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

"Dorsey statement (on Egypt) proved prophetic."
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, November 26, 2014

Israeli raid on Palestinian soccer association signals dangerous hardening of Israeli-Palestinian battle lines

Palestinian and Israeli fans clash

By James M. Dorsey

A soccer brawl in Israel’s politically most loaded derby and an alleged subsequent raid by the Israeli military on the offices the Palestine Football Association (PFA) reflects a hardening of the Israeli-Palestinian divide as Israel debates legislation that would emphasize the Jewish national rather than the democratic nature of the state – a move that would effectively deprive Israeli Palestinians of their identity as both Israelis and Palestinians as well as of their equal rights.

The Israeli military said the incident had not been a raid. It said a routine patrol had asked some Palestinians for their identification cards, and when they said the cards were in Bnei Sakhnin’s offices soldiers had entered the building to check their identities.

Statements in response to the PFA condemnation by world soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa also denouncing the Israel raid signalled that Israeli policy was likely to further isolate the Jewish state and strengthen growing calls for disinvestment from and sanctions against Israel. The Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is one of the Israel government’s greatest concerns. Messrs. Blatter and Salman's condemnation coincided with a statement by the US State Department warning Israel that it should “stick to its democratic principles.”

Sheikh Salman accused the Israelis of "breaking into the PFA headquarters ... a dangerous precedent that requires the international sporting family to stand together and support the PFA." He said the AFC would work with FIFA to "study ways and mechanisms to put an end to the suffering of Palestinian football, and send a tough message to the Israeli authorities to stop its attacks on various parts of the Palestinian footballing system."

The raid on the PFA headquarters came a day after fighting broke out at the end of the club’s match against its arch rival Beitar Jerusalem, the bete noire of Israeli soccer and the only Israeli team that refuses to hire Palestinian players because of its racist fan base. Beitar counts multiple right-wing Israeli leaders among its supports. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s recent attendance of a Beitar game was widely interpreted as a possible indication that he might contemplating early elections.

The brawl erupted after Bnei Sakhnin fans in violation of police orders smuggled Palestinian flags into the stadium and sported kaffiyahs, the chequered Palestinian scarf. Animosity between the fan bases of Bnei Sakhnin and Beitar runs deep. In recent months both fan groups have emphasized rival Palestinian and Israeli claims to Jerusalem against a backdrop of mounting tension in the city. Beitar fans sought to disrupt the match by throwing soccer balls onto the pitch as it was being played and subsequently ripped chairs out and destroyed bathrooms in the stadium, the only Israeli facility to have been funded by Qatar, an Arab state that has no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Mr. Blatter side lined in June on the eve of the Brazil World Cup Palestinian calls for sanctions against the IFA in the wake of this summer’s Gaza war and shielded FIFA from becoming the first international organization to take action against Israel by establishing a committee that would oversee efforts to address Palestinian grievances.

The Palestinians accused Israel in a 45-page report submitted to FIFA of persistently seeking to undermine Palestinian soccer activity and development. The committee is expected to report back to FIFA by the end of this year. Israel has cited security concerns as the reason for restrictions on the movement of players and officials charging that some of them intended to "harm the state of Israel and its citizens." The FIFA committee is unlikely to be able to report significant progress in the current environment despite a planned meeting in Morocco between the IFA and PFA on the side lines of the FIFA World Cup.aa

Years of failed efforts by FIFA to ease Israeli restrictions on Palestinian soccer and establish a mechanism that would allow the Palestinian and Israeli federations to resolve problems are likely to strengthen the Palestinian efforts to persuade the soccer body to sanction Israel. 

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Activists expand labour and human rights campaign beyond Qatar to include all Gulf states

By James M. Dorsey

Human rights groups and trade unions have stepped up pressure on Qatar to reform its restrictive labour system and expanded their campaign to include all six wealthy members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

The activists hope that Qatar may move quicker on promised reforms given that the integrity of the Gulf state’s successful 2022 World Cup bid has again been called into question as a result of world soccer body FIFA’s four-year long corruption scandal.

They also hope that their increased pressure will benefit from the fact that multiple conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa may make other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates more sensitive to criticism.

Virtually all members of the GCC -- Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman -- have begun to tinker with the their labour laws and regulations as a result of the pressure on Qatar as well as publicity surrounding multiple cases of abuse of workers, including rape and beatings of domestic help. At the same time, they have stepped up crackdowns on domestic critics.

