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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"

“The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer has helped me immensely with great information and perspective.”


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Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football


Saturday, March 31, 2018

Anticipated harder US policy towards Iran magnifies Iranian Arab protest



By James M. Dorsey

Protests have erupted in Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan barely three months after the Islamic republic was rocked by mass anti-government demonstrations.

Sparked by anger at the depiction of the province’s community of Arab descent on an Iranian New Year show about the country’s diversity that was broadcast on state-run Iranian television, protesters demanded an apology by the broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

The show featured dolls wearing traditional costumes to illustrate diverse Iran’s ethnic make-up. The dolls representing Iranian or Ahwaz Arabs were clad as Lurs, an ethnic group Iranians of Arab descent charge are encouraged to migrate to Khuzestan in a bid to change the province’s demography.

Ahwaz or Ahvaz is the way Khuzestan’s Arab population identifies itself and is the name of the capital of the south-eastern province that borders on Iraq and sits at the head of the Gulf.

"These programs and other racist practices are part of the policies adopted by the Iranian central government in its attempt to change the demographic structure by deporting indigenous Arab Ahvazi people from their land through policies of poverty, marginalization, exclusion, unemployment, and deprivation," the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization said.

It said protesters dressed in traditional Arab garb chanted in Arabic and Persian “Ahwaz is ours ,we will never give it up."

The protest, one of a string of protests over several years, prompted by long-standing charges of discrimination by the government that not only fuel marginalization but also environmental degradation in Khuzestan, comes against a backdrop of Iranian concerns that the United States and Saudi Arabia may pursue efforts to undermine or topple the regime in Tehran.

Iranian fears are fuelled by the possibility of Mr. Trump deciding in May to walk away from the 2015 international agreement that lifted crippling economic sanctions in exchange for curbs on the Islamic republic’s nuclear program; the nomination of Iran hardliners John Bolton as his national security advisor and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state; and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s increasingly tough language toward Iran.

Mr. Bolton called at a rally in Paris last July together with Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence chief whose remarks at times serve as trial balloons for Prince Mohammed, for regime change in Iran. The rally was organized by the Mujahedeen Khalq, MEK, or People’s Mujahedeen, an Iranian opposition group that supported Saddam Hussein in his war in the 1980s against Iran.

“The declared policy of the United States of America should be the overthrow of the mullah’s regime in Tehran. The behaviour and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself. And that’s why before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran,” Mr. Bolton said referring to the Islamic revolution’s forthcoming 40th anniversary.

Speaking last week to an MEK Persian New Year’s gathering, former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani predicted Mr. Bolton’s appointment before Mr. Trump announced it and assured the audience that “if anything, John Bolton has become more determined that there needs to be regime change in Iran, that the nuclear agreement needs to be burned, and that you need to be in charge of that country.”

Prince Mohammed started escalating his rhetoric two months earlier when he vowed that “we won't wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia… Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.” The crown prince has since twice compared Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Adolf Hitler, arguing that his ambitions for territorial expansion were similar to those of the Nazi leader.

In interviews during his ongoing three-week long charm offensive in the United States, Prince Mohammed warned that Saudi Arabia would develop nuclear weapons of its own if Iran reverted to a military program. He went on to suggest that Saudi Arabia could go to war with Iran in 10-15 years if the international community failed to halt Iranian expansionism.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arabs have a long history of encouraging Iranian Arab opposition and troubling the minority’s relations with the government. 

Unidentified gunmen in The Hague killed Ahwazi activist Ahmad Mola Nissi in November. Mr. Nissi was shot dead days before he was scheduled to launch a Saudi-funded television station staffed with Saudi-trained personnel that would target Khuzestan, according to Ahwazi activists.

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

For their part, Iranian Arabs believe that the government fears that they are susceptible to foreign Arab influence. That suspicion, Iranian Arabs say, is rooted in Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s bloody eight-year war against Iran that was funded by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Saddam falsely expected that Iranian Arabs would welcome the opportunity to gain independence from Iran. The Iranian Arab refusal to side with Saddam failed, however, to earn Iranian Arabs the credit they deserved.

Iranian fears that external powers could exploit discontent among Iranian ethnic minorities, who account for almost half of the Islamic republic’s population, have been further fuelled by indications that some in Washington and Riyadh may be toying with the notion of trying to destabilize the country by supporting disaffected groups.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said in January that it had seized Saudi-supplied caches of weapons and explosives in separate operations in Kurdish areas in the west of the country and a Baloch region on the eastern border with Pakistan.

A study published last year by a Riyadh-based think tank, believed to be supported by Prince Mohammed, laid out a plan to support a Baloch insurgency in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan that borders on the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Saudi Arabia has long supported ultra-conservative religious seminaries in Balochistan that dominate the Pakistani region’s education landscape.

