upholding the very values that autocrats and jihadists challenge.

The result of exclusively security-focussed approaches, coupled with the exploitation of economic opportunity by autocratic Middle Eastern and North African regimes and Western governments, is an increasingly insecure region in which the creation of pluralistic societies that honour human rights seems ever more distant. Said an Egyptian Islamist militant, whose non-violent anti-government activism is as much aimed at opposing the regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as it is designed to persuade increasingly frustrated youth that there are alternatives to nihilistic violence: “The strategy of brutality, repression and restricting freedom has failed to impose subservience. It hasn’t produced solutions. Governments need to give people space. They need to prove that they can address the problems of a youth that has lost hope. We have nothing to lose if they don’t.” The Egyptian’s inclinations pointed towards peaceful protest in favour of a more liberal society, albeit bound by Islamic morality codes; his options, however, left him little choice but to drift towards jihadism.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Pakistan struggles to get a grip on militancy and ultra-conservatism

By James M. Dorsey

Seventy years after its birth, Pakistan is struggling to get a grip on Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and its militant offshoots that were aided and abetted by successive governments as well as Saudi Arabia and at times the United States. The stakes for Pakistan are high as it confronts mounting international pressure that includes China, its closest ally, to crackdown on militancy.

A string of recent events illustrates the government’s difficulty in shielding Pakistan from retaliatory action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism-finance body, as well as further sanctioning by the United States. FATF this month put Pakistan on notice that it could be blacklisted in June and face global banking isolation if it failed to demonstrate its ability to combat funding of militancy.

The US Treasury last year forced Pakistan’s Habib Bank to close down its US operations and fined it $225 million because there were flaws in its systems that “opened the door to the financing of terror.”

Former Pakistani caretaker finance minister Salman Shah told Asia Times that “there were payments originating in Saudi Arabia that came to Pakistan, but there was no proper documentation.” Mr. Shah said FATF had highlighted the fact that “the current banking mechanisms in place in Pakistan are enabling their usage for terrorists, money-laundering (and) narcotics smuggling, which has prompted the FATF grey-listing.”

Other recent setbacks include a court decision that bars the government from detaining or putting Muhammad Hafez Saeed under house arrest. Mr. Saeed, believed to be the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left some 170 people dead, was designated as a terrorist by the United Nations and the United States, which put a $10 million bounty on his head.

A Saudi-educated religious scholar, who associated with Saudis involved in the 1980s in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and went on to co-found Al Qaeda’s incubator, was widely seen as enjoying support of the Pakistani military because of his anti-Indian militancy.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry declared earlier this year that it welcomed Palestinian ambassador Walid Abu Ali’s “active participation in events organized to express solidarity with the people of Palestine” after the Palestine Authority recalled him for sharing a stage with Mr. Saeed.

While unable to act directly against Mr. Saeed, the government has banned his Jamaat ud-Dawa, believed to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taibe, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, as well as one its associated charities, Falah-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), and has confiscated scores of their properties, including hospitals, in the provinces of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Interior secretary Arshad Mirza told a Senate panel that the groups had been barred from raising funds and have had their weapons licenses cancelled.

Conscious that militant violence could cast a shadow over Chinese investment in a $50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of China’s Belt and Road initiative, the military has recently invested heavily in development of North and South Waziristan, troubled hubs of militant activity, and a base for the Haqqani network, a group associated with the Taliban.

Nonetheless, authorities in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is governed by the political party of cricket-player-turned politician Imran Khan, who is also widely believed to have close ties to the military, gave $2.5 million to Darul Aloom Haqqania, a militant religious seminary.

Dubbed a “jihad university,” Darul Aloom Haqqania, headed by Sami ul-Haq, a hard-line Islamist politician known as the father of the Taliban, counts among its alumni, Mullah Omar, the deceased leader of the Taliban, Jalaluddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani network. Asim Umar, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, Mullah Omar’s successor who was killed in a 2016 US drone strike.