The UAE in response to criticism by human rights groups and trade unions has invested heavily in projecting itself as a forward looking, modern state and key US ally, America’s Little Sparta in the Middle East and North Africa, in the words of Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

In a throwback to the days after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, Saudi Arabia is fending off charges that its investment of billions of dollars in the last three decades in the global spread of Wahhabism, the kingdom’s puritan, inward-looking interpretation of Islam, is an important ideological and theological inspiration for jihadist groups like Islamic State, the group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq.

In a statement as GCC labour ministers were meeting in Kuwait, 93 human rights groups and trade unions demanded the abolition of the region’s kafala or sponsorship system that puts workers at the mercy of their employers; ratify and implement international labour and human rights standards; and engage with trade unions. The statement highlighted the plight of domestic workers, the most vulnerable group of foreign labour, because they often are not included in legal labour provisions.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) charged in a report published this weekend that GCC governments rather than amending laws and regulations have sought to confront the issue by agreeing on regionally standardized employment contracts that in the unions’ view “revealed serious defects.” The ITUC said the Gulf states lacked the political will to enact meaningful reform.

The activists’ stepped-up pressure is likely to be the heaviest on Qatar, the only GCC member that since its winning of its World Cup bid almost four years ago, has engaged with its critics. Unlike other Gulf states that bar entry to foreign activists and incarcerate their critics, Qatar has worked with the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to develop new standards. It has allowed them to investigate the conditions of foreign workers who constitute a majority of the population in several Gulf states and issue condemnatory reports at news conferences in Doha.

The statement, issued in advance of the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, a collaborative multilateral governmental effort to improve labour mobility in Asia, signals mounting exasperation among activists with Qatar’s failure to put its money where its mouth is. Two major Qatari institutions, the Qatar Foundation and the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy of the World Cup, have adopted in cooperation with human rights groups significantly improved labour standards. Qatar has however yet to adopt those standards nationally and ensure their implementation. The standards moreover fall far short of an abolition of kafala that among other things restricts a foreign worker’s ability to freely travel or seek alternative employment.

The reference in the statement to increased engagement with trade unions further underlines growing impatience among activists. In contrast to Qatar’s engagement with human rights group, its relationship with the ITUC has been troubled because of the group’s more aggressive approach which amounted to a good cop-bad cop division of labour among activists. Human rights activists have conceded in the past that labour reform constitutes an existential issue for Qatar, a country in which the citizenry accounts for a mere 12 percent of the population and that the Gulf state as a result would need time to act. The call for increased engagement implies however a growing sense among activists four years after Qatar won its World Cup hosting rights that the good cop-bad cop strategy has failed to produce results.

The activists’ expanded focus was evident in a series of recent reports on various Gulf states. It comes amid the inclusion of human and labour rights in contracts issued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to future hosts of the Olympic Games and acknowledgement by FIFA that those rights should be part of its hosting criteria. Human rights groups and others like Transparency International are putting sports high on their agendas. Qatar and the UAE both have ambitions to host an Olympic Games.

The IOC’s focus on human rights puts Qatar because of the World Cup in the firing line and could have a fallout for Bahrain and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that is headed by a member of the Bahraini ruling family as a result of allegations that senior Bahraini sports officials have been involved in the repression of athletes who allegedly participated in anti-government protests in recent years. Restriction of women’s sporting rights has also positioned Saudi Arabia and Iran, the GCC’s nemesis in the struggle for regional power, centre stage in the efforts of international sports associations to achieve some modicum of adherence to human rights.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty have both in the last month targeted the UAE, already under fire for the conditions of foreign workers constructing facilities in Abu Dhabi for the Guggenheim Museum and New York University and in advance of Dubai’s hosting of the 2020 Expo. A Human Rights Watch report in late October focusing on conditions of domestic workers said the situation in the UAE was symptomatic for the region.

The UAE’s sponsorship system "chains domestic workers to their employers and then leaves them isolated and at risk of abuse behind the closed doors of private homes. With no labour law protections for domestic workers, employers can, and many do, overwork, underpay, and abuse these women,” said Rothna Begum, the group’s researcher. Rather than engaging, the UAE, Human Rights Watch said, reacted with “the usual complacency,” It accused the group of "sensationalist reporting."

Amnesty, in a report entitled ‘There is no freedom here, Silencing dissent in the United Arab Emirates (UAE),’ charged last week that beneath “the glitz, the gloss and the glamour of the façade that the UAE’s rulers present to the world there is a much uglier reality where activists who dare to challenge the authorities or speak out in favour of greater democracy and government accountability are thrown into jail. There, they are cut off from the outside world for months at a time before they are tried and sentenced to long prison terms by courts that do little more than rubber stamp the decisions of the UAE executive.”