There is no indication that this week’s protests in Khuzestan were anything more than an expression of popular anger against perceived denial of an Iranian Arab identity. By the same token, external forces that view Iranian ethnic groups as a monkey wrench for regime change will no doubt see them as signalling opportunity.

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 30, 2018

Egyptian ultras: Down but not out


Photo by Karim Abdel Aziz/Egypt Today

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi won a second term virtually unchallenged in what is widely seen as a flawed election. The run-up to the poll, including a soccer protest, suggests, however, that it will take more than a democratic whitewash to get a grip on simmering discontent.

The protest in early March signalled that militant soccer fans who played a key role in the 2011 toppling of President Hosni Mubarak may be down but not out.

To be sure, the differences between 2011 and 2018 could not be starker. Mr. Al-Sisi presides over the worst repression in recent Egyptian history that has targeted even the slightest form of dissent, making Mr. Mubarak’s rule look relatively benign.

Potential challengers in the recent election were either jailed or persuaded, sometimes in a heavy-handed manner, to withdraw their candidacy.

They included serving and former military officers as well as Mortada Mansour, a controversial member of parliament and head of starred Cairo club Al Zamalek SC. It was Mr. Mortada’s withdrawal that 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. Moussa secured three percent of the vote, while Mr. Al-Sisi won a 92 percent landslide.

Among Egypt’s estimated 60,000 political prisoners are scores of militant supporters of soccer clubs who were not only prominent in the 2011 uprising but also in subsequent anti-government demonstrations, including a wave of student protests in the wake of the 2013 coup that initially brought Mr. Al-Sisi, when he was still serving as Egypt’s top military commander, to power.

The student protests, that turned the country’s universities into security fortresses, were brutally squashed by law enforcement forces abetted by the adoption of a draconic anti-protest law, tight control of the media, and a crackdown on non-governmental organizations.

The seeming revival of the ultras comes at a time that soccer is re-emerging in Egypt as one of the few, if not the only valve for the release of pent-up frustration and escape from daily worries in an economic environment of austerity that has improved macro-economic indicators while fuelling inflation and making it harder for many Egyptians to make ends meet.

In the latest incident, seventeen supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SCS, which traces its history back to the early 20th century when it was founded as an anti-monarchical club whose supporters played an important part in the 1919 anti-British revolution that paved the way for Egyptian independence three years later, were reprimanded in custody earlier this month.

The fans stand accused of participating in protests and clashes with security forces towards the end of a Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League match in Cairo that pitted Al Ahli against Gabon’s CF Mounana. They reportedly chanted slogans against the police and in favour of freedom.

As an international competition, the match was one of the few games exempted from a ban on public attendance of soccer games that has been in place for much of the last seven years in a bid to prevent stadiums from re-emerging as potential venues of anti-government protest.

The incident threatens to delay plans to lift the ban that has been enforced uninterrupted since early 2012 when 72 Al Ahli supporters died in a politically loaded brawl after a match in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.

The potential charges against the fans include being part of a group that incites disregard of the constitution and the law, preventing state institutions and public authorities from carrying out their work and threatening the safety and security of society.

Public investigators said the detainees included members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that won Egypt’s only free and fair election in 2012 but was toppled a year later by Mr. Al-Sisi.
Ultras Ahlawy, the club’s militant support group, denied involvement in the protest. It said those involved did not represent the group and that it did not want the incident to be construed “in a political way.”

Phd student Hesham Shafick, however, described the CAF match as a return to the days prior to the 2011 revolt in which militants fans or ultras dominated the stadium with their highly artistic, choreographed  support for their club that was often laden with overt and covert political tones.

“Their famous flames lit up the stadium and their famous song ‘liberta’ resurrected the moribund spirit of the January 2011 revolution,” Mr. Shafick wrote.

Mr. Shafick’s description and pictures of the Cairo stadium during the match suggest that the ultras as a group staged the choreographed support for their club. The staging defied a 2015 court ban of all ultras groups even if individuals rather than the group itself may have been involved in the last-minute protest.

In a statement, Al Ahli president Mahmoud El-Khatib seemed to take the Ultras Ahlawy position into account by asserting that "a few people interfered with our great supporters and did these shameful acts. They wanted us to return back to the past years that witnessed the team playing behind closed doors."

Mr. Al-Khatib was among a host of club presidents and athletes that attended a news conference hosted by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to endorse Mr. Al-Sisi’s candidacy in a seeming violation of a ban on mixing sports and politics, arbitrarily imposed by world soccer body FIFA.