In yet another incident, a court ruled that Pakistanis should be identified by their faith and that applicants for public office or joining the military or the judiciary, declare their beliefs to be eligible. Failure to do so amounted to "betraying the State" and "exploiting the Constitution," the court said.

In a bow to a deeply-seated, Saudi-inspired 1974 amendment of the constitution that declared Ahmadis, a sect viewed by orthodox Muslims as heretics, the court asserted that it was "alarming" that "one of (Pakistan’s) minorities" was "often mistaken for being Muslims" due to their names and general attire.”

Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, the presiding judge, cautioned that this "can lead them to gain access to dignified and sensitive posts, along with benefits."

Another court recently summoned reporters from the country’s largest private television station on charges of “ridiculing” a ruling that banned Valentine’s Day celebrations and barred media from covering them.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is under pressure to curb its draconic blasphemy law that has fuelled extremism, moved the judiciary towards militant rulings, and undermined the country’s rule of law. The law was one reason the US State Department In January listed Pakistan as a country guilty of “severe violations of religious freedoms.”

The incidents reflect the fact that Saudi-inspired Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism has become entrenched in significant segments of the Pakistani state and bureaucracy as well as of the population.

The entrenchment is the result of successive governments’ playing with religion for political gain as well as long-standing Saudi efforts to bolster ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian revolutionary zeal in a country that borders on Iran and has a Shiite minority that accounts for approximately one fifth of the population.

Pakistan has been a focal point of the kingdom’s four decades-old funding campaign. Huge sums were pumped in the 1980s in cooperation with the United States, into financing and arming the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan as well as into religious seminaries that dot the country’s education landscape until today.

The United States in recent years has invested $65 million to rewrite schoolbooks it provided for Pakistani and Afghan seminaries that employed Saudi-style concepts of jihad and ultra-conservatism in support of the struggle against the Soviets.

Saudi Arabia, according to militant sources, has in the past two years pumped large sums into militant seminaries in Balochistan, a province that borders on Iran.

More recently, Saudi officials have suggested that the kingdom may halt its global funding of ultra-conservative educational, religious, and cultural facilities as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to return his country to an unspecified form of moderate Islam and improve its image tarnished by its sponsorship of ultra-conservatism.

That, however, may not have much immediate impact on Pakistan. Ultra-conservatism has struck deep roots in Pakistani society as well as the state and it will take years if not a generation to uproot it. That is the message that emerges from the recent string of judicial, societal, and policy developments that spotlight the difficulties in Pakistan’s uphill struggle with ultra-conservatism and militancy.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Friday, March 9, 2018

Smoking and drinking: Churchill sets an example today’s Western leaders can learn from

By James M. Dorsey

To understand that Western emphasis on human rights is at best a fig leaf to do business with autocrats whose rule is based on repression, contrast Winston Churchill’s encounter with Mohammed bin Salman’s grandfather, King Abdulaziz, with British prime minister Theresa May’s recent talks with the crown prince.

Meeting the king for lunch in Cairo in 1945, Mr. Churchill suggested that it was the “religion of his majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol,” a reference to the king’s adherence to a puritanical strand of Islam that has dominated the kingdom since its founding in 1932.

Mr. Churchill, however, made clear that the king’s beliefs would not deter him from enjoying his smokes and drinks in the monarch’s presence. The prime minister’s rule of life “prescribes as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them,” Mr. Churchill said.

Enjoying tobacco and alcohol is certain not to have featured in Ms. May’s talks this week with Prince Mohammed. Human rights and the humanitarian cost of Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen did.

In contrast to Mr. Churchill, who, perhaps insensitively and arrogantly, refused to compromise on his principles and pleasures, Ms. May’s statements were no more than words in what has become a ritual in interactions between democratic and autocratic leaders. The autocrats understand democrats’ need to maintain a fig leaf. The public admonishment of their tarnished human rights records is a small price to pay for the ability to conduct political and economic business.