Far-reaching changes in its labour regim in response to the stepped up pressure could make Qatar a driver of change in a region that leaves no stone unturned in its effort to maintain the status quo and ring fence itself against the Middle East and North Africa’s clamour for change.

Qatar is because of the World Cup the Gulf state and multi-facetted soft power strategy most vulnerable to external pressure. Reforms it enacts will inevitably ripple throughout the Gulf. As a result, Qatar, already at odds with Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of its support for Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood, could despite being an autocracy emerge in more than one way as a reluctant and perhaps unwitting catalyst of rather than a bulwark against some degree of change.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Gulf soccer diplomacy highlights regional divisions

By James M. Dorsey

Wealthy Gulf states have invited Jordan and Morocco to compete in future Gulf Cups as part of a bid to strengthen their fragile six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) at a time that they have at best papered over deep rifts within the group.

The invitation follows an earlier stalled attempt to persuade Jordan and Morocco, the Arab world’s only two non-Gulf monarchies, to join the GCC, which groups Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. The GCC had hoped that inclusion of Jordan and Kuwait would help stymie calls for change and fortify Arab monarchies against popular revolts. Jordanians already populate the rank and file of the military and security forces in some of the smaller Gulf states.

The GCC’s soccer diplomacy came as an extraordinary GCC summit in Riyadh earlier this week paved the way for the return of the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE to Doha in advance of the group’s annual summit in Doha in early December. Saudi Arabia and its closest GCC allies had withdrawn their ambassadors in protest against Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood which they asserted involved alleged Qatari interference in the three countries’ domestic affairs.

Yet, even soccer is not exempt from differences among Gulf states. Former Bahrain Football Association president, Sheikh Isa bin Rashid Al Khalifa, a member of the island’s minority Sunni Muslim ruling family, said he was opposed to including Jordan in Morocco in the Gulf Cup. Sheikh Isa said the bi-annual Gulf Cup should remain a Gulf affair to ensure that others did not demand also demand the right to compete in the tournament.

The Riyadh agreement to return the ambassadors formally put an end to the worst rift among Gulf states since the founding of the GCC some 33 years ago. The rulers’ statement announcing the return of the ambassadors was replete with the region’s usual rhetoric, suggesting that Qatar had made few, if any, real concessions to cement reconciliation. Arab commentators stressed the importance of Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani kissing Saudi King Abdullah on the cheeks. Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an Emirati professor, hailed in one breath the Riyadh decision and the ongoing Gulf Cup in the Saudi capital as a day to be proud of.

Professor Abdullah, days before the summit, however suggested on Twitter that Qatar wasn’t buckling under. Instead, the decision to nevertheless paper over the differences appears to be driven by concern that a further deepening of the rift could threaten the GCC as such as well as fear of the rise of jihadism in the form of the Islamic State, the group that has seized control of a swath of Syria and Iraq.

To drive the point home, the UAE published on the eve of the Riyadh summit a list of 83 groups in the Middle East, Europe and the United States that it had banned and/or considered terrorists. The list included the Brotherhood as well as a host of groups associated with it. The move reflected the extent of the UAE’s opposition to political Islam that stands in stark contrast to Qatar’s support of various Islamist groups which dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when Qatar became independent.

The UAE move was in line with last year’s banning of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia and Egypt whose military toppled the country’s first and only democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, a Brother, in a military coup.

In a gesture towards its distractors, Qatar several weeks ago asked seven leaders of the Brotherhood to leave the Gulf state. The move was largely symbolic. The seven Brothers retained their residence permits and some of their families remain resident in Qatar.

The outcome of the debate about the soccer invitation extended to Jordan and Morocco will serve as one more indicator of the balance of power in the Gulf where Saudi Arabia, the largest of the region’s states, is widely seen as the behemoth.

The limits of Saudi regional power have however been laid bare by various Gulf states. The return of the ambassadors to Doha without major Qatari concessions in effect highlighted the inability of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which has long seen Qatar as a subversive force in the region, to impose their will on the idiosyncratic Gulf state.

Bahrain, where Saudi troops are based since 2011 when they helped the island state’s regime brutally suppress a popular revolt, has been hesitant to crack down on the Brotherhood. Bahraini rulers fear that a crackdown on the Brothers could undermine the support in its minority Sunni power base. Oman’s close relations with Iran helped it facilitate talks to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis that are strongly opposed by the Saudis. Oman late last year warned that it would resist any Saudi-backed effort to militarize cooperation among Gulf states.

The Gulf’s soccer diplomacy ironically highlights contradictions in Saudi and UAE efforts to ring fence the region against calls for change sparked by the various popular Arab revolts in 2011. In contrast to Gulf leaders, Moroccan King Mohammed VI was one of the few Arab leaders who succeeded in taking the wind out of anti-government protests by initiating constitutional changes that appeared to involve greater participation and transparency but effectively did little to curtail his power.