The revival of soccer as a release valve was evident in a Cairo coffeehouse on the second-day of Egypt’s three-day election where men had gathered to watch a friendly match between Egypt and Greece.

“Our voice is heard when we cheer and make a difference to the players, who are also doing something for the sake of this country. But if we go and vote in the election, our voice does not count — it makes no difference,” 28-year-old Hassan Allam told an Arab News reporter.

“There was no real competition against Al-Sisi and many of the people I know were harassed by security forces for their political affiliations. The only safe route for us to support the country is by cheering on our national football team; we have nothing else to do,” Allam added.

It is that sentiment that Mr. Al-Sisi will want to turn to his advantage, much like Mr. Mubarak tried with at best mixed results when he sought to either polish his tarnished image by identifying himself with the success of the national team or at times manipulate soccer emotions into a nationalistic frenzy that involved rallying around the leader.

To succeed, Mr. Al-Sisi will have to do more than support the team, which this year qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years or adopt a nationalist approach by creating a fund that would incentivize players to play for Egyptian rather than foreign teams.

Mr. Al-Sisi will have to ensure that economic reform trickles down to the ordinary Egyptian, get the upper hand in an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, and ultimately loosen his grip on power to create space for political groupings and individuals to voice alternative and dissenting opinions. So far, there is little indication that Mr. Al-Sisi is rethinking his approach along those lines.

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 StudieSs 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

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Will the real Pakistan stand up, please?



By James M. Dorsey

Two headlines this month beg the question US officials have been grappling with for more than a decade: Will the real Pakistan stand up, please?

Pakistan’s The News reported that the government had designated Islamabad as a pilot project to regulate Friday prayer sermons in the city’s 1,003 mosques, of which only 86 are state-controlled, in a bid to curb hate speech, extremism and demonization of religions and communities.

The project is modelled on procedures in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt that are primarily intended to exert political control. The Islamabad project is in part designed to counter mounting criticism by the Trump administration, which has suspended funding to Pakistan, as well as growing unease in China over what Pakistani militancy could mean for its massive investment in the country.

It is also intended to support Pakistani efforts to evade blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a 37-member inter-governmental agency that polices adherence to anti-money laundering and funding of political violence measures.

The government has drawn up a list of 44 subjects on which prayer leaders should focus in their sermons. They include women rights; Muslim unity; Islamic principles of trade, cleanliness and health; concepts of an Islamic state; the importance of hard work, tolerance, and honesty; and the notion of the finality of the Prophet Mohammed.

The belief that Mohammed was the last prophet or Khatm-e-Nabuwwat is core to Muslim faith. Yet, it has allowed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatives and others to whip up popular emotion in pursuit of political objectives, nowhere more so than In Pakistan where a draconic anti-blasphemy law has aided and abetted them.

The military late last year mediated an end to a weeks-long blockade of a main artery leading into Islamabad that disrupted traffic in multiple cities to protest a perceived softening of the government’s adherence to Islam in a proposed piece of legislation. The protesters successfully called for the resignation of the justice minister for failing to refer to Prophet Mohammad in a constitutional bill.

The second headline reported that Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui demanded in a ruling that parliament “take measures which can completely terminate those who scar (the belief in Khatm-e-Nabuwwat).”

Justice Siddiqui sits on the bench of a courthouse that last year had graffiti in a corridor demanding that blasphemers be beheaded. Mr. Siddiqui, who has defined blasphemers as terrorists, was ruling in a case brought before him by some of the protesters who had blockaded traffic that would effectively bar from public service Ahmadis, a sect considered heretic by orthodox Muslims because it views its 19th century founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a prophet.

Pressured by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan in 1974 excommunicated Ahmadis in a constitutional amendment that enshrined the principle of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat as integral to the Islamic faith. Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq criminalized Ahmadi practices a decade later by barring Ahmadis from “posing as Muslims” or using Islamic titles, greetings, scriptures or calls to prayer.

Mr. Siddiqui’s ruling appeared to contradict the government’s effort to get a grip on expressions of Sunni Muslim supremacism that amount to hate speech and discrimination of the other in a country in which extremism has been fuelled by intolerant, anti-pluralistic views.

The ruling, despite paying lip service to constitutional guarantees of "complete religious freedom, including all the basic rights of the minorities (Non-Muslims)" and the state’s obligation to "protect their life, wealth, property, dignity and protect their assets as citizens of Pakistan," spotlights contradictions in the constitution.

On the one hand, the constitution recognizes the principle of Khatm-e-Nabuwwat. On the other, article 20 enshrines the notion of freedom of religion while article 27 bans discrimination in recruitment for public office.