The contrast between the two encounters is particularly significant in an environment in which abuse of human rights is on the rise and authoritarian and autocratic rule is spreading its wings across the globe from China to once liberal democracies. Democracy is on the defense.

It raises the question whether the refusal of democracies to stand up for their principles and pay a price will contribute to their demise and brutalization in a world in which the lessons of World War Two genocide and principles of good governance in warfare can be ignored with impunity. Russia and Iran-backed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s gassing and starvation of non-combatant Syrian civilians is a case in point.

Ms. May’s fig leaf approach to standing by basic democratic principles is but the latest incident in a long-standing Western willingness to pay a heavy price for sleeping with the devil in a bid to gain short-term geo-political and economic advantage.

Guilt is widespread. Its not just governments. The same is true for non-governmental organizations such as international sport associations who for decades tolerated pre-modernity curtailing of women’s sporting rights in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran by restricting their criticism to words rather than deeds.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and author and long-time Saudi-watcher Robert Lacey noted in The Guardian that “the crown prince doesn’t listen to Saudis – why would he listen to Theresa May?”

Mr. Khashoggi, long closely associated with Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to Britain and the US, who often voices opinions Prince Mohammed does not want to do so publicly, went into voluntary exile last year on the eve of the crown prince’s power and asset grab under the mum of an anti-corrup0tion campaign.

One irony of Ms. May’s approach in her talks with Prince Mohammed is the fact that the kingdom is an exemplary case study of the price that democracies have paid for their toothless objections to a long-standing Saudi worldview that was intolerant, supremacist, and anti-pluralistic.

To be sure, Prince Mohammed has begun to shave off the rough edges of that worldview with his social and economic reforms but has yet to convey his willingness to achieve a clean break.

Holders of tickets for a concert in Jeddah by Egyptian pop sensation Tamer Hosny were recently surprised to receive vouchers that warned that “no dancing or swaying” would be allowed at the event. "No dancing or swaying in a concert! It's like putting ice under the sun and asking it not to melt,” quipped a critic on Twitter.

If anything, Prince Mohammed’s reforms have been underwritten by repression of any form of dissent.

Anti-death penalty group Reprieve reported that Saudi Arabia's execution rate had doubled since Prince Mohammed was appointed crown prince eight months ago. It said 133 people had been executed since June 2017 compared to 67 in the preceding eight months.

Equally fundamentally, the world is still reeling from at times short-sighted, opportunistic Western support for the export of Saudi-inspired Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and at others a willingness to ignore its impact on Muslim communities across the globe.

The same can be said for support of secular autocracies like the regime of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, whose repression, brutality and failure to deliver public goods and services offer extremism a fertile breeding ground.

It is also true for states like Baathist Syria and Iraq that fell into the Soviet orbit during the Cold War, with Iraq. after the demise of the Soviet Union, enjoying US support during its war against Iran in the 1980s.

Geo-strategist Robert D. Kaplan, writing in Foreign Policy, argued that Syria and Iraq had descended into the Middle East and North Africa’s worst mayhems that have caused enormous human suffering and cost the international community significantly in political, diplomatic, and security terms because they were artificial, colonial-era geographic constructs. They lacked the civilizational history, centuries of some kind of statehood, and deep-seated identities that have helped keep Egypt or Tunisia territorially intact.

In South Asia, the United States went during the era of conservative Pakistani president Zia ul-Haq and the US and Saudi-backed war against the Soviets in the 1980s waged by Afghan mujahedeen as far as to distribute schoolbooks that propagated Saudi-inspired jihad and precepts of ultra-conservatism. In doing so it played havoc with Pakistan, a country that since its birth has struggled with its identity.

Western democracies ignored the fact that Saudi Arabia invested heavily over decades to push its austere worldview as an anti-dote to post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal.
While not the only factor, the Saudi campaign created an environment in Pakistan and elsewhere in which militant Islam flourished, societies became ever more conservative and intolerant, and political violence increased.