King Mohammed did so in part by co-opting rather than excluding the Islamists, the exact opposite of policies advocated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Moroccan government is headed by Justice and Development Party (PJD) leader Abdelilah Benkirane, who recently recognized the limitations of his power. “I am tired, I am starting to forget a number of things,” Mr. Benkirane said. Earlier the prime minister described himself as an employee rather than the leader of what he termed the king’s government.

Moroccan activists note that the king’s endorsement of an Islamist-led government has not stopped the UAE from forging close ties to the North African state with Mohammed declaring that he would in times of need come to the Emirates’ assistance no matter what that would entail. The UAE moreover has made significant investments in Morocco.

Saudi and UAE assertiveness against the Brotherhood and other Islamists has sparked criticism not only among democracy activists, liberals and Islamists but also within the country’s elite. Professor Abdullah, a well-connected Emirati intellectual, appeared to question unqualified UAE support for Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the region’s crackdown on its critics, and UAE support for the US-led military coalition against the Islamic State in various tweets in recent weeks.

Other Emiratis suggest privately that the UAE is making itself vulnerable as a result of its newly found assertiveness as well as it reportedly generous financial support for an Islamist movement headed by Fethullalh Gulen, a self-exiled Turkish imam who is locked into a bitter struggle with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A litmus test of the degree to which Gulf leaders have truly set aside their differences will be how many and which of the leaders attend next month’s GCC summit in Doha as well as whether the UAE and Bahrain reverse their decision to boycott the 2015 World Men's Handball Championship scheduled to be hosted by Qatar in January.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.   

Friday, November 14, 2014

Moroccan refusal to host African Cup rooted in fear and prejudice

By James M. Dorsey

A refusal by Morocco to host next month’s 2014 African Cup of Nations soccer tournament for fear that it could import the Ebola virus from West Africa spotlights complex relations between the continent’s Arab and sub-Saharan nations as well as the non-transparent inner workings of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), a constituent member of troubled world soccer body FIFA.

The Moroccan decision to violate the terms of its agreement to host the tournament has prompted CAF to ban it from competing in Africa’s biggest sporting event. The Moroccan decision appears however marred in contradiction.

Morocco can’t escape the impression that it’s decision was informed by prejudice grounded in the fact that Arabs were once among the continent’s foremost slave traders, Morocco’s emergence as a major transit point in efforts by sub-Saharan migrants to reach Europe, and concern about the possible impact of an Ebola case on tourism that accounts for an estimated ten percent of Morocco’s gross domestic product (GDP).

CAF has repeatedly declared that the World Health Organization (WHO) had assured it that Ebola need not be a concern in deciding on a Moroccan request to postpone until next summer the tournament that is scheduled to be held in January.

The three countries most effected by the virus – Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea – are moreover unlikely to qualify for the African Cup. Liberia has already been disqualified, Sierra Leone is at the bottom of its group, and Guinea has at best an outside chance being tied for third place in its group. 

Morocco’s concern about a possible spread of the violence is further called into question by the fact that it has hosted a number of Guinean qualifiers because they could not be played in Guinea itself.

Morocco’s justification is also complicated by the fact that in contrast to the African Cup it has agreed to honour its commitment to next month’s World Club Cup. The World Cup is likely to attract far more foreign fans than the African tournament.

Morocco’s decision was likely influenced by the fact that African tourism has already taken a substantial hit as a result of Ebola. The Telegraph reported last month that travellers were putting off trips even to countries like South Africa and Kenya that are far from West Africa and have not been effected by the virus and that hotel occupancy rates in Nigeria have dropped by half.

Arab relations with sub-Saharan Africa moreover boast a long and complex history. “The relationship between Arabs and black Africans has always been largely asymmetrical-with the Middle East usually the giver, and black Africa usually the receiver. Throughout the history of their involvement in black Africa the Arabs have been both conquerors and liberators, both traders in slaves and purveyors of new ideas. Trade and Islam have been companions throughout, with the crescent following the commercial caravan, the muezzin calling believers to prayer from the marketplace,” wrote the late controversial Kenyan scholar Ali A. Mazroui in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1975.

Professor Mazroui’s views have been challenged by black nationalists who have denied that Arabs are part of Africa despite the fact that Arab nations populate virtually all of the north of the continent. They have also demanded reparations for what Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka denounced as their “cultural and spiritual savaging of the continent” and condemned huge purchases of African land by Gulf investors as part of a food security strategy and investment in agro-business as a new form of colonialism.

The dark side of Arab-African relations has furthermore gained a new lease on life with the influx of sub-Saharan immigrants into North Africa. Moroccan Labour Minister, Abdelouahed Souhail, recently charged that sub-Saharan immigrants were boosting his country’s unemployment rates. Estimates for the number of sub-Saharans in Morocco range from 10-15,000, many of whom are stranded in poverty in the country after having failed to make it to Europe. Maroc Hebdo, a prominent Moroccan magazine, ran a cover story this summer entitled, ‘The Black Peril.’

A Guinean student told France 24 earlier this month: “I came here to study computing thanks to a grant from my country. I’ve been here for four years, and for four years I’ve been a victim of racism. It happens all the time, everywhere. The most awful incident took place at the airport. I was with my aunt, who was heading back to Guinea and had a lot of luggage. Other passengers from sub-Saharan countries, seeing her struggle to carry it, came to help her get it onto the plane, but an airline employee stopped them, saying she had to deal with it on her own because she was black. I replied in Arabic, and he replied by hitting me in the head… Often, when I’m just walking down the street, people will call me a ‘dirty black man’ or call me a slave.”

In response to the exacerbation of racist attitudes by Ebola and migration as well as of at times hysterical reporting on the virus in Moroccan and Arab media, Forum Anfa, a Moroccan NGO named after the 1943 Anfa conference at which then Moroccan King Mohammed V gathered like-minded leaders to coordinate their opposition to Nazi Germany, launched this month a campaign under the slogan, “I am a Moroccan, I am an African.’

Morocco World News quoted Global Opus Prize winner and women’s activist Aicha Ech-Chenna as saying: “It is not enough to say I am Moroccan, I’m African. We have to accept Sub-Saharans as they are, with their religions, Christians or Muslims…We do not need to ask them to convert or change to accept them, we all have an African Identity”.

Defending CAF’s decision to go ahead with the African Cup in a yet to be determined replacement for Morocco, CAF executive committee member Constant Omari told French radio that the cost to the group and its sponsors would be too high to justify postponing the tournament as Morocco had requested.

Mr. Omari did not detail what the cost would be in line with the group’s refusal to reveal its finances. Mr. Omari’s comments focused attention on the issue at a time that world soccer governance has been rocked by the worst crisis in its history.

With FIFA unable and unwilling to shake the shroud of allegations of corruption and unsavoury dealings that hangs over it since 2010 and this week’s controversy over its investigation into the bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups that has failed to resolve the crisis, CAF like FIFA and other regional federations will find their lack of transparency and accountability increasingly hard to defend.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Qatar’s hosting of GCC summit in further jeopardy following Gulf states’ handball boycott

By James M. Dorsey

A decision by the handball federations of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to boycott the 2015 World Men's Handball Championship to be hosted by Qatar in January signals the failure of efforts to reconcile the idiosyncratic Gulf state with its regional detractors and casts further doubts on the prospects of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC) scheduled to be held in Qatar in December.

The boycott by Bahrain and the UAE, which together with Saudi Arabia withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March in protest against Qatar’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood, follows the indefinite postponement last week of a meeting of GCC foreign ministers in Doha in preparation of the summit. The GCC groups Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE.

Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah travelled to Doha last week for talks with his Qatari counterpart, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in a failed bid to mediate between the feuding Gulf states. Sheikh Tamim has also met several times with Saudi King Abdullah.

In a speech this week, Sheikh Tamim said he looked forward to welcoming Gulf leaders to the Doha summit. “Regarding our foreign relations, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf remains the main regional home. Supporting it and strengthening our relations with all its sisterly countries, and deepening the bonds of fraternity among us, come at the forefront of our foreign policy priorities,” Sheikh Tamim said.

Kuwaiti media reported that Gulf leaders may meet in advance of the Doha summit in an effort to smooth over their differences. Saudi papers however said that the Doha summit was likely to be moved to either Kuwait or Riyadh.

The boycott of the handball championship by the UAE and Bahrain against the backdrop of a UAE campaign to undermine Qatar’s reputation and credibility as well as the failure of miniscule Qatari gestures to appease the Saudis and Emiratis suggests that positions are too entrenched for Gulf states to achieve a compromise. Qatar moreover is likely to feel more assertive in sticking to its guns now that an investigation by world soccer body FIFA into its World Cup bid has concluded that there are no grounds for sanctioning the Gulf state.

The International Handball Federation said it would discuss the Bahraini and UAE boycott of Qatar at a meeting next week of its council in which it could decide to sanction the two states for their boycott of Qatar. A spokesman for the Bahrain Handball Association said 'we were told by top officials that political tension between the two countries is the reason for not taking part.” Bahrain, beyond its differences with Qatar over the Brotherhood, has accused Doha of offering citizenship to Bahraini nationals.

Qatar has asked several prominent Muslim Brothers resident in Doha to leave the country in a bid to smooth over differences with Saudi Arabia and the UAE who are on the war path against political Islam and see their campaign against the Brotherhood as a cornerstone of efforts to stymie calls for change in in the Arab world. The request was not accompanied by a cancellation of the residence permits of the seven Brothers and some of their families remain resident in Qatar.

Ironically, Bahrain unlike Saudi Arabia, which banned the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and the UAE, whose hostility to the group is longstanding, has been reluctant to crackdown on its Brothers because of their support for the island’s minority Sunni regime in its battle with a restless majority Shiite population.

By contrast, Qatar’s differences with Saudi Arabia and the UAE run deep. The refusal of Qatar, alongside Saudi Arabia the only country that adheres to Wahhabism, the puritan version of Islam developed by the 18th century warrior-preacher Mohammed Abdul Wahhab that dictates life in Saudi Arabia since its creation, to bow to Saudi pressure has effectively displayed the limitations of Saudi power. Qatar, moreover, has emerged as living proof that Wahhabism, can be somewhat less repressive and restrictive. It is a testimony that is by definition subversive and is likely to serve much more than for example freewheeling Dubai as an inspiration for conservative Saudi society that acknowledges its roots but in which various social groups are increasingly voicing a desire for change.

The Gulf states’ failure to reign in Qatar has prompted the UAE to step up pressure on Qatar as part of its more activist foreign policy aimed at countering political Islam. In July, the UAE backed the establishment of the Muslim Council of Elders (MCE) in a bid to counter the Doha-based International Union of Muslim Scholars headed by prominent Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, widely viewed as a major spiritual influence on the Brotherhood. The MCE promotes a Sunni Muslim tradition of obedience to the ruler rather than activist elements of the Salafis who propagate a return to 7th century life as it was at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors.

The UAE, despite publicly backing Qatar against calls that it be deprived of its right to host the 2022 World Cup because of alleged wrongdoing in its successful bid and the sub-standard working and living conditions of foreign workers, has covertly worked against the Gulf state. Qatar in September briefly detained two British human rights activists who were investigating human and labour rights in the Gulf state. The detentions exposed a network of apparently Emirati-backed human rights groups in Norway, including the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), and France that seemingly sought to polish the UAE’s image while tarnishing that of Qatar. The Brits of Nepalese origin were acting on behalf, a Norway-based group with alleged links to the UAE.

The New York Times and The Intercept have reported that the UAE, the world’s largest spender on lobbying in the United States in 2013, had engaged a lobbying firm to plant anti-Qatar stories in American media. The firm, Camstoll Group, is operated by former high-ranking US Treasury officials who had been responsible for relations with Gulf state and Israel as well as countering funding of terrorism.

The New York Times reported that Camstoll’s public disclosure forms “filed as a registered foreign agent, showed a pattern of conversations with journalists who subsequently wrote articles critical of Qatar’s role in terrorist fund-raising.”

UAE opposition to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood dates back at least a decade. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed bin Zayed Al Nahayan warned US diplomats already in 2004 that "we are having a (culture) war with the Muslim Brotherhood in this country,” according to US diplomatic cables disclosed by Wikileaks.

In 2009. Sheikh Mohamed went as far as telling US officials that Qatar is "part of the Muslim Brotherhood."  He suggested that a review of Al Jazeera employees would show that 90 percent were affiliated with the Brotherhood.  Other UAE officials privately described Qatar as “public enemy number 3”, after Iran and the Brotherhood.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Qatar at a crossroads: Reform labour laws or risk revived calls for relocating the World Cup

By James M. Dorsey

Qatar, caught in a Catch-22 between a requirement to quickly reform its labour system in a bid to convince human rights and trade union activists that it is serious and the need domestically to proceed slowly, risks losing goodwill it has built in recent years that could further fuel demands to deprive the Gulf state of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights.

A just published Amnesty International report entitled ‘No Extra Time: How Qatar Is Still Failing on Workers’ Rights Ahead of the World Cup’ signals that activists’ patience with Qatar’s failure to act on promises to reform the living and working conditions of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the Gulf states’ population, is running out.

Qatar’s engagement with activists in the last three years in for the Gulf unprecedented ways and the adoption of significantly improved living and working standards for foreign labour by two major Qatari institutions, the Qatar Foundation and the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, suggested that the Gulf state was serious about reform.

The standards adopted by the foundation and the committee are however mandatory only for companies contracting with the two institutions. Qatar could have significantly boosted confidence in its sincerity by enshrining those standards in national law.

Recent remarks to Qatari media made by Labour and Social Affairs Minister Abdullah Saleh Mubarak Al Khulaifi suggested that only some of those standards such as an obligation of employers to pay employees through bank transfers to ensure that they are paid on time would be included in a new labour law expected to be adopted before the end of the year.

It wasn’t clear from Mr. Al Khulaifi’s remarks whether the new law would incorporate promised modifications of Qatar’s kafala or sponsorship system that put workers at the mercy of their employers. The changes would fall far short of demands by human rights groups and trade unions to abolish the system but would constitute an improvement.

Qatar has suggested that it would limit sponsorship for a period of up to five years rather than the current indefinite period and replace the exit visa system with a new system that would give employers 72 hours to appeal against an employee’s intention to leave the country.

Qatar, in response to a stream of reports of work-related injuries and deaths as well as workers being caught in Catch-22s without papers and insurance as a result of the sponsorship system, has said that it has increased by 25 per cent the number of its labour inspectors, shut down more than 30 sub-standard worksites and increased mandatory living space for workers by 50 per cent. While the measures constitute progress, they fall short of full implementation of promises made and fail to inspire confidence that Qatar has put the mechanisms in place to efficiently supervise adherence to rules and regulations.

In an interview with Associated Press Qatari Sports Minister Salah bin Ghanem bin Nasser al-Ali insisted that the labour issue was “a human question.” Qataris are not “vicious people who are like vampires. … We have emotions, we feel bad,” Mr. Al-Ali said. Earlier Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said he was personally hurt by the workers’ plight.

While that is no doubt true, Sheikh Tamim also has to reckon with widespread opposition to radical changes or abolition of the kafala system among Qataris who worry that they could lose control of their state and society and see their culture diluted if foreigners were to gain rights. Qataris constitute a mere 12 per cent of the Gulf state’s population. Many realize that their demography is unsustainable, but cling to the status quo in the absence of a solution that would address their existential fears.

Sheikh Tamim’s adoption of more gradual reform of Qatar’s labour system to take those existential fears into account risks however losing the benefit of the doubt human rights groups were willing to grant Qatar. With the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) more hard line in its approach, Qatar’s failure to convince activists of its sincerity could result in a renewed push to deprive the Gulf state of its World Cup hosting tights on grounds of violations of human and labour rights.

A renewed campaign would come at a time that international sports associations are starting to make adherence to human, labour and gender rights a pre-condition for the awarding of hosting rights. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has begun writing those rights into host city contracts. The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) warned Iran this week that it would be stripped of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s championship if it did not lift its ban on women attending matches in stadia. Members of the executive committee of world soccer body FIFA have acknowledged that human rights would have to figure in the future awarding of the World Cup.  

In its report, Amnesty noted that Qatar had in May made a series of promises of reform in response to criticism by human rights activists that was echoed in a report by law firm DLA Piper commissioned by Qatar. Those promises included beyond changes in the kafala and exit visa system also the abolition of a rule that bars workers from returning to Qatar for two years after they have ended a contract. “Even these limited proposed reforms remain unfulfilled,” Amnesty said, noting that measures to improve the health and safety of construction workers had been “inadequate.”

Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty’s head of refugee and migrant rights, warned in a statement that “time is running out fast. It has been four years since Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, putting itself in the global spotlight, so far its response to migrant labour abuses has not been much more than promises of action and draft laws… The government of Qatar still appears to be dragging its feet over some of the most fundamental changes needed such as abolishing the exit permit and overhauling its abusive sponsorship system... Urgent action is needed to ensure we do not end up with a World Cup tournament that is built on forced labour and exploitation,” Mr. Elsayed-Ali said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Volleyball federation sanctions Iran in new assertiveness on women’s sporting rights

By James M. Dorsey

The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) has warned Iran that it would be stripped of its right to host the 2015 Under-19 men’s world volleyball championship if it bans women from attending matches. The warning signals a new assertiveness driven by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make adherence to human, gender and labour rights a condition for potential hosts of major sporting events and raises pressure not only on Iran but also Saudi Arabia, the two nations that bar women from stadia.

The stakes for Iran and Saudi Arabia are high against a backdrop of on-and-off debate in both countries about lifting the ban that has been continuously opposed by religious conservatives. 

Growing frustration with Saudi restrictions on women’s participation in international sporting events has prompted the IOC to subtly increase pressure on the kingdom. An Iranian and Saudi refusal could potentially lead to the two countries being barred from international competitions.

To be clear, Iran unlike Saudi Arabia encourages women’s sports and fields female athletes in international tournaments provided they are allowed to wear a headdress that meets both cultural and security and safety standards. Saudi Arabia by contrast evaded being banned from participation in the 2012 London Olympics by fielding at the last minute two expatriate Saudi female athletes, the first time the kingdom officially sent women to an international tournament.

The kingdom has since stalled on fulfilling its promise to encourage women’s sports. A meeting in September between IOC President Thomas Bach, who has instructed his group to write adherence to human, gender and labour rights into all future Olympic host city contracts, and Saudi Olympic chief Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz produced little progress on the issue of women’s sporting rights. Prince Abdullah insisted that the kingdom had failed to field women at the recent Asian Games because it did not have qualified athletes.

Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Olympic Committee, promised however to do so at the 2016 Olympics in Rio Janeiro. Mr. Al-Mishal said however that women would be limited to sports endorsed by a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. The Saudi official said the kingdom was training women to compete in equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery Olympic contest which are "accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia".

The Saudi reluctance is further evident in the fact that the kingdom is taking only miniscule steps to encourage women’s sports. The kingdom has hired consultants to draft its first five-year sports plan that focuses on men only.

The country’s Shura Council, a consultative assembly, however, has urged the education ministry to study the possibility of introducing physical education for girls in public schools. The move could lead to a lifting of the ban on female sports in public schools. Moreover, authorities last year began licensing private sports clubs for women.

Women’s gyms are sprouting across the country often linked to beauty salons or in private apartments. “The government does not issue licenses for women’s sports clubs. But as long as there are women who want agile and graceful bodies, such gyms will thrive in the Kingdom,” Fatimah, an owner of a gym, told Arab News.

Efforts to lift the ban on women attending matches in Saudi Arabia and Iran have so far stranded on conservative opposition. The FIVB ban followed the sentencing to a year in prison of a 25-year old dual Iranian-British national, Goncheh Ghavami, for attempting to enter a World League volleyball match Teheran’s Azadi Stadium between Iran and Italy. Ms. Ghavami has since gone on hunger strike. She was convicted of spreading propaganda against the Iranian government.

A FIVB spokesman said that the federation "will not give Iran the right to host any future FIVB directly controlled events such as World Championships, especially under age, until the ban on women attending volleyball matches is lifted." Iran is scheduled to next year host the Under-19 men’s world championship. Argentina has been asked to stand-by to replace Iran as the host of the tournament.

The FIVB made its decision after talks with Human Rights Watch, which has also held met with Mr. Bach. The meeting with the IOC president marked a new era in the group’s attitude towards human rights. Mr. Bach’s predecessor, Jacques Rogge, refused to meet with human rights groups during his tenure.

In a statement, FIVB president Ary Graca said that "women throughout the world should be allowed to watch and participate in volleyball on an equal basis."   

Iran’s Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei blocked an attempt in 2006 by then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to lift the ban on women attending sports events. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly toyed in recent years with adapting stadia to offer separate sections for women, a proposal supported by the Saudi soccer association. The effort much like similar moves to lift the ban on women driving in the kingdom have so far been stymied by conservatives.

Saudi Arabia has also refused to sign on to a two-year old declaration by the majority of Middle Eastern soccer associations  grouped in the West Asian Football Federation to put women’s sporting rights on par with those of men.

The FIVB sanction fuels Iran’s culture wars that are fought in part in street art. A recent mural on one of Tehran’s main thoroughfares pictured a woman wearing a national soccer team jersey as she washed dishes at home. The mural went viral on social media. In the mural, the woman raised a cup of yellowish dishwash solution as if it were the World Cup trophy in what was seen as a rejection of conservative notions that a woman’s place is at home.

At stake in the battle is however far more than just women’s sports rights. Those rights are part of a larger struggle for Iran’s future as Iran negotiates with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council an agreement that would resolve the Iranian nuclear problem. Iranian conservatives fear that a successful negotiation would strengthen the hand of supporters of reformist president Hassan Rohani in parliamentary elections scheduled for the spring of 2016.

With popular support for the nuclear talks, conservatives hope to thwart Mr. Rouhani by appealing to traditional values in their effort to undercut his efforts to reduce repression and allow for greater freedom of expression and access to information, promote gender equality, and ease cultural and educational restrictions. Mr. Rouhani like other members of his Cabinet regularly posts messages on Facebook and Twitter despite the fact that access to social media sites is frequently blocked in Iran. The president has also argued publicly that freedom is a precondition for creativity and has contradicted conservative efforts to curb fun.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.