Without explicitly identifying Ahmadis, Mr. Siddiqui said it was "alarming" that "one of the minorities" was "often mistaken for being Muslims" due to their names and general attire. He warned that this "can lead them to gain access to dignified and sensitive posts, along with benefits."

Human rights activists and lawyers have called for the ruling to be challenged in the Supreme Court. “This is clear hate speech. What is the judge asking them to be terminated from? Their jobs? Doesn’t that take away their basic right to life and dignity?” said lawyer and human rights activist Jibran Nasir.

The plaintiffs in Mr. Siddiqui’s case were supporters of Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan (TPL), a political front for Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLR), which glorifies Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed in 2016 for killing Punjab governor Salman Taseer because of his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

Tens of thousands attended Mr. Qadri’s funeral and his supporters have built a well-frequented shrine to honour him in his home town. Lawyers associated with TPL have instigated multiple blasphemy cases in Pakistani courts.

The Lahore-based Centre for Social Justice estimated that at least 1,472 people have been charged with blasphemy 1987 and 2016. Of the 730 Muslims charged, 501 were Ahmadis.

Activists and scholars argue that a rollback of the country’s blasphemy law which applies the death sentence to those convicted is a requirement if Pakistan is serious about combatting extremism. A study by political scientist Nilay Saiya of 51 Muslim majority countries concluded that those that enforced ant-blasphemy laws were more susceptible to political violence.

“Both the concept of blasphemy and the prescription of any sort of punishment for its occurrence stand contrary to the Qu’ran… The modern invocation of religious defamation laws stems from political leaders in Muslim-majority states…who have exploited such laws as a crafty way to use religion for political purposes including inflaming religious sensibilities, silencing criticism of the regime, generating patriotism, fostering national cohesion, co-opting Islamic supporters, and undercutting detractors,” Mr. Saiya said.

Mr. Saiya argued that blasphemy laws encourage militants to attack with impunity individuals, homes, places of worship, and businesses of those believed to be blasphemers in the knowledge that the state will turn a blind eye to their actions.

“Violent non-state actors thus feel empowered to commit acts of terrorism with little or no fear of governmental reprisal because blasphemy laws, in effect, lend the authority of the state to religious figures and reinforce extreme views. Rather than control the forces of extremism, blasphemy laws appease and encourage them. The result, expectedly, is that states that attempt to curry favour with radicals embolden them to take matters into their own hands; eventually such countries fall prey to violence carried out by those same radicals,” Mr. Saiya said.

“The vagueness of the (Pakistani) language concerning blasphemy allowed radicals to interpret the code in very loose ways and open-endedly persecute those believed to be guilty of defiling, in any way, ‘the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad’… Pakistan’s blasphemy law thus opened the floodgate for extremism and terrorism which the government was unable to subsequently control,” Mr. Saiya added.

Given Mr. Saiya’s analysis, both headlines represent Pakistan. The problem, however, is that the Pakistan that wants to reign in supremacism, hate speech and extremism has little chance of succeeding with out far-reaching political and legal change that would uproot the vested interests of the Pakistan that sees religious and political militancy as a useful tool.

That may be a step too far for those interests even if they recognize a need to be seen to be advocating change with band-aid solutions like trying to control Friday prayer sermons.

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 27, 2018

Natural gas: An underrated driver of Saudi hostility towards Iran and Qatar



By James M. Dorsey

Debilitating hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is about lots of things, not least who will have the upper hand in a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa. While attention is focused on ensuring that continued containment of Iran ensures that Saudi Arabia has a leg up, geopolitics is but one side of the equation. Natural gas is the other.

With signatories to the Paris climate accord moving towards bans on petrol and diesel-driven vehicles within a matter of decades and renewable energy technology advancing in strides, natural gas takes on added significance.

These global energy trends are hastening in an era in which oil will significantly diminish in importance and natural gas, according to energy scholar Sergei Paltsev, will fill gaps in the provision of renewable energy that await technological advances.

Saudia Arabia’s problem is that Iran and Qatar have the gas reserves it does not. That is one reason why renewables figure prominently in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform program, not only to prepare Saudi Arabia economically for a post-oil future but also to secure its continued geopolitical significance.

Prince Mohammed, like his counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, hopes that the kingdom will have an advantage in the generation of solar energy given that the sun hovers higher over his country than over Europe and other parts of the world and that it has less interference from clouds.

As a result, natural gas is a factor in mounting tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and say some analysts, a driver of the Saudi-UAE-led, ten-month-old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In what could constitute a serious escalation of hostilities, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen threatened this week to retaliate against Iran in response to missile attacks on the kingdom by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

“Perhaps, the Saudi elite knows all too well that the basis of its power is hollowing out rapidly as a result of the global climate response and anticipated dwindling of conventional oil. The stakes could never have been higher,” said international relations scholar David Crieckmans in a recently published volume on the geopolitics of renewables.

Contributing to the same volume, Thijs van de Graaf, another international relations scholar, suggested that of all the Middle Eastern oil producers, Saudi Arabia may have the most to lose.

Ironically, crippling sanctions that severely hampered Iran’s oil production and only began to be lifted following the 2015 international agreement that curbed the country’s nuclear program coupled with US threats to withdraw from the accord and potentially reimpose sanctions may work in Iran’s favour in the transition to a post-oil world.

“Iran…has a lot of advantages. It has a much broader economic base, a longer tradition of trading, and lower fertility rates… The country’s oil production is much under its potential due to years of sanctions. This might in the long run turn out to be an advantage as these economies prepare themselves for a post-oil age,” Mr. Van der Graaf said.

Add to that the fact that it is likely to be be gas supplies from Iran and Turkmenistan, two Caspian Sea states, rather than Saudi oil that will determine which way the future Eurasian energy architecture tilts: China, the world’s third largest LNG importer, or Europe.

“Iran, within five years, will likely have 24.6 billion cubic metres of natural gas available for annual piped gas exports beyond its current supply commitments. 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,” energy scholar Micha’el Tanchum argued.

In other words, the existential threat Iran poses to Saudi Arabia goes far beyond the fact that the Islamic republic challenges Saudi monarchical rule by offering an alternative, albeit flawed, form of Islamic governance that incorporates a degree of popular sovereignty. It involves competition in which Iran can leverage assets Saudi Arabia does not have, leaving the kingdom dependent on containment that at best postpones issues rather than accommodates solutions. It also means that the antagonists’ regional proxy wars in Yemen and elsewhere are unlikely to remove the fundamental issues that drive the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and translate into destabilizing short-term policies.

Hardliners, including US President Donald J. Trump’s newly appointed national security advisor, John Bolton, and nominee for the post of secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, may be proponents of regime change in Iran, yet, the question remains whether that would truly alleviate Saudi fears that are shared by Israel. If successful, it would eliminate the Islamic governance challenge, but do nothing to alter the reality of a changing energy landscape.

Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, cautions that a possible US withdrawal next month from the nuclear agreement with Iran does not necessarily mean either the demise of the accord or a re-imposition of a crippling sanctions regime.

“Twenty years ago, Congress passed similar secondary sanctions—the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act—threatening penalties against foreign companies investing in Iran’s oil and gas sector. Europe cried foul and the sanctions were never implemented. That could well be the outcome in May” when Mr. Trump has to decide whether the United States remains a party to the accord, Ms. Slavin noted.

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

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Make Wine Not War: Wineism’s recipe for a sustainable political future


Source: CNN

By James M. Dorsey

When Miguel Torres, scion of an iconic Spanish winemaking dynasty, described the impact of the Catalan quest for independence on his more than a century-old business in a letter to wine writer Andrew Jefford, little did he realize that he had put his finger on one of the current world’s most fundamental battles: nationalism and populism vs. inclusive multi-culturalism.  It is a struggle that is tearing countries apart and rewriting the international order.

Mr. Torres worried that in the unlikely case of secessionists succeeding in taking Catalonia out of Spain, his business would grapple with the same problem UK-based companies are struggling to come to grips with as Britain prepares to leave the European Union. The winemaker’s letter made Mr. Jefford realize that the culture of wine embraced the very principles that were being challenged by US President Donald J. Trump’s America First principle and his opposition to multi-trade agreements, Britain’s Brexit, and nationalism and populism’s agitation against the other.

Mr. Jefford’s concept of Wineism that celebrates the existence of multiple identities, difference, trans-nationalism and the breaking down of trade barriers is as applicable to non-Muslim nations where alcohol is not religiously questioned as it is to the Islamic world that despite the faith’s ban boasts numerous winemakers.

At the core of the mayhem of death, destruction and brutal repression that has engulfed multiple Middle Eastern and North African nations is the failure of decades of autocratic rule that not only failed to deliver public goods and services, but also to build inclusive societies that took account of religious, ethnic and regional differences and ensured that all segments of society had a stake.

In contrast to Mr. Torres’ business that has yet to feel what the rise of Catalan nationalism and Spanish nationalism would have on its business, many wine and alcohol producers in the Middle East and North Africa that include Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, have succeeded to stay in business despite war, upheaval and militant religious opposition.

In doing so, they wittingly or unwittingly testify to the very principles that are at stake in their region’s volatile transition and ultimately will need to constitute the basis for sustainable economic, social and political development.

In contrast to Spain whose territorial integrity is questioned but not seriously threatened by Catalonian nationalism, several Middle Eastern and North African countries, including Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, could emerge from crisis having given birth to multiple new statelets. Yet, even without a redrawing of the region’s political map, international trade and inclusive domestic policies will be key determinants of its success. And irrespective of religious attitudes, wine culture may be one guide for the way forward.

Winemakers in Lebanon like Elie Maamari of Chateau Ksara and the daughters of General Joseph G. Bitar, who translated his passion for Italian wine culture into a business after returning from his post as Lebanon’s military attaché in Rome and Lebanese-born Syrian producers Karim and Sandro Saade, producers of what has been dubbed ‘the world’s most dangerous wine,’ can tell Mr. Torres what it is like to keep their business going under circumstances far worse than his worst nightmare. So can Iraqi beer and arak producers who after decades of war saw parliament ban their wares in 2016.

Nonetheless, in Mr. Jefford’s reading wine says it all. Contemplating a bottle of one of France’s premier wines, Chambolle-Musigny les Amoureuses, he asks: “What is its identity?  An Amoureuses?  A Chambolle?  A Côtes de Nuits?  A red burgundy?  A French wine?  A European wine? A red wine?  The answer, of course, is all of these. What is true for wines is still more true for human beings.  When I begin to enumerate my own identities, I soon lose count.”

Nowhere is this truer than in the Middle East and North Africa where the attempt by political and religious groups as well as opportunistic autocrats to impose a singular identity has brought the region to the brink. Iraq aided by Turkey and Iran may have halted Kurdish secession in its tracks but has done little to squash Kurdish aspirations in any of the three countries.

The same is true for the quest of Palestinians, another regional wine producer, for an independent state despite US-backed Israeli policies and Palestinian divisions that threaten to defeat a two-state solution as an option for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similarly, the jury is still out on Shiite majority Iraq’s ability to convince Sunni Muslims that they have an equitable place in the country.

Mr. Jefford’s notion of wine’s multiple identities goes to the core of another reality that autocrats in militants in the Middle East and North Africa conveniently brush aside.

“If you like wine, you love difference; difference should therefore be accepted as an absolute good.  If you drink branded vodka, whisky or beer, you replicate the same experience each time.  If you drink wine, you dive into a world of multiple differences – of vintage, of origin, of variety, of wine-making techniques, of ageing practices, of level of maturity.  Wine teaches us the valuable lesson that nothing is ever truly the same twice, either in place or time, and that differences merit respect,” Mr. Jefford says.

Finally, the history of wine is the history of a world that was open to international trade and open borders. French wine historian Philippe Roudie noted that medieval Europe’s largest trade sector was wine. Today’s wines are its legacy. “Its sensual intricacy and refinement, and the prosperity of those involved in farming, creating and trading it, would collapse without international trade,” Mr. Jefford said.

Commenting on Mr. Jefford’s theory of Wineism, journalist Laura Lakeway noted that the traits he describes are valid among wine lovers irrespective of their politics. “I know people in the wine trade who are politically conservative. Yet while they might not lean to the left as Jefford does, they invariably share the generous spirit that unites wine lovers,” Ms. Lakeway 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,  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 23, 2018

Saudi Prince Mohammed’s religious moderation unlikely to change Asian realities



By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be seeking to revert his kingdom to an unspecified form of moderate Islam but erasing the impact of 40 years of global funding of ultra-conservative, intolerant strands of the faith is unlikely to be eradicated by decree.

Not only because ultra-conservatism has taken root in numerous Muslim countries and communities, but also because it has given opportunistic politicians a framework to pursue policies that appeal to bigoted and biased sentiments in bids to strengthen their grip on power. Nowhere is that more evident than in Asia, home to several of the Islamic world’s most populous countries.

Examples of the fallout abound among recipients of Saudi largess. They include institutionalized discrimination In Pakistan against Ahmadis, a sect considered heretic by orthodox Muslims, as well as biased policies towards non-Muslims and Shiites in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Basic freedoms in Bangladesh are being officially and unofficially curtailed in various forms as a result of domestic struggles originally enabled by successful Saudi pressure to amend the country’s constitution in 1975 to recognize Islam as its official religion. The amendment was a condition for Saudi recognition of the young republic and the promise of substantial financial support.

Reports that Prince Mohammed in a dramatic gesture to Shiites, who have been discriminated against for years in the kingdom and demonized by its religious and political leaders as part of Saudi Arabia’s public affairs war with Iran, plans to visit the Shiite religious citadel of Najaf in Iraq is likely to do little to change things on the ground in Muslim majority nations in Asia.

Neither will his meetings with Christian religious luminaries in Egypt and elsewhere even if they demonstrate that Saudi Arabia, the custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities, is, under Prince Mohammed’s guidance, embracing principles of inter-faith dialogue and religious tolerance.

Reporting on a visit to the ultra-conservative Indonesian region of Aceh, Islam scholar Kamaruzzaman Bustamam-Ahmad noted that “supporters for anti-Shi’ah in Aceh are Wahabism, an Islamic political party, a group of young Acehnese who finished their study in the Middle East….They play their role in urban areas. After the Tsunami (in 2004), many of pesantrens (religious seminaries) from Wahabism were built in Aceh. They received funding from ‘outside’ Aceh.”

Bangladeshi journalist Ahmedur Rashid Chowdhury, who fled his country after a failed assassination attempt by religious militants, recently sketched Bangladesh’s migration from a nation founded with aspirations of “economic, political and intellectual emancipation” to one in which the “will of the military and its leadership was key in shaping politics towards selfishness and subornation” and “political parties are willing to go to any length to hold on to power.”

It was a process abetted by Saudi Arabia. Mr. Chowdhury noted that “the healthy trend of democratic and progressive politics was never able to regain a footing in Bangladesh” with freedom of speech and the press as one of its major casualties. Unlike human rights lawyer and writer Ikhtisad Ahmed, Mr. Chowdhury shied away from referring to the role of Saudi Arabia and Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism in his country’s political development.

One strand of ultra-conservatism, Salafism, that Saudi interior minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz wanted to elevate to an official Islamic school of thought shortly before his death in 2012, gained, according to  Mr. Ahmed, currency under the coalition government in the first years of the 21st century formed by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-e-Islami, a controversial group that opposed the country’s independence.

Like in Pakistan, of which Bangladesh was part until, 1971, the military as well as political parties maintained opportunistic ties to militants such as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Harkat-ul-Jihad that were often as opposed to secularism as they were to Saudi-style monarchy.

As a result, Bangladesh, the world’s fourth largest Muslim nation, is at the heart of a struggle between liberalism and ultra-conservatism that questions Saudi Arabia’s legacy and is about reforms that go beyond anything envisioned by Prince Mohammed. It is a battle in which free-thinking, journalists, writers and intellectuals have paid a heavy price.

In the latest incident earlier this month, prominent scholar, award-winning science fiction author and outspoken critic of religious militants, Muhammed Zafar Iqbal was stabbed and seriously injured in a knife attack in the north-eastern town of Sylhet.

Mr. Iqbal was the latest victim of more than 30 machete attacks, shootouts, and bombings in Bangladesh in the past three years, including last year’s assault on the Holy Artisan Bakery in Dhaka in which 22 hostages were killed.

The country’s battle was fuelled by a 2010 Bangladesh Supreme Court decision to roll back the Saudi-inspired amendment of the constitution and restore secularism as its basic tenant as well as the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for war crimes during the 1971 Pakistani-Indian war that gave birth to Bangladesh.

In response, ultra-conservatives and militants demanded death for “atheists and apostates” who had demonstrated in favour of the death penalties, stricter anti-blasphemy legislation and a crackdown on alleged un-Islamic cultural practices.

To be sure, Saudi Arabia, a country that is itself in transition, is unlikely to be backing the ultra-conservatives and militants. Yet, their struggle and deep-seated polarization in Bangladesh are offshoots of the kingdom’s past ultra-conservative support and the creation of an environment in which politicians and state organs can opportunistically exploit religious sentiment.

Criticism of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s weak response to the violence, if not inaction, coupled with the battle for the soul of Bangladesh serves as evidence that reversing the fallout of four decades of Saudi promotion of ultra-conservatism as an anti-dote to Iranian revolutionary zeal will take time and often be volatile. The same is true for efforts to counter creeping ultra-conservatism in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.

In fact, what the struggles in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia suggest is that today’s culprits are not Saudi Arabia, even if it bears a responsibility, but politicians and/or national governments. Said Mr. Chowdhury: The failure to bring culprits to justice in many of the recent attacks in Bangladesh has “been the deliberate goal of the government. It supports their ambition to continue holding on to power by silencing critics and pandering to the religious right.”

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 21, 2018

Saudi moderation: How far will Crown Prince Mohammed go?


No women at the table
By James M. Dorsey

In his effort to improve Saudi Arabia’s badly tarnished image and project the kingdom as embracing an unidentified form of moderate Islam, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hinted that he envisions a conservative rather than an ultra-conservative society, but not one in which citizens are fully free to make personal, let alone political choices of their own.

Prince Mohammed’s vision, although not spelled out in great detail, seemed evident in an interview with CBS News’ 60 minutes, his first with a Western television program, on the eve of a three-week trip that is taking him across the United States.

The trip is designed to cement relations with the Trump administration following the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who Prince Mohammed and his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, viewed as unenthusiastic about their hegemonic designs for a swath of land stretching across the Middle East from the Horn of Africa to South Asia, including the Saudi-UAE-led ten-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The visit comes barely a month before Mr. Trump has to decide whether to pull the United States out of the 2015 international agreement with Iran designed to curb the Islamic republic’s nuclear program. A withdrawal could lead to the agreement’s collapse and spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Prince Mohammed, who is locked into existential battle with Iran, told CBS.

It is also intended to project the kingdom as a beacon of moderation rather than a promoter of ultra-conservatism and cutting-edge modernity led by a young reformist but autocratic king-in-waiting.

In a meeting in the White House with Donald J, Trump, on the first day of his visit, both Prince Mohammed and the US president touted the economic benefits of the two countries’ relationship, with massive US arms sales and other deals, including nuclear sales that would involve reducing US safeguards by giving the kingdom the right to enrich uranium. Both leaders asserted that the deals would significantly boost employment in both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Besides Mr. Trump, Prince Mohammed is scheduled to meet members of Congress, think tanks and academics, oil executives, businessmen and representatives of Silicon Valley’s high-tech industry and Hollywood.

Both Prince Mohammed and Mr. Trump need to demonstrate economic progress to boost or cement their popularity at home. The crown prince needs to demonstrate to Saudis that he is feted as a leader despite mounting international criticism of his conduct of the ill-fated, three-year old war in Yemen, his domestic power and asset grab under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign, the kingdom’s long-standing severe political and social restrictions, and its four-decade long global support for ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.

Beyond concern about the high civilian casualty rate in Yemen and the war having sparked one of the world’s worst current humanitarian crises, many fear that potentially destabilizing anti-Saudi sentiment in the ravaged country will persist long after the guns fall silent.

Those fears are reinforced by contradictory Saudi measures. While on the one hand pledging billions of dollars in aid and allowing at least some relief to get into the country, Saudi Arabia has aggravated the crisis in the country by expelling tens of thousands of Yemeni workers in recent months.

Prince Mohammed also needs to demonstrate that he can attract foreign investment despite the arbitrary nature of the arrest in November of hundreds of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family, prominent businessmen, and high-ranking officials, and reports that at least some of them were abused and tortured during their detention.

Most of the detainees were released after surrendering control of assets and/or paying substantial amounts of money. The government said it expects to raise $100 billion from the asset grab.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the most prominent detainees and the kingdom’s most-high-profile businessman, who seemed to put up a fight during his detention, has since his release in January said that he would be investing in some of Prince Mohammed’s pet projects.

Prince Mohammed bolstered his image by vowing to return Saudi Arabia to an unidentified form of moderate Islam; forcing the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment to endorse his reforms; suggesting that the kingdom may halt its massive global funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism to counter Iran’s revolutionary zeal; surrendering control of the Saudi-managed Great Mosque in Brussels; granting women the right to drive, join the military, and attend male sporting events; and creating a modern entertainment sector.

Despite the boldness of his moves, Prince Mohammed has sent mixed messages about how far he is prepared to go. Women and men mix at concerts and theatre plays but are segregated in the three sport stadiums that have been declared open to women.

While the crown prince has been decisive in his power and asset grab, he has yet to say a clear word about lifting Saudi Arabia’s system of male guardianship that gives male relatives control of their lives. Similarly, there is no indication that gender segregation in restaurants and other public places will be lifted.

Asked about the guardianship, Prince Mohammed evaded specifics. “Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don't have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go,” he said.

Middle East Scholar As’ad Abu Khalil, whose blog is named The Angry Arab News Service, posted a picture of Prince Salman’s meeting with Mr. Trump, noting that there was not one woman on either side of the conference table.

Speaking Arabic despite having learnt to speak English by watching movies, Prince Mohammed appeared in his CBS interview to defend allowing a mingling of the sexes in the work place while shying away from ultra-conservative Islam's ban on a man meeting a woman unaccompanied by a male relative in non-professional or non-public settings.

“We have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace,” Prince Mohammed said.

The crown prince conceded that women had the right to determine what to wear if their clothes were “decent, respectful clothing, like men.” He did not define what would constitute decent but insisted that it did not have to be a “black abaya or a black head cover.”

No doubt, Prince Mohammed’s social reforms and promised economic change provide him significant arrows in his multimillion dollar public relations blitz. That is getting him the support of the White House.

“Getting a strong presidential endorsement of the crown prince's trip to the U.S. to encourage investment in Saudi Arabia, that, I think, could be something that could be done,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Translating that into real policy and dollars and cent could, however, prove to be a harder sell.

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