Western democracies as well as others, including the kingdom, are paying a high price in terms of people’s lives and vastly expanded security to counter extremism and political violence.

Its an open debate whether policies that had been built on democratic values rather than support for autocracy and intolerant worldviews could have achieved similar geopolitical victories such as the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan at a lower cost and a reduced threat to those values.

What is certain, however, is the fact that the fallout of the failure to stand up for democratic values comes at an ever-steeper cost and uncertainty of how the pendulum will swing.

The unanswered question is whether in terms of cost-benefit analysis short-term hits resulting from adopting a principled stand may ultimately be a more reasonable cost and produce greater long-term benefit than the price of dealing with the fallout of policies that effectively ignore democratic principles and ultimately are likely to produce ever greater threats.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

International soccer bodies ignore blatant rule violations in run-up to Egyptian election

By James M. Dorsey

International soccer bodies, in violation of their own bylaws, have ignored the blatant mixing of sports and politics in advance of this month’s Egyptian presidential elections that general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is set to win after ensuring that no credible candidate would challenge him.

Despite recently warning Saudi Arabia and Iran that “politics should stay out of football and football should stay out of politics,” world soccer body FIFA president Gianni Infantino and his Confederation of African Football (CAF) counterpart, Ahmad Ahmad, have been conspicuously silent about Mr. Al-Sisi’s marshalling of Egyptian soccer behind his candidacy and use of a state-owned bank to persuade Egyptian players not to accept lucrative contracts in Qatar.

Egypt is part of a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led alliance that eight months ago imposed a diplomatic and economic boycott on the Gulf state.

The Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) insistence, in line with international sports associations’ ban on the mixing of sports and politics, that home matches be played on home ground despite the rupture in relations, has turned soccer into the only sector to have breached the boycott. Saudi, UAE and Qatari teams are forced to travel awkward routes for Asian competition matches because of the cutting of airlinks between the protagonists.

Several potential challengers in the Egyptian election, including senior military figures, have either been arrested, forced to withdraw their candidacy, or decided not to run because of the risks involved. 
Controversial member of parliament and head of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC Mortada Mansour withdrew his candidacy in January, saying he would explain why at some later date.
Mr. Mortada’s withdrawal prompted a last-minute race to find a non-threatening challenger who could muster the endorsement by at least 26 members of parliament and 47,000 voters in time to meet the nomination deadline.

Mousa Mostafa Mousa, a largely unknown politician who had earlier declared his support for Mr. Al-Sisi, registered 15 minutes before the deadline, ensuring that the government could claim that the election would be competitive.

Mr. Al-Sisi has at the same time stepped up his crackdown on any dissent and tightened the screws on both domestic and foreign media.

“The Egyptian government has trampled over even the minimum requirements for free and fair elections for the planned March 26-28, 2018 vote for president… The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has relentlessly stifled basic freedoms and arrested potential candidates and rounded up their supporters.,” said a coalition of 14 international and regional human rights groups. The groups denounced the election as “farcical.”

The manipulation of the election results and the crackdown calls into question FIFA and CAF governance with the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), several club presidents, and a host of athletes calling a news conference to endorse Mr. Al-Sisi’s candidacy in violation of the principle of a separation of sports and politics.

Speakers at the news conference sat in front of a banner declaring that the “Egyptian Football Association backs and supports president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to lead the country through continuous achievements.”

State-owned Al Ahram newspaper hailed the soccer gesture as a “noble goal” and a “historic stand.”
Seemingly convinced that FIFA and CAF would look the other way, the soccer officials and athletes apparently felt confident that their violation of the sports’ governance would not lead to a suspension of the EFA that would have cost Egypt its slot in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Egyptian soccer’s support for Mr. Al-Sisi, moreover, ignored the fact 210 militant supporters of Mr. Mortada’s Al Zamalek went on hunger strike last month after a military court extended their detention for a month.

