Richard Whittall:

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

Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach

"James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport

“Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”

Play the Game

"Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal
"No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated

"Essential Reading"
Change FIFA

"A fantastic new blog'
Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life

"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"
Christopher Ahl, Play the Game

"An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Wahhabism - Remarks at 2016 Exeter Gulf Conference

This book project on Saudi public diplomacy using primarily the kingdom’s financial muscle has had a long gestation. It focuses on the impact of various policies of the kingdom on Muslim communities and nations across the globe.

In doing so, I will concentrate on Saudi government policy and actions as well as those of senior members of the ruling Al Saud family rather than wealthy individuals who may or may not be associated with them. As a result, theological and ideological differences between various expressions of Muslim ultra-conservatism fall beyond the parameters of what I am looking at.

My thinking on this has evolved in the past year despite having covered the Saudi efforts for many years from very different angles and multiple geographies. The evolution of my thinking is reflected in the fact that were I looking today for a title for these remarks, I’d call it Saudi export of ultra-conservatism rather than Wahhabism. The reason is simple: Saudi export and global support for religiously driven groups goes far beyond Wahhabism. It is not simply a product of the Faustian bargain that the Al Sauds made with the Wahhabis. It is central to Saudi Arabia’s efforts to position itself internationally and flex its muscles regionally as well as on the international stage and has been crucial to the Al Sauds’ survival strategy for at least the last four decades.

There is a lot of talk about Saudi funding of Wahhabism, yet in the mushrooming of Islamic ultra-conservatism in the last half century, Wahhabis as a group form a minority in the ultra-conservative Muslim world. The reason for this is fairly straightforward: For the Saudi government, support of puritan, intolerant, non-pluralistic and discriminatory forms of ultra-conservatism – primarily Wahhabism, Salafism in its various stripes, and Deobandism in South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora – is about soft power and countering Iran in what is for the Al Sauds an existential battle, rather than religious proselytization. One other important aspect is that South Asia has been an important contributor to ultra-conservative thinking for more than a century. Another significant element is the fact that while the Saudi campaign focuses predominantly on the Muslim world, it also at times involved ties to other, non-Muslim ultra-conservative faith groups and right-wing political groups.

Saudi Arabia’s focus on ultra-conservatism rather than only Wahhabism or quietist forms of Salafism allowed the kingdom to not simply rely on export of its specific interpretation of Islam but also to capitalize on existing, long-standing similar worldviews, particularly in South Asia. South Asia is also where the Saudi effort that amounts to the single largest dedicated public diplomacy campaign in post-World War Two history, bigger than anything that the Soviet Union or the United States attempted, had its most devastating effect.

The campaign is an issue that I have looked at since I first visited the kingdom in the mid-1970s, during numerous subsequent visits, when I lived in Saudi Arabia in the wake of 9/11, and during a 4.5-year court battle that I won in 2006 in the British House of Lords, a landmark case that contributed to changes in English libel law.

The scope of the Saudi campaign goes far beyond religious groups because it is about soft power and geopolitics and not just proselytization.  It involved the funding of construction of mosques and cultural institutions; networks of schools, universities and book and media outlets, and distribution of not only Wahhabi literature in multiple languages but also of works of ultra-conservative scholars of other stripes. It also involved forging close ties, particularly in Muslim majority countries, with various branches of government, including militaries, intelligence agencies and ministries of education, interior and religious affairs to ensure that especially when it came to Iran as well as Muslim minority communities like the Ahmadis and Shiites, Saudi Arabia’s worldview was well represented.

An example of this is Indonesia where Asad Ali, the recently retired deputy head of Indonesian intelligence and former deputy head of Nahdlatul Ulema (NU), one of the world’s largest Islamic movements that prides itself on its anti-Wahhabism, professes in the same breath his dislike of the Wahhabis and warns that Shiites are one of the foremost domestic threats to Indonesian national security. Shiites constitute 1.2 percent of the Indonesian population, including the estimated 2 million Sunni converts over the last 40 years. A fluent Arabic speaker who spent years in Saudi Arabia as the representative of Indonesian intelligence, this intelligence and religious official is not instinctively anti-Shiite, but sees Shiites as an Iranian fifth wheel.  In other words, the impact of Saudi funding and ultra-conservatism is such that even NU is forced to adopt ultra-conservative language and concepts when it comes to perceptions of the threat posed by Iran and Shiites.

In waging its campaign, Saudi Arabia was not alone. It benefitted from governments eager to benefit from Saudi largesse and willing to use religion opportunistically to further their own interests that cooperated with the kingdom wholeheartedly to the ultimate detriment of their societies.

Much of Saudi funding in the last half century, despite the more recent new assertiveness in the kingdom’s foreign and defense policy, was directed at non-violent, ultra-conservative groups and institutions as well as governments. It created environments that did not breed violence in and of themselves but in given circumstances greater militancy and radicalism. Pakistan is probably the one exception, the one where a more direct comparison to Russian and Communist support of liberation movements and insurgencies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s is most relevant. 

In many ways, the chicken is coming home to roost. The structure of the Saudi funding campaign was such that the Saudis ultimately unleashed a genie they did not and were not able to control, that has since often turned against them, particularly with a host albeit not all militant Islamist and jihadist groups, and that no longer can be put back into the bottle.

The government, to bolster its campaign created various institutions including the Muslim World League and its multiple subsidiaries, Al Haramain, another charity that ultimately pos-9/11 was disbanded because of its militant links, and the likes of the Islamic universities in Medina, Pakistan and Malaysia. In virtually all of these instances, the Saudis were the funders. The executors were others often with agendas of their own such as the Brotherhood with the Muslim World League or in the case of Al Haramain, more militant Islamists, if not jihadists. Saudi oversight was non-existent and the laissez-faire attitude started at the top. Saudis seldom figure in the management or oversight of institutions they fund outside of the kingdom, the International Islamic University of Islamabad being one of the exceptions.

This lack of oversight was evident in the National Commercial Bank (NCB) when it was Saudi Arabia’s largest financial institution. NCB had a department of numbered accounts. These were all accounts belonging to members of the ruling family. Only three people had access to those accounts, one of them was the majority owner of the bank, Khaled Bin Mahfouz.  Bin Mahfouz would get a phone call from a senior member of the family who would instruct him to transfer money to a specific country, leaving it up to Bin Mahfouz where precisely that money would go.

In one instance, Bin Mahfouz was instructed by Prince Sultan, the then Defence Minister, to wire US $5 million to Bosnia Herzegovina. Sultan did not indicate the beneficiary. Bin Mahfouz sent the money to a charity in Bosnia, that in the wake of 9/11 was raided by US law enforcement and Bosnian security agents. The hard disks of the foundation revealed the degree to which the institution was controlled by jihadists. 

At one point, the Saudis suspected one of the foundation’s operatives of being a member of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad. They sent someone to Sarajevo to investigate. The investigator confronted the man saying: “We hear that you have these connections and if that is true we need to part ways.” The man put his hand on his heart and denied the allegation.  As far as the Saudis were concerned the issue was settled until the man later in court testimony described how easy it had been to fool the Saudis.

The impact and fallout of the Saudi campaign is greater intolerance towards ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, increased sectarianism and a pushback against traditional as well as modern cultural expressions in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mali and Bosnia Herzegovina.

It creates a wasteland that Saadat Hasan Manto, a Muslim journalist, Indian film screenwriter and South Asia’s foremost author of short stories, envisioned as early as 1954 in an essay, ‘By the Grace of Allah.’ Manto described a Pakistan in which everything – music and art, literature and poetry – was censored. “There were clubs where people gambled and drank. There were dance houses, cinema houses, art galleries and God knows what other places full of sin ... But now by the grace of God, gentlemen, one neither sees a poet or a musician… Thank God we are now rid of these satanic people. The people had been led astray. They were demanding their undue rights. Under the aegis of an atheist flag they wanted to topple the government.  By the grace of God, not a single one of those people is amongst us today. Thank goodness a million times that we are ruled by mullahs and we present sweets to them every Thursday…. By the grace of God, our world is now cleansed of this chaos. People eat, pray and sleep,” Manto wrote.

The fallout of Saudi- and government-backed ultra-conservatism has been perhaps the most devastating in Pakistan. There are a variety of reasons for this including,

  •        the fact that Pakistan was founded as a Muslim state rather than a state populated by a majority of Muslims;

  •        the resulting longstanding intimate relationship; between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia that long before the Afghan jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s led to constitutional amendments against the Ahmadis and every Pakistani applying for a passport being forced to effectively sign an anti-Ahmadi oath;

  •         the devastating impact of the jihad itself on Pakistan; and 

  •       Pakistan’s use of militant Islamist and jihadist groups to further its geopolitical objectives.

To be sure, the Saudi campaign neatly aligned itself with the manipulation of religiously-inspired groups by governments as well as the United States to counter left-wing, communist and nationalist forces over the decades.

Pakistan had however from the Saudi perspective additional significance. It borders on Iran and is home to the world’s largest Shiite minority that accounts for roughly a quarter of Pakistan’s 200 million people.

The result is that with the exception today of Syria and Iraq and Bosnia in the 1990s, Pakistan is the only country where Saudi funding strayed beyond support for non-violent groups. In Pakistan, the Saudis were at the birth of violent groups that served their geopolitical purposes, many of which are theoretically banned but continue to operate openly with Saudi and government support, groups whose impact is felt far and wide, including here in Britain as was evident with the recent murder of an Ahmadi in Glasgow. These groups often have senior members resident in Mecca for many years who raise funds and coordinate with branches of the Saudi government.

These groups as well as Pakistani officials have little hesitation in discussing Saudi Arabia’s role as I found out recently during a month of lengthy interviews with leaders and various activists of groups like Sipaha-e-Sabaha, Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat, the remnants of Lashkar-e-Janghvi whose senior leadership was killed in a series of encounters with Pakistani security forces, Lashkar-e-Taibe and Harakat al Mujahedeen as well as visits to their madrassas.

I want to conclude by suggesting that the Saudi campaign may be coming to the end of its usefulness even if its sectarian aspects remain crucial in the current environment. Nonetheless, I would argue that the cost/benefit analysis from a Saudi government perspective is beginning to shift. Not only because of the consequences of ultra-conservatism having been woven into the fabric of Pakistani society and government to a degree that would take at least a generation to reverse and that threatens to destabilize the country and the region.

But also because identification of Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism with jihadists like the Islamic State has made the very ideology that legitimizes the rule of the Al Sauds a target witness debates in countries like the Netherlands and France about the banning of Salafism. Bans will obviously not solve the jihadist problem but as Saudi-backed ultra-conservatism increasingly is in the crosshairs, efforts to enhance Saudi soft power will increasingly be undermined.

Thank you

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario

Saturday, August 20, 2016

FSF September: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer with James Dorsey

FSF September: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer with James Dorsey

book cover of The Turbulent World of Middle East SoccerOur seventh season begins on September 19, 2016, with a discussion of FSF member James Dorsey’s long-awaited new bookThe Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer[For the UK edition click here].
Dorsey is a journalist and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. His blog on Middle East soccer “(has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture,” notes FSF member Alon Raab.
The book, according to the publisher’s website, examines the game “as an arena where struggles for political control, protest and resistance, self-respect and gender rights are played out. Football evokes deep-seated passions and offers unique insight into the region. Examples include clandestine Saudi women football clubs; political demonstrations at Algerian matches; Somali child solders turned soccer stars; and Iranian women who disguise themselves as men to watch matches.”
For more information about this event and to participate via Skype contact Alex Galarza (galarza1 AT msu DOT edu).

Do African, Eastern European athletes make better Arab Olympians? (JMD quoted on Al Arabiya)

Do African, Eastern European athletes make better Arab Olympians?

Ruth Jebet of Bahrain leaves track after winning the race. (Reuters)
It is every athlete’s dream to win an Olympic medal and celebrate with their own national anthem being played before them while draped in their country’s flag.
While Arabs worldwide have so far celebrated 12 of their own during the Rio Olympics, at least three of those athletes stood before a country and anthem not originally their own.
Bahrain made headlines by winning gold and silver medals when Ruth Jebet came first in the 3,000 meters steeplechase and Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa came second in the marathon. Both had represented Kenya in the past.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) won its second Olympic medal ever via Moldovan-born Sergiu Toma in judo.
The importing - some go as far as saying purchasing - of athletes from Africa and East Europe has been criticized over the years as affecting the fairness of the games.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) won its second Olympic medal ever via Moldovan-born Sergiu Toma in judo.
However, sports experts and observers say the phenomenon is nothing new. “The practice of hiring foreign players is a standard and global practice. It’s not necessarily a trend started by the Arabs,” James Dorsey, syndicated columnist and the author of the blog “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer”, told Al Arabiya English.
Statistics compiled by the IAAF, track and field’s international governing body, found that 45 athletes changed national allegiances to compete for Bahrain between 2012 and 2016. A close second was the United States with 39. Qatar was sixth with 13.
Most athletes receive what is called a “sports passport,” in which a travel document is issued for the number of years an athlete is contracted to compete under while some do receive full citizenships.
These citizenships are not free for life and can be revoked at a given time like the case of Kenyan-born runner Leonard Mucheru Maina (Mushir Salem Jawher under Bahrain), who was stripped of his citizenship after he had run in a marathon in Israel.

Lack of talent vs too much money

Dorsey says small Gulf Arab states, particularly those with small populations such as the UAE and Bahrain, are forced to import foreign athletes because of the small talent pool. However, the trend goes both ways.
“You’ll also see a number of Arab, Middle Eastern countries exporting their talents to other countries,” Dorsey said.
“There are North African players in the Premier League. There are Gulf players who, while not great in number, play for foreign clubs.”

Ruth Jebet, originally from Kenya, of Bahrain poses with her gold medal. (Reuters)
Some Kenyan athletes have no choice for the opposite reason. Kenya usually fields many runners, and is limited by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on the number of athletes it can field at international events.
While many of the athletes will switch allegiance for money, for most it is a chance to receive better facilities and guarantee themselves better chances at receiving medals.
“It makes sense for some athletes who don’t have enough resources in their home countries to gravitate toward other countries that could help them, so they move elsewhere, usually Gulf or European countries,” said New York-based sports writer Pablo Medina Uribe.

Sports as a political tool

For countries with big sporting ambitions such as Qatar, their practice of importing foreign athletes has been criticized in the past for being overused.
Qatar’s handball team at the Olympics this year compromises 14 players, 11 of whom are foreigners from nine countries and four continents.
To gain national and international recognition, Gulf Arab Olympic committees hope that more chances on the medal podium will translate to better name recognition.
“We live in a world that’s no longer Foreign Ministry to Foreign Ministry. Public diplomacy is a big part of our world, but so is cultural diplomacy and engagement with other cultures at all levels,” said Dorsey.
“Sports is a very important level. In some ways, countries today get ranked not only in terms of how many tanks and warplanes they have, but also how they perform on the sports field internationally.”
However, Simon Rofe, an expert on the diplomacy of international sport at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), says countries need to balance the trend or risk negative consequences.
“If a country is implementing the policy, they need to think about it carefully,” he told Al Arabiya English.
“It says something about how prepared a country is to do absolutely anything necessary to win,” he said. Rofe added that there are consequences of national identity being compromised and hinted at how the practice could alienate local-born athletes.
Although Bahrain native Ali Khamis failed to win a medal, he gained national attention when he qualified for the 400 meters semi-finals compared to the other Bahraini-medal winners.
The trend is not going away anytime soon, says Uribe: “For nations with small populations who want to participate in international sport and be a global player, that’s what they have to do, at least for now, because it will take many generations to develop their homegrown athletes.”

Thursday, August 18, 2016

With mosques under surveillance, IS turns to soccer for recruitment


By James M. Dorsey

Abu Otaiba, the nom du guerre of a self-taught imam and Islamic State (IS) recruiter in Jordan, uses soccer to attract recruits.

“We take them to farms, or private homes. There we discuss and we organize soccer games to bring them closer to us,” Abu Otaiba told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.

Abu Otaiba said he was recruiting outside of mosques because they “are filled with intelligence officials.” Mosques serve him these days as a venue to identify potential recruits whom he approaches elsewhere.

A similar development is evident in Jordanian universities where sports clubs and dormitories have become favoured IS hunting grounds because they so far don’t figure prominently on Jordanian intelligence’s radar.

IS’ use of soccer reflects anthropologist Scott Atran’s observation that suicide bombers often emerge from groups with an action-oriented activity. It also is symptomatic of jihadists’ convoluted relationship to a sport that they on the one hand view as an invention of infidels designed to distract the faithful from their religious obligations and on the other hand see as a useful tool to draw in new recruits.

Attitudes towards soccer are complicated by the fact that many jihadist and militant Islamist leaders are either former players or soccer fans. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a fervent soccer player while in US prison in Iraq where he earned the nickname Maradona after Argentinian superstar Diego Maradona.

Osama Bin Laden was believed to be an Arsenal FC fan who had his own mini-World Cup during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Teams formed by foreign fighters based on nationality played against one another in downtime. While in exile in Sudan, Mr. Bin Laden had two squads that trained three times a week and play on Fridays after midday prayers.
Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah manages clubs in Lebanon while Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, a former player has organized tournaments in Gaza.

An online review conducted in 2014 by Vocativ of jihadist and militant Islamist Facebook pages showed that their owners often were soccer fans. However, jihadist empathy for the sport does not stop them from targeting local games in a geography stretching from Iraq to Nigeria as well as big ticket European and World Cup matches whose live broadcasts hold out the promise of a worldwide audience.

A IS suicide bomber blew himself up in March in a soccer stadium south of the Iraqi capital, killing 29 people and wounding 60. The bomber chose a match in a small stadium in the city of Iskanderiya, 30 miles from Baghdad. The London-based Quilliam Foundation reported at about the same time that boys in IS military training were instructed to kick decapitated heads as soccer balls.

Crowds in IS’ Syrian capital of Raqqa were forced in July to attend the public execution of four players of the city’s disbanded Al Shabab SC soccer team -- Osama Abu Kuwait, Ihsan Al Shuwaikh, Nehad Al Hussein and Ahmed Ahawakh -- on charges that they had been spies for the People's Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia that is in the frontline of confronting IS on the ground in Syria.

Yet, with IS under increased military pressure in Syria and Iraq, the group, desperate to project a degree of normalcy in areas it still controls, appears to be turning to sports and soccer in particular. Breaking with its past muddled banning of soccer despite its use of the sport as a recruiting tool, IS has urged boys in various towns including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq to participate in what it dubbed the Jihad Olympics.

Boys, despite a ban on soccer jerseys and the execution of 13 kids in early 2015 for watching an Asian Cup match on television, play soccer or tug of war during the events and are awarded sweets and balloons if their team is victorious. The boys’ families are invited to watch the games.

IS appears to have been struggling with the notion of using soccer as a way of placating its population and projecting normalcy for some time. The group authorized the showing of the FC Barcelona and Real Madrid derby a week after the attacks in November 2015 in Paris that targeted a major soccer match among others, but at kick-off rescinded the permission and closed down cafes and venues broadcasting the match because of a minute’s silence at the beginning of the game in the Madrid stadium in honour of the victims of the attacks in the French capital.

A precursor to IS’ Jihad Olympics was an exemption of children from the ban on soccer as well as video clips showing fighters in a town square kicking a ball with kids. Confusion within the group about its policy towards soccer is reflected in the fact that age limits for the exemption vary from town to town. In Manbij, a town near Aleppo recently conquered by US-backed militias, children older than 12 were forbidden to play the game while in Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor in eastern Syria the age limit is believed to be 15.

Similarly, foreign fighters have been allowed to own decoders for sports channels and watch matches in the privacy of their homes.

“IS policy towards soccer is driven by opportunism and impulse. The group fundamentally despises the game, yet can’t deny that it is popular in its ranks and in territory it governs,” said a former Raqqa resident.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Soccer investments’ reputational risk catches up with UAE

By James M. Dorsey

Reputational risk associated with autocratic investment in high profile soccer clubs threatened to catch up with the UAE as a powerful coalition of political and civic leaders in Manchester demanded that the Gulf country release political prisoners, investigate allegations of torture and respect human rights.

The leaders, who include members of parliament and Manchester’s city council, lawyers, and human rights activists, made their demands in a letter to UAE Deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the owner of Manchester City FC.

Sheikh Mansour, a half-brother of UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is the senior official responsible for the Abu Dhabi judiciary. UAE officials have insisted that the acquisition of Manchester City as well as Sheikh Mansour’s investment in a Major League Soccer team in the United States was a personal rather than a government investment.

Human Rights Watch warned as far back as 2013 that the UAE was using soccer to launder its image.  Former English Football Association Chairman Lord Triesman called at the time for making a country’s human rights record one of the criteria for establishing whether a state entity or member of a ruling family passes the "fit and proper person test" for ownership of a Premier League club.

Nicholas McGeehan, Human Rights Watch’s senior Gulf researcher, describing the UAE as "a black hole" for basic human rights, has asserted that "a Premier League club (Manchester City) is being used as a branding vehicle to promote and effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses."

The portrayal of acquisitions and sponsorships of prominent soccer clubs by autocrats as an effort to launder a country’s reputation casts a shadow over the use of soccer as part of the soft power strategy of the UAE as well as Qatar that expects to host the 2022 World Cup.

Gulf investors in soccer hope that soccer investments will allow them to embed themselves in the international community in ways that would ensure international public empathy in times of need and leverage diplomatic and commercial opportunities.

Sheikh Mansour’s acquisition in 2008 of Manchester City in which he has so far invested $1.3 billion has paved the way for a host of deals between the city and UAE companies, including a $1.3bn urban regeneration project.

The projects, some of which are managed by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), which is owned by Sheikh Mansour, have sparked protests by activists who assert that the deals allow developers to destroy monumental sites such as a 16th century pub in downtown Manchester and replace them with high-end residential complexes.

“The UAE has deep pockets but a worryingly poor human rights record. Many Mancunians will appreciate what Emirati money has done for Manchester, but they’ll also be extremely concerned about freedom of speech being suppressed and the host of unfair trials and torture cases that have occurred in the UAE. This is real opportunity for Manchester City Council and all other bodies in Manchester with commercial relations with the UAE to use their considerable influence with the Emirati authorities to raise human rights and show that they care about these issues,” said Amnesty International advocacy officer Kieran Aldred.

The leaders called in their letter, that was organized by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for an investigation into allegations of torture and the release of Emirati human rights lawyer Mohamed al-Roken, who was sentenced to 10 years in jail in July 2013 following a huge crackdown on political and human rights activists in the UAE.

Mr. Al-Roken was one of 94 people sentenced in a court case that human rights activists denounced as unfair and a violation of due process. The defendants were denied legal assistance while being held incommunicado pre-trial, allegedly tortured, and refused the right of appeal.

“In addition to our concerns about the imprisonment of Mohamed al-Roken and others like him, we have concerns about the UAE’s ongoing abuse and exploitation of migrant workers, the existence of laws that appear to tolerate the physical abuse of women, and the authorities’ exclusion from the UAE of NGOs, journalists, and academics who have criticised the UAE’s record on human rights,” the letter said.

Despite significant moves by the UAE government to relieve the most onerous aspects of the Gulf’s kafala or sponsorship system for migrant labour, Al Khaleej newspaper reported earlier this month that mostly Indian workers in Abu Dhabi's Mussafah camp had not been paid by their employer for more than 10 months and were struggling to survive. The workers ran the risk of being penalized because they had been unable to renew their visas.

The workers’ plight coincided with an agreement between the UAE and India to ensure that blue-collar Indian workers receive the wages and benefits promised to them before departure to the UAE and that they were not travelling on fake visas or job offers.

The UAE government last month ordered employers to arrange free accommodation for workers paid $540 or less per month. The decision applies however only to companies with more than 50 workers.

Glaringly absent among the signatories of the letter was Labour Party member of parliament and Manchester mayoral candidate Andy Burnham who had expressed concern when Sheikh Mansour initially acquired Manchester City. Several other Labour parliamentarians were also absent. It was not immediately clear why the Labourites had not joined the initiative.

The letter was published on this month’s anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo massacre in Manchester in which 18 people were killed and 700 wounded when the cavalry suppressed a pro-democracy and anti-poverty rally.

“Manchester has a rich tradition of standing up for political rights, women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. So the city’s close relationship with the UAE government, which has such a poor rights record, causes alarm for those who celebrate its historic past,” Mr. McGeehan 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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario

Friday, August 12, 2016

Political Violence and Sectarianism in Pakistan

RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email: for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentary, Yang Razali Kassim. 

No. 204/2016 dated 12 August 2016

PoliticalViolence and Sectarianism in Pakistan

By James M. Dorsey


Pakistan’s generals blame their country’s cycle of political violence, including a recent bombing in the Baluch capital of Quetta, on groups in Afghanistan. The focus on external enemies complicates efforts to reduce political violence, ease inter-communal strains, and facilitate easing of tensions with Pakistan’s neighbours.


PAKISTAN’S MILITARY commanders gathered this week to assess the impact of the massive bombing in Quetta that killed some 70 people and wiped out a generation of lawyers in the province of Baluchistan. They believed there was a sinister foreign-inspired plot that aimed to thwart their effort to root out political violence. The commanders’ analysis strokes with their selective military campaign that targets specific groups like the Pakistani Taliban and the Sunni-Muslim Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

The commanders failed however to acknowledge the real lesson of Quetta: decades of Pakistani military and intelligence support underwritten by funding from quarters in Saudi Arabia for sectarian and ultra-conservative groups in Pakistan has divided the country almost irreversibly. Generations of religious students have their critical faculties stymied by rote learning and curricula dominated by memorisation of exclusionary beliefs and prejudice resulting in bigotry and misogyny woven into the fabric of Pakistani society.

The Domestic Challenge: Too Much Money

“The enemy within is not a fringe... Large sections of society sympathize with these groups. They fund them, directly and indirectly. They provide them recruits. They reject the Constitution and the system. They don’t just live in the ‘bad lands’ but could be our neighbours. The forces have not only to operate in areas in the periphery, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but have also to operate in the cities where hundreds, perhaps thousands form sleeper cells, awaiting orders or planning to strike,” said Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider in a recent commentary.

The military campaign against Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose leadership has largely been wiped out in encounters with Pakistani security forces, is a case in point. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is closely tied to banned anti-Shiite and anti-Ahmadi group Sipah-e-Sabaha, which continues to operate openly with government support under a succession of different names.

Sipah leaders, in a rare set of lengthy interviews, have little compunction about detailing their close ties to Pakistani state institutions and Saudi Arabia. They are also happy to discuss the fact that both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are pushing them to repackage their sectarian policies in a public relations effort rather than a fundamental shift that would steer Pakistan towards a more tolerant, inclusive society.

“The Saudis sent huge amounts often through Pakistani tycoons who had a long-standing presence in Saudi Arabia as well as operations in the UK and Canada and maintained close relations with the Al Saud family and the Saudi business community. One of them gave 100 million rupees a year. We had so much money, it didn’t matter what things cost,” said a co-founder of Sipah.

"Some Things are Natural"

Sipah leader Ahmad Ludhyvani, a meticulously dressed Muslim scholar, speaking in his headquarters protected by Pakistani security forces in the city of Jhang, noted that Sipah and Saudi Arabia both opposed Shiite Muslim proselytisation even if Sipah served Pakistani rather than Saudi national interests.

“Some things are natural. It’s like when two Pakistanis meet abroad or someone from Jhang meets another person from Jhang in Karachi. It’s natural to be closest to the people with whom we have similarities… We are the biggest anti-Shia movement in Pakistan. We don’t see Saudi Arabia interfering in Pakistan,” Ludhyvani said over a lunch of chicken, vegetables and rice.

The soft-spoken politician defended his group’s efforts in Parliament to get a law passed that would uphold the dignity of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The law would effectively serve as a stepping stone for institutionalisation of anti-Shiite sentiment much like a Saudi-inspired Pakistani constitutional amendment in 1974 that declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. As a result, all applicants for a Pakistani passport are forced to sign an anti-Ahmadi oath.

Showing Off High-level Support

Sipah officials said a Pakistani cleric resident in Makkah who heads the international arm of Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat (AMTKN), a militant anti-Ahmadi Pakistan-based group, closely affiliated with Sipah, acts as a major fundraiser for the group.

Sipah put Pakistani and Saudi support on public display when it last year hosted a dinner in Islamabad’s prestigious Marriot Hotel for Abdallah Ben Abdel Mohsen Al-Turki, a former Saudi religious affairs minister and general secretary of the Muslim World League, a major Saudi vehicle for the funding of ultra-conservative and militant groups. Hundreds of guests, including Pakistani ministers and religious leaders designated as terrorists by the United States attended the event at the expense of the Saudi embassy in the Pakistani capital.

The corrosive impact of such support for groups preaching intolerance and sectarian hatred is demonstrated in another disturbing trend in Pakistan. This is the spike in honour killings that mirrors a jump in lethal attacks on artists, writers and journalists. The aim is to maintain subjugation of women, ensure the dominance of religious rather than secular education, and undermine traditional as well as contemporary popular culture.

It is also mirrored in controversy over the Council of Islamic Ideology, whose offices are ironically located on Islamabad’s Ataturk Avenue, that was created to ensure that Pakistani legislation complies with Islamic Law. The Council has condemned co-education in a country whose non-religious public education system fails to impose mandatory school attendance and produces uncritical minds similar to those emerging from thousands of madrasahs run by ultra-conservatives and those advocating jihadist thinking.

The Council declared in 2014 that a man did not need his wife’s consent to marry a second, third or fourth wife and that DNA of a rape victim did not constitute conclusive evidence. This year, it defended the right of a husband to “lightly beat” his wife. It also forced the withdrawal of a proposal to ban child marriages, declaring the draft bill un-Islamic and blasphemous.

Continued official acquiescence and open support for intolerance, misogyny and sectarianism calls into question the sincerity of government and military efforts to curb without exception intolerance and political violence. The result is a country whose social fabric and tradition of tolerance is being fundamentally altered in ways that could take a generation to reverse.

James M. Dorsey PhD is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, Germany.

Click HERE to read this commentary online.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

MR Book Club: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (SB Nation review)

MR Book Club: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

The Massive Report Book Club is back with a review of James Dorsey's The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer
From its beginning a few short months ago the Massive Report Book Club's goal was to introduce readers to great Crew SC related or Crew SC adjacent books. This month's selection, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer by James Dorsey is definitely the latter. Unlike previous selections this book is not a "must-read" for Crew SC fans, or for American soccer fans in general. It is not a book for everyone. It is, however, a fascinating and informative look in to a vastly different world, through the lens of the game we love.
First, some backstory. The book club had just started. Massive Report Podcast producer Sam Fahmi and I were discussing it in between segments of the Podcast. I asked Sam, a native Egyptian, if there was a book about Egyptian soccer I could check out, mainly for my own enjoyment. I'm one of those nerds who wants to know everything about everything, at least when it comes to soccer. He said no, not really. Disappointing, but there are plenty of good soccer books out there for me to read.
The next day, however, I see a tweet about a new book coming out. It is called The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. Well then, I know a sign from the soccer gods when I see one. I tweet it to Sam and he tells me to send in for a press copy. After all, I have a book club now. So I requested one and...
Nothing. No email saying they'll send one. No email saying it was rejected. Just... silence. Oh well, right? I'll pick it up eventually. Then, one day, about six weeks later, it shows up on my doorstep, unannounced. How utterly cool? The bad news was that by the time it arrived, half of the Crew's Middle Eastern contingent, Amro Tarek, had already moved on to the greener pastures, leaving only Michigan-born Iraqi international Justin Meram. This left me at a bit of a cross-roads, as my reasoning for having it in the book club was now even thinner. Luckily, though, the book was quite different than I thought it would be.
I was expecting an overview of the game throughout the region, some history mixed in with a broader cultural context, something along the lines of a more regionally focused version of The Ball is Round. Instead, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is an in-depth look at the link between soccer, soccer fans, politics, and religion throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Let's get one thing out there early: this is not a book everyone will enjoy. It is not a light, breezy sort of read. It was challenging, at times, at least for someone like myself who is not particularly familiar with the region, its geography, history, and customs. That's not to say it's inaccessible. Dorsey does a fine job of explaining, when needed, some (but I'm sure not all) of the intricacies of the regions socio-political history. However, if you're looking for something light, this may not be the book for you.
With that caveat out of the way, let's talk about what you'll find inside The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. The chapters are broken down roughly in to countries, with soccer (and soccer fandom's) role in the country the subject of the chapter. In some of the chapters it's a look at how soccer's popularity is dealt with in the more conservative Muslim countries, where spending time playing (or watching) sports is considered a distraction from more important matters of day to day life, particularly prayer. In others it's a look at how soccer diverted players from the youth militias prevalent in some areas.
The most interesting chapters to me, however, were those on the ultras groups in Egypt and Turkey, and the roles they played in popular uprisings of the Arab Spring, and immediate aftermath. The chapter on Egypt, in particular, was a highlight for me. Dorsey does a fantastic job of illustrating just how connected soccer is to the day to day life of Egypt. His descriptions of the Ultras, of how their support of their club defines almost every aspect of their lives was incredibly interesting.
The fact that Ultras groups were at the forefront of the revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime stands in stark contrast to the almost entirely apolitical nature of supporters groups in America. In fact, last year there was a debate within Crew SC supporters' groups about a possible "refugees welcome" banner, with the argument being that politics should be separated from the game, that "it has no place". After reading this book I realize just how much of a first-world luxury that line of thinking is. While I respect the opinion of those who would rather not see political issues come to the limelight at MAPFRE Stadium, I would encourage those people in particular to seek out this book, if only to see that in some parts of the world, there is no choice in the matter to be had.
That is the real value of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, in my mind. It is a window in to a very different part of the world, where the game we love has a very different meaning in people's lives. While it is not the sweeping overview of the game in the region I was expecting, it proved to be a very informative, enjoyable read of a different sort. I recommend it for anyone seeking for different perspectives on the game around the world.