Mr. Mortada has in the past denounced the supporters as terrorists. The supporters have been charged with belonging to an illegal organization, using terrorism to achieve the group’s goals, possessing fireworks and attacking police.

In a separate case, prosecutors have appealed the acquittal of 26 Zamalek militants who were accused of staging an illegal demonstration.

Concern about the power of militant soccer fans, who played a key role in the 2011 toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and subsequent anti-government protests that ended only after the rise of Mr. Al-Sisi and his brutal crackdown, has largely kept stadiums closed to the public for the last six years.

The government said last month that it would allow up to 10,000 fans to attend domestic league matches in a soccer-crazy country in which stadiums were filled to the brim prior to the ban with tens of thousands creating an electrifying atmosphere.

Mr. Al-Sisi has similarly not shied away from using the judiciary and the banking system to pressure Qatar because of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood that he brutally removed from democratically elected office and since outlawed.

A Egyptian court fined beIN Sports, the sports franchise of Al Jazeera, the global Qatari television network, for violating competition rules by broadcasting over a Qatari rather than an Egyptian satellite.

The EFA, in a similar violation of sports governance, announced a boycott of beIN, shortly after Egypt and the Gulf states declared their boycott of Qatar. CAF warned at the times that clubs could be penalized, but never followed through on its threat.

State-owned Banque Misr, in an ostensible bid to stop Egyptian athletes from seeking opportunities abroad, last month launched a fund to create the facilities and environment in Egypt to prepare them for international competition. The announcement came days after parliament called for moves to prevent Egyptians from changing nationality to compete for countries, among which, first and foremost, Qatar.

“We are aware of Qatar’s attempts to snare Egyptians. The naturalization of a large number of Egyptian sports talents is part of a political plot,” Tariq Khouli, secretary of the Foreign Relations Committee told Al-Monitor, making clear that sports and politics in Egypt are two sides of the same coin.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Arabs leverage lucrative nuclear contracts to enhance security and keep options open

By James M. Dorsey

Controversy in South Korea over a secret military clause in a nine-year old agreement to build the United Arab Emirates’ first nuclear reactor raises a Pandora’s Box of questions about political and military demands that Arab nations may seek to impose as they embark on a nuclear trajectory.

The clause that commits South Korean troops to come to the UAE’s defense in the event of a crisis offers insight into the security concerns of Arab and particularly Gulf leaders. It is not clear whether the clause defines a crisis exclusively as a military attack by an external force or would also include domestic unrest.

The agreement that was long kept under lid to shield the government from having to seek parliamentary approval was concluded at a time that the UAE was negotiating a deal with Erik Prince, the founder of since-defunct controversial private security firm Blackwater.

The $529 million contract with Mr. Prince was to create a mercenary force populated by Africans and Latin Americans that would "conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts." The force was disbanded after The New York Times disclosed its existence in 2011, the year the Middle East was swept by popular revolts.

The Korean agreement calls for the permanent presence in the UAE of a small contingent of South Korean special forces dubbed Akh, the Arabic word for brother, that trains its Emirati counterparts, participates in joint exercises and would be committed to combat in times of crisis.

It is, according to Korean opposition member of parliament, Kim Jong-dae, one of six secret military deals concluded as part of the nuclear reactor agreement.

Mr. Kim said the UAE recently reacted angrily to a decision by current President Moon Jae-in to suspend the clause providing for a South Korean military presence in the Gulf state.

The UAE is on track to this year become the first Arab state with an operational nuclear reactor.

The UAE response suggested that the Gulf state, despite earning the nickname Little Sparta as a result of its military prowess demonstrated in Yemen and elsewhere in the last decade and its proliferation of military bases in southern Arabia and East Africa, continues to feel a need for foreign military assistance in times of crisis.

The Middle East and North Africa, almost a decade after the Korean agreement was signed, is embroiled in civil wars, military interventions, debilitating proxy wars, and the unilateral rewriting of social contracts with the introduction of austerity measures and social reforms that have so far failed to address one of the region’s most urgent issues: job creation in a part of the world that at 30% percent boasts the world’s highest youth unemployment rate.

Governments across the region have sought to control simmering pent-up anger and frustration, similar to popular sentiment in the run-up to the 2011 revolts, with increased repression. Arab states from Algeria to Egypt and Jordan have nonetheless witnessed smaller scale protests against rising prices and cuts in public spending.

“The public dissatisfaction, bubbling up in several countries, is a reminder that even more urgent action is needed,” warned Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

With governments concerned not only about domestic stability but also about the fallout of the region’s multiple conflicts, among which first and foremost proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the question arises whether Arab states pursuing nuclear technology will want to build broader security arrangements into their agreements as did the UAE with South Korea or ensure that there are less safeguards to prevent a move from peaceful to military applications of the technology.

Nuclear technology is certain to figure in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s talks this month during visits to Britain and the United States. Saudi Arabia has laid out the region’s biggest nuclear reactor programme that envisions the kingdom having 16 reactors by 2032 that would have 17.6 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said recently that the kingdom was engaged in talks with ten nations about its nuclear program, including Russia and China, countries that likely would be more amenable than the United States to reduced safeguards and broader arrangements.

Yet, even the Trump administration appears willing to go easy on demanding that Saudi Arabia adhere to tough safeguards enshrined in US export control laws, widely viewed as the gold standard, in a bid to ensure that US companies get a piece of the pie.

Saudi Arabia has demanded the right to controlled enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of spent fuel into plutonium, potential building blocks for nuclear weapons, as part of any agreement to build its reactors.

The safeguards applied to the development of peaceful nuclear programs in the Middle East and North Africa and potential broader security arrangements Arab states may seek to build into agreements take on even greater significance at a time that the region is embroiled in a volatile, often bloody transition against a backdrop of stepped-up repression that leaves extremism as one of the few available release valves for pent-up anger.

As a result, the winners in the competition for lucrative nuclear contracts, the terms of those contracts, and potential associated security arrangements are likely to play a role in shaping the Middle East and North Africa’s evolving security architecture.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, March 3, 2018

The Middle East’s nuclear technology clock starts ticking

By James M. Dorsey

The Middle East’s nuclear technology clock is ticking as nations pursue peaceful capabilities that potentially leave the door open to future military options.

Concern about a nuclear arms race is fuelled by uncertainty over the future of Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement, a seeming US willingness to weaken its strict export safeguards in pursuit of economic advantage, and a willingness by suppliers such as Russia and China to ignore risks involved in weaker controls.

The Trump administration  was mulling loosening controls to facilitate a possible deal with Saudi Arabia as Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu prepared, in an address this week to a powerful Israeli lobby group in Washington, to urge US President Donald J. Trump to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal unless the Islamic republic agrees to further military restrictions and makes additional political concessions.

Israel has an undeclared nuclear arsenal of its own and fears that the technological clock is working against its long-standing military advantage.

The US has signalled that it may be willing to accede to Saudi demands in a bid to ensure that US companies with Westinghouse in the lead have a stake in the kingdom’s plan to build by 2032 16 reactors that would have 17.6 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity.

In putting forward  demands for parity with Iran by getting the right to controlled enrichment of uranium and the reprocessing of spent fuel into plutonium, potential building blocks for nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia was backing away from a 2009 memorandum of understanding with the United States in which it pledged to acquire nuclear fuel from international markets.

“The trouble with flexibility regarding these critical technologies is that it leaves the door open to production of nuclear explosives,” warned nuclear experts Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski in an article Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

While Israeli opinion is divided on how the US should respond to Saudi demands, Messrs Trump and Netanyahu’s opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord has already produced results that would serve Saudi interests.

European signatories to the agreement are pressuring Iran to engage in negotiations to limit its ballistic missile program and drop its support for groups like Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah and Houthi rebels in Iran. Iran has rejected any renegotiation but has kept the door open to discussions about a supplementary agreement. Saudi Arabia has suggested it may accept tight US controls if Iran agreed to a toughening of its agreement with the international community.

The Trump administration recently allowed high-tech US exports to Iran that could boost international oversight of the nuclear deal. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan signed a waiver that allows a Maryland-based company to export broadband networks, satellite dishes and wireless equipment to Iran for stations that monitor nuclear explosions in real time.

Iranian resistance to a renegotiation is enhanced by the fact that Europe and even the Trump administration admit that Hezbollah despite having been designated a terrorist organization by the US is an undeniable political force in Lebanon. "We…have to recognize the reality that (Hezbollah) are also part of the political process in Lebanon,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on the eve of a visit to Beirut.

A US willingness to go easy on demanding that Saudi Arabia adhere to tough safeguards enshrined in US export control laws, widely viewed as the gold standard, would open a Pandora’s box.

The United Arab Emirates, the Arab nation closest to inaugurating its first nuclear reactor, has already said that it would no longer be bound by the safeguards it agreed to a decade ago if others in the region were granted a more liberal regime. So would countries like Egypt and Jordan that are negotiating contracts with non-US companies for construction of nuclear reactors. A US backing away from its safeguards in the case of Saudi Arabia would potentially add a nuclear dimension to the already full-fledged arms in the Middle East.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) cautioned last year in a report that the Iranian nuclear agreement had “not eliminated the kingdom’s desire for nuclear weapons capabilities and even nuclear weapons… There is little reason to doubt that Saudi Arabia will more actively seek nuclear weapons capabilities, motivated by its concerns about the ending of the (Iranian agreement’s) major nuclear limitations starting after year 10 of the deal or sooner if the deal fails.”

Rather than embarking on a covert program, the report 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. Saudi Arabia has in recent years significantly expanded graduate programs at its five nuclear research centres.

“The current situation suggests that Saudi Arabia now has both a high disincentive to pursue nuclear weapons in the short term and a high motivation to pursue them over the long term,” the report said.

Saudi officials have repeatedly insisted that the kingdom is developing nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes such as medicine, electricity generation, and desalination of sea water. They said Saudi Arabia is committed to putting its future facilities under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Vietnam constitutes a precedent for application of less stringent US safeguards. The US settled for a non-binding Vietnamese statement of intent in the preamble of its agreement that Vietnam had no intention to pursue fuel cycle capabilities.

Tailoring Saudi demands of parity with Iran could be addressed, according to former senior US non-proliferation official Robert Einhorn, by sequencing controls to match timelines in the Iranian nuclear agreement. This could involve:

-- establishing a bilateral fuel cycle commission that, beginning in year 10, would jointly evaluate future Saudi reactor fuel requirements and consider alternative means of meeting those requirements, including indigenous enrichment;

-- creating provisions for specific Saudi enrichment and reprocessing activities that would be allowed if approved on a case-by-case basis by mutual consent and would kick in in year 15;

-- limiting the period after which Saudi Arabia, without invoking the agreement’s withdrawal provision, could end the accord and terminate its commitment to forgo fuel cycle capabilities if it believed the United States was exercising its consent rights in an unreasonably restrictive manner.

Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir recently raised the stakes by declaring that the kingdom was engaged in talks with ten nations about its nuclear program, including Russia and China, nations that impose less stringent safeguards but whose technology is viewed as inferior to that of the United States.

To strengthen its position, Saudi Arabia has added Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, an international law firm specialized in energy regulation, to its army of lobbyists and public relations firms in Washington, in a bid to ensure it gets a favourable agreement with the United States.

“Allowing Moscow to gain a nuclear foothold in Saudi Arabia would deal a serious blow to U.S. regional influence and prestige,” warned the Washington-based Arabia Foundation’s Ali Shihabi.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom