Richard Whittall:

The Globalist's Top Ten Books in 2016: The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer


Middle East Eye: "

The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer is one of the weightiest, most revelatory, original and important books written about sport"

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


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, October 18, 2017

Kurdish battle positions Kurds as US ally against Iran


By James M. Dorsey

There may be a silver but risky lining for Kurdish nationalists in their devastating loss of Kirkuk and other cities on the periphery of their semi-autonomous region as they lick their wounds and vent anger over deep-seated internal divisions that facilitated the Iranian-backed Iraqi blitzkrieg. Mounting popular anger coupled with US Congressional fury could, however, position the Kurds as a key player in potential US efforts to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq and counter the Islamic republic as part of President Donald J. Trump’s tougher approach towards the Islamic republic.

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, in his first comment on the military rout of his Peshmerga forces, vowed that last month that the overwhelming vote for Kurdish independence in a controversial referendum "won't be in vain.” Refusing to take responsibility for the rout, Mr. Barzani blamed the Kurdish predicament on his political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK.) that allegedly ordered the withdrawal of Kurdish forces from Kirkuk.

Technically, that may well be correct. An Iranian Revolutionary Guard general and close associate of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani known as Eqbalpour, accompanied by two Iraqi military commanders, reportedly met on the eve of the Iraqi assault on Kirkuk with Kurdish officers in the offices of the PUK in the city. Eqbalpour urged the Kurds to surrender the city peacefully.

“If you resist, we will crush you and you will lose everything,” he warned, pointing to a map that detailed how the Iraqi assault would unfold. “This is our military plan. We will hit you tonight from three points — here, here and here,” Eqbalpour said. His Kurdish interlocutors agreed to withdraw.

The Kurdish withdrawal, prompting a Kurdish exodus from the city, was a stab in the back of the PUK’s arch rival, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), that is headed by Mr. Barzani. It has sparked a wave of popular anger against Iran that could complicate any effort to negotiate a compromise between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. who has vowed to ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Iranian involvement in the Iraqi blitzkrieg has also sparked anger in the US Congress even though the United States, which enabled Kurdish autonomy within Iraq, vowed to remain neutral in the Kurdish-Iraqi dispute. Congressmen threatened to impose an arms embargo on Iraq, now that the Islamic State has effectively lost control of any territory in the country, in response to the alleged use of US-built Abrams tanks and Humvees against the Kurds by Iranian-backed Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).

The United States provides an estimated $1 billion in annual military assistance to Iraq. It has designated some elements of the PMU as terrorist organizations.

In a statement, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain called on Iraqi forces to "take immediate steps to de-escalate this volatile situation by ceasing their advances. I am especially concerned by media reports that Iranian and Iranian-backed forces are part of the assault. Make no mistake, there will be severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way,” Mr. McCain said.

Mr. McCain’s words were echoed by Rep. Trent Franks, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who introduced a resolution in Congress supporting Kurdish independence. “I urge Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi to fulfil his pledge to prevent any external or internal attack against the Kurds and prove Baghdad is not the puppet of Tehran. Otherwise, the US will have no other choice but to pull funding as it cannot in good conscience send money to an Iranian patsy working to subvert American interests,” Mr. Franks said.

Despite Iraqi denials that the PMU have access to US weaponry, Kurdish emphasis on the role in Kirkuk of the Iranian-backed militia and assertions of use of Abrams tanks and Humvees was designed to garner US support. Iraq’s embassy in Washington charged that the claims constituted “a concerted misinformation campaign by elements in the Kurdish region to cover up their sinister actions in attempting to disrupt the coordinated and professional movements of the Iraqi security forces.”

The Kurdish assertions amounted to an attempt to make it difficult for the US Department of Defense to certify, in accordance with US law, that Iraq has ensured that US military assistance does not fall into the hands of extremist groups that include those elements of the PMU that have been designated by the State Department.

The Kurdish position, beyond the immediate politicking that aims to weaken Iraq’s position in any future negotiation, and garner US empathy if not support, also positions the Kurds as a potential US ally in any upcoming attempt to counter Iranian influence in Iraq or destabilize the Islamic republic with the help of ethnic groups that populate its borders.

Mr. Trump signalled his tougher approach towards Iran by earlier this month refusing to certify that Iran was complying with the terms of a two-year-old nuclear agreement that opened the door to the lifting of international sanctions. A potential re-imposition of sanctions by Congress in the next sixty days could throw the accord into jeopardy.

US and Saudi officials have repeatedly hinted at the possibility of attempting to achieve regime change in Iran. The Kurds, like the Baloch in Pakistan, could play a key role in any such effort. It is a strategy that would likely exploit anti-Iranian sentiment among Kurds in the wake of the Iraqi blitzkrieg, enjoy support from Israel which has already publicly come out in favour of Kurdish independence, and build on past US and Israeli support for Kurdish nationalism.

That is support that ultimately did not help the Kurds fulfil their aspirations. There is no guarantee that a repeat performance would fare any better. Kurds defended last month’s referendum with the argument that there is no good time for them to stake their claim given deep-seated Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi rejection of their aspirations for independence. That makes their current attempt and potential participation in covert operations against Iran no less risky.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Monday, October 16, 2017

Countering supremacy: Johor Sultan battles Muslim equivalent of Islamophobia


By James M. Dorsey

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, the sovereign of the Malaysian state of Johor, does not mince his words. His repeated verbal assaults on Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that traces its roots to Saudi-inspired puritan interpretations of the faith constitute an anti-dote to supremacist attitudes in parts of the Islamic world that rival rising Islamophobia in the West.

Sultan Ibrahim's statements are a response to a series of incidents in Johor and elsewhere in Malaysia. They also take on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s use of Islamization as a tool to bolster his standing in the wake of a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal that is under investigation in several countries and in advance of possible early elections.

The sultan’s statements are equally applicable to other countries like Pakistan where the government is seeking to convince the United States that it is backing away from support of Islamic militants that has changed the social fabric of large parts of the country. Replace the word Muslims with Westerners or Christians and Sultan Ibrahim’s remarks are equally valid for Western countries.

The sultan’s campaign contrasts starkly with moves in the West to curb expressions of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and paint Muslims with a broad brush as in the case of US President Donald J. Trump’s ban on travel to the US from several Muslim countries. In Austria, a anti-immigrant politician is set to become Austria’s next chancellor after winning elections on Sunday. Switzerland has scheduled a referendum on whether to follow France and Belgium’s banning of the ultra-conservative Muslim face veil.

Addressing graduates of the Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia University in Johor, Sultan Ibrahim charged that recent declarations by two launderette operators, one in Johor and one in the Malaysian state of Perlis, that they would only service Muslim customers would lead to what amounts to apartheid-like segregation. The next step, he said, would be separate banknotes and hotel pillows for Muslims and non-Muslims to shield Muslims from touching items that were impure because they had been used by non-Muslims. The launderette orders were persuaded by authorities to rescind their decision.

"If everything is to be prohibited, we might as well live alone in the cave and not live in society," Sultan Ibrahim said, taking to task Zamihan Mat Zin, an Islamic scholar on the payroll of the federal government’s Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim), who defended the launderette owners and declared non-Muslims unhygienic.

“When banknotes may have been held by a pork seller or alcohol seller, does the government have to make Muslims-only money? What about public seats where a stray dog could have urinated or pillows and blankets in a hotel which could have come in contact with unclean elements? It would be endless,” Sultan Ibrahim said.

The sultan’s remarks take on added significance with minorities, Muslim and non-Muslim, on the defensive not only in Malaysia but elsewhere in the Muslim world, and, by the same token with Muslims in the West increasingly being in the firing line. 

They also have increased relevance as the world grapples with Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya. The plight of the Rohingya is rooted in virulently nationalist strands of Buddhism and threatens to create fertile soil for jihadists at a time that Southeast Asia is struggling to limit the fallout of the territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Signs of creeping ultra-conservatism are evident across the Muslim world with crackdowns on LGBT in Egypt, Azerbaijan and Indonesia, the launch of a mobile dating app for polygamists in Indonesia where polygamy is legal, a rising number of instances of domestic violence in Malaysia and Indonesia, and the introduction of a strict interpretation of Sharia law in Brunei in 2014 that bars women from multiple activities, including playing soccer.

Pakistan earlier this month sentenced to death three members of its persecuted Ahmadi sect for blasphemy. The three were accused of insulting the Prophet Mohammed under Pakistan’s draconic anti-blasphemy laws by tearing down posters that allegedly included anti-Ahmadi slogans.

Ahmadis, a sect widely viewed as heretics by conservative Muslims, were banned from identifying themselves as Muslims or their houses of worship as mosques under a 1974 constitutional amendment that was inspired by Saudi Arabia. The blasphemy law was amended ten years later to include such references by Ahmadis.

Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative attitudes have taken root in Pakistan because of long-standing Saudi influence, the fallout of Saudi and US backing in the 1980s of Islamic militants fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistani support for militants since as proxies in covert wars against India and Afghanistan, and the government’s repeated opportunistic use of religion.

Recent warnings by Mr. Trump and other senior US officials as well as a statement by the leaders of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) that included Xi Jingping, Pakistan’s closest ally, that Pakistani support for militants constituted a threat to regional security, was a wake-up call for Islamabad. Pakistan’s electoral commission this month rejected an application by a front for one of the militant groups to establish a political party while Pakistani troops liberated an American-Canadian family that had been held hostage by the Haqqani network for five years.

Sultan Ibrahim, who ordered his Islamic affairs department to break off relations with Jakim, the federal government’s religious organ, was joined by other rulers of Malaysian states as well as the Muslim Chinese Association (MCA), a constituent member of Mr. Razak’s ruling Barisan Nasional Party, that rejected a statement by a deputy minister linking defense of Islam to the Malaysian constitution.

In a rare intervention into the country’s public affairs, the rulers said they were concerned that unity and harmony in Malaysia was being eroded as the country confronted controversial issues.

“In recent weeks, the actions of certain individuals have gone beyond all acceptable standards of decency, putting at risk the harmony that currently exists within our multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. The Rulers are of the opinion that the damaging implications of such actions are more severe when they are erroneously associated with or committed in the name of Islam. As a religion that encourages its followers to be respectful, moderate, and inclusive, the reputation of Islam must not ever be tainted by the divisive actions of certain groups or individuals,” the rulers said in a statement.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, October 13, 2017

Saudi Arabia's Revolution From the Top Has No Place for Critics (JMD quoted on Bloomberg)

Saudi Arabia's 

Revolution From

the Top Has No Place

For Critics

By 
Vivian Nereim
 and 
Glen Carey
·       
Clerics and other dissenters are co-opted, cowed -- or jailed
·        Radical change could bring chaos without a ‘very firm hand’

Few would describe Mohammed Al-Arefe as a defender

of women’s rights. In one infamous video, the Saudi
cleric explains exactly how a man should beat his wife.
But when the government decided to allow women to
drive cars, up popped Al-Arefe on state TV to say what a
good idea that was. “A modest woman will remain modest
whether she drives or not,” he told the nation. Other
religious leaders, once hostile to any departure from
traditional ways, joined the chorus of approval.

The kingdom’s powerful preachers were getting with the
program. A couple of weeks earlier, they’d seen what
happens to those who don’t. More than a dozen prominent
clerics, activists and businessmen were arrested and accused
of “pushing an extremist agenda.”

Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is

seeking to reintroduce itself to the world -- opening its
economy to global business, and its society to practices once
deemed un-Islamic. At the same time, the limited space for
criticism and debate that once existed in this absolute monarchy
is being stifled.

‘More Repressive’

The kingdom has become “more repressive than in the past,”
said James Dorsey, a Middle East specialist at Singapore’s
Nanyang Technological University. “It’s a break with the era of
King Abdullah, who often sought to forge consensus,” he said.

“The Salmans do not tolerate any criticism whatsoever.”
Saudi factions used to compete for influence at the royal court.
Conservatives carried much more weight, and were allowed
sway over social policies and education; liberals were
sometimes appeased with small steps toward reform.
Inertia ruled.

Things began to change when King Salman succeeded his
brother Abdullah in 2015. The transformation accelerated
-- and the circle of decision-making narrowed -- with the rise
of Salman’s son to a dominant position in the government.
Prince Mohammed envisions a “vibrant society,” with more
women in the workforce and more entertainment options.

His economic program is based on a radical shift from public
to private sector, and diversification out of oil. He’s cited the
disruptive innovators of Silicon Valley, like Facebook Inc.’s
Mark Zuckerberg, as role models.

‘Under Attack’

It’s not all coercion. The crown prince has cozied up to many
potential critics. He posed for a photo with Al-Arefe, the
smiling preacher’s arm wrapped around him, and held a
personal meeting with a once-oppositional cartoonist.
But ultimately, change on this scale can only come from the
top down, some supporters say.

“You need a very firm hand to see this through without
provoking chaos,” said Ali Shihabi, who’s close to the
government and executive director of the Arabia Foundation
in Washington. “The country is going through a generational
succession, the government is undertaking a herculean effort
to restructure the country amid low oil prices, and it’s under
attack by Shiite and Sunni jihadis and Iran.”

A search for consensus would be futile, he said, because
“the political spectrum between the conservatives and the
liberals is so wide as to be impossible to reconcile.”

‘Kingdom of Fear’

Critics see it differently, even if they increasingly have to
leave the country in order to say so.

“Saudi Arabia never was an open society, but it never was
a kingdom of fear,” said Jamal Khashoggi, a senior journalist
and former government adviser now living in self-imposed
exile in the U.S. The wave of arrests is “part of the closing
down of space for freedom of expression,” he said.  

That’s also affecting liberals, often a term of abuse in the
kingdom. On the night of the driving decision on September
26, authorities began calling prominent women’s rights
advocates and warning them not to publicly celebrate -- or
face consequences, according to four people familiar with
the matter. One of them speculated that the government
didn’t want activists to get any credit for the decision,
preferring to highlight the role of the leadership.

The government’s new Center for International
Communications denied the claim, saying that “no one has
been censored or warned about expressing their views.”

‘Manage the Narrative’

Shihabi said the government didn’t want activists provoking
the conservative base, preferring the airwaves to be
“dominated by voices from the religious establishment.”
“They need to manage the narrative,” he said.
After decades of unresponsive communications, the
government has hired new public relations firms and
appointed a U.S.-educated spokeswoman for its embassy in
Washington. Its new media office in Riyadh is staffed by
young and tech-savvy English speakers.

It all amounts to a “global public-relations coup,” said Tim
Cooper, a London-based economist for BMI Research, a
unit of Fitch Group. The driving announcement was a success
on those terms, he said: “If Saudi Arabia wants to demonstrate
that it’s open to foreign investment, these are the sort of things
that continue to put it on the map.”

Outside Saudi borders, controlling the narrative is harder.
Khashoggi aired his concerns in a Washington Post op-ed last
month, declaring the kingdom had become “unbearable.”

‘Tough Judgement’

The crackdown continued last week when 22 people were
arrested for “inciting public opinion” on social media. Some
educated and previously outspoken Saudis are making plans to
leave the country. During a recent conversation, one elite Saudi
lowered his voice to say he’s looking for a way out. He said he
loved the country and wanted its transformation plan to succeed,
but was worried that only “yes-men” could thrive in the current
climate.

Prince Mohammed’s bold departures on economic and social
matters are matched by a newly assertive foreign policy. In
Yemen and Qatar, concrete results have proved elusive. Still,
patriotic fervor is running high. Images of Prince Mohammed
are all over state media. Even orange-juice cartons in grocery
stores are adorned with pictures that celebrate Saudi power:
fighter jets, saluting soldiers, clenched fists.
The tougher policies at home and abroad are intertwined
in the Twitter hashtag “black list,” launched by royal court
adviser Saud Al Qahtani in August. He urged Saudis to name
and shame people who took Qatar’s side in the Gulf dispute.
There’ll be “tough judgment and pursuit” for every “mercenary”
who gets blacklisted, he wrote.
The hashtag has taken on a life of its own. Recent targets
include a famous comedian who makes satirical YouTube videos,
and a female activist arrested years ago for driving. Khashoggi
has also been attacked online, labeled a traitor and mercenary.
“The media and the electronic army are being encouraged to go
after those people,” he said. “It’s very Orwellian.”

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Soccer success has a price: Pressure builds to lift Egypt’s stadium ban


By James M. Dorsey

With Egypt qualifying for World Cup finals for the first time in 28 years and a crackdown on militant soccer fans that has put hundreds behind bars, pressure is mounting on the government to allow supporters back into stadiums from which they were banned for much of the last six years. It has also sparked calls for the release of incarcerated, militant and politicized fans who have been at the core of Egypt’s 2011 popular revolt and subsequent anti-government protests.

The pressure puts Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi on the spot as he associates himself with the success of Egypt’s national team. Thousands poured into the streets of Cairo, a city that effectively bans mass demonstrations, to celebrate Egypt’s defeat of Congo.

Taking advantage of the fact that soccer in Egypt evokes the same deep-seated passion that religion does, Mr. Al-Sisi arranged to meet the team shortly after the its victory. The president rewarded the players with a $85,000 bonus each.

Mr. Al-Sisi’s celebration has, however, a dark side. Egyptians have largely been barred from stadiums since the day before the 2011 popular revolt erupted that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign after 30 years in office. The ban is intended to prevent stadiums from again becoming venues for anti-government protest.

The government twice temporarily lifted the ban in a bid to test the waters. Both instances resulted in incidents in which tens of militant soccer fans died.

Some 74 fans were killed in 2012, the only period since 2011 in which the ban was lifted for a longer period, in a politically loaded brawl in the Suez Canal city of Port Suez for which many believe the military and security forces were responsible. The ban, effective for domestic rather than international matches, was re-imposed immediately after the incident, the worst in Egyptian sporting history, and has been in place since.

Another 20 were killed in a stampede in 2015 caused by security forces’ handling of the situation. 
Authorities had wanted to test the waters by agreeing to allow a limited number of fans into a Cairo stadium for a domestic match. An Egyptian court last month sentenced two men to life in prison and a dozen others to jail terms ranging from two to ten years for the incident, which authorities blamed on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Soccer fans, who constituted the backbone of the student movement, drove mass student protests against Mr. Al-Sisi after he seized power in 2013 in a military coup that toppled Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president. The movement was brutally crushed as security forces took physical control of Egyptian universities.

Egypt’s parliament began this week discussing a lifting of the domestic ban after 60,000 fans attended without incident the World Cup qualifier in the Borg El-Arab stadium in the Mediterranean Sea city of Alexandria against Congo. Authorities allowed a maximum of 10,000 spectators to attend past international games in a bid to avoid censorship by world soccer body FIFA and ensure that the government did not get blamed for potential setbacks because fans were unable to give the team the necessary moral support.

Earlier attempts to lift the ban stranded on resistance from the interior ministry and security forces as well as a reluctance by clubs to shoulder the expense of engaging private security firms.
"We need the audience to come back again, everyone can see that that there is no acts of violations or destruction," said New Wafd Part deputy Hany Abaza.

The parliament debate was accompanied by calls by deputies for the release from prison of hundreds of ultras or militant fans, whose support groups were banned in 2015 as terrorist organizations, and granting them too access to stadiums.

Haitham al-Hariri, one of parliament’s few critical members, asked Mr. Al-Sisi to pardon the ultras. Muhammad al-Husini, another deputy, added his voice, saying that “we want President Al-Sisi to release the Ultras tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”

Hundreds of ultras, battle-hardened, anti-authoritarian fans opposed to the commercialization of soccer and with a history of violent clashes with security forces, have been arrested in recent months for wearing jerseys with the number 74 on them in commemoration of those killed in Port Said, attempting to attend an international match, and disrupting the public order.

Some 500 members of Ultras White Knights (UWK), the militant support group of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC, were arrested in July as they tried to attend their team’s match against Libya’s Al Ahli Tripoli. About half have since been released; the others were scheduled to be tried by a military court. Pictures on social media showed fans ripping seats out of the Borg al-Arab stadium and throwing flares and other objects onto the pitch. Fans launched an online campaign with the hashtag #NoToMilitaryTrialsForFans.

“What is happening is an act of revenge against ultras for their participation in the January 2011 Revolution,” one fan, who escaped arrest, said.

Ultras pose a challenge to Mr. Al-Sisi because of their rejection of autocracy and their analysis of the power structure of Egyptian soccer. Fiercely independent, ultras view themselves as the only true supporters of their club and stake a claim to ownership of the stadium in a country that tolerates no uncontrolled public space. The ultras see club executives as corrupt pawns of the government and players as mercenaries who play for the highest bidder.

Said human rights activist Dalia Abdel Hamid: “The continued security crackdown on ultras reflects the state’s fear over the ways in which they organize, not only to cheer on their teams, but also to mourn fans who have died”


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Monday, October 9, 2017

US-Turkish visa spat: A fight for basic freedoms


By James M. Dorsey

Moves by the United States and Turkey that largely ban travel of their nationals between the two countries is about more than two long-standing NATO allies having a spat amid shifting alliances in a volatile part of the world. It is a fight between two leaders, US President Donald J. Trump and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, confronted with the limitations and fallout of their shared desire to redefine or restrict basic freedoms.

The spat erupted when the US embassy in Ankara announced this weekend that it was suspending the issuance of non-immigrant visas as part of a reassessment of the “commitment of the government of Turkey to the security of U.S. mission facilities and personnel.” The embassy stopped short of banning travel by all visa holders.

Hours later, the Turkish Embassy in Washington went a step further by declaring that it had suspended all visa operations for US citizens, effectively banning all US passport holders from travelling to the country. “This measure will apply to sticker visas as well as e-Visas and border visas,” the embassy said. Turkey’s currency plunged in the wake of the announcement in early morning trading on Asian markets.

The spat is the latest escalation of tensions in a relationship that has been fraying for several years  as a result of increasingly authoritarian policies adopted by Mr. Erdogan, differences over the conflict in Syria, US cooperation with Syrian Kurds, the separate indictments in the United States of an Turkish-Iranian businessman on charges of busting sanctions on Iran and 15 Turkish security guards for involvement in a street brawl, and Turkish allegations of US interference in its domestic affairs.

The latest spat highlights the risks of Mr. Trump’s empathy for authoritarian and autocratic leaders that contrasts starkly with a stress on basic freedoms and the rule of law adopted by his predecessors. Mr. Trump last month described relations with Turkey as “the closest we’ve ever been.”

The spat amounts to the White House getting a taste of its own medicine of ignoring abuse of human rights by some of its closest allies. As a result, US nationals and government employees have become the victims of seemingly arbitrary crackdowns for political rather than national security reasons that violate basic freedoms and make a mockery of the rule of law.

The spat erupted after Turkey indicted in the last year two Turkish nationals working at US diplomatic missions in the country and detained at least a dozen other US nationals, including a Christian missionary, on charges of having ties to Fethullah Gulen, an aging Turkish preacher who has lived in exile in Pennsylvania for the past two decades.

Mr. Erdogan blames Mr. Gulen, the leader of one of the world’s richest Islamic movements and most far-flung education systems, for having last year engineered a failed military attempt to remove him from office. Some 250 people died in the attempt in which dissident Turkish tank commanders fired at the Turkish parliament building in Ankara.

The indictment of the Turkish nationals and arrests of Americans were part of a massive crackdown on government critics that involved the firing up to 150,000 public servants, arrest of tens of thousands, curbing of press freedoms and granting the president wide-ranging powers. Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly justified the crackdown as a legitimate response to the failed coup.

The targeting of Turkish nationals employed by the US government appeared to be a crude attempt to persuade the Trump administration to extradite Mr. Gulen, who has denied having any association with the attempted coup.

The administrations of both Mr Trump and President Barack Obama have rejected Turkish extradition requests because Turkey had provided insufficient evidence to substantiate it's claim that the preacher was responsible for the failed coup.

Mr. Erdogan also wants the release of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman with ties to Turkey’s ruling elite, who was arrested in Miami last year for helping Iran evade sanctions.

Mr. Erdogan last month suggested that he would be willing to swap Andrew Brunson, the detained missionary who ran a small Protestant church in the coastal city of İzmir, for Mr. Gulen. “‘Give us the pastor back,’ they say. You have one pastor (Gulen) as well. Give him to us. Then we will try (Mr. Brunson) and give him to you,” Mr. Erdogan said.

The spat constitutes a serious deterioration of US Turkish relations at a time that Turkish-backed rebels are battling Islamic militants in Syria's Idlib province. The fighting aims to drive back Al-Qaeda-linked forces and prevent the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish entity on Turkey's border in the wake of a recent Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence. It also comes as Turkey has forged closer ties with Iran to confront Kurdish moves and has stepped up co-operation with Russia in Syria.

Turkey is not the only country to detain US nationals or green card holders. Ola Al-Qaradawi, a 55-year-old research assistant and daughter of controversial Qatar-based religious scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi who has a green card, and her husband, Hossam Khalaf, have been held in solitary confinement since last year. Their only crime appears to be that she is related to a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The United States has no consular obligations but Congressman Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the powerful House Armed Services Committee, has taken up their case.

Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who came to power in a military coup in 2013 that toppled the country's first and only democratically elected president, has gone much further than Mr. Erdogan in brutally cracking down on opponents and freedoms.

In a rare break with apparent US neglect of abuse of human rights among its allies, Mr. Trump has cut military aid to Egypt, citing legal restrictions imposed on non-governmental organizations. The real reason was more likely Egypt’s relations with North Korea.

The Trump administration has suggested that it would review its aid decision if Egypt breaks off diplomatic relations with North Korea. Acting on US intelligence, Egyptian authorities seized in August a boatload of $23 million worth of rocket-propelled grenades shipped from North Korea and destined for Egypt. Egypt has denied that it was the intended end-user.

To be fair, the repressive policies of Messrs. Erdogan and Al-Sisi as well as Mr. Trump’s attitudes towards authoritarianism and autocracy and his efforts to redefine basic freedoms in the United States enjoy the support of segments of their populations.

As a result, the plight of US nationals and government employees in Turkey is unlikely to persuade Mr Trump to return to the more assertive advocacy of basic rights and the rule of law of his predecessors. It does, however, demonstrate that tacit endorsement of authoritarian or autocratic rule is not without risk for US citizens as well as foreign nationals employed by the US government.

Moreover, it suggests that lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law constitutes a slippery slope that ultimately could put US national security interests at risk on a far larger scale. That has been evident since the 2011 popular Arab revolts that has heralded an era of often volatile and violent transition in the Middle East for which no end is in sight. It is a convoluted and bloody process of change that poses multiple, often unpredictable challenges, many of which are exacerbated rather than alleviated by autocratic and authoritarian rule.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Battling for independence: Small states stake their claim

Source: EurAsia DailyNerinaazad.net

By James M. Dorsey

The Gulf crisis that pits a United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar has emerged about more than a regional spat. It is part of a global battle whose outcome will determine the ability of small states to chart their own course in the shadow of a regional behemoth whether that is Saudi Arabia in the Middle East or China in Asia. It also has parallels with efforts by peoples like the Catalans in Spain, the Kurds in Iraq or Ambazonians in Cameroon to secede and form independent small states of their own that is likely to mushroom with Kurds in Syria and others likely to put forward similar demands.

The battle for the ability to make independent choices is easier for existing small states like Qatar, the UAE and Singapore that are fending off varying degrees of political and economic pressure from Big Brothers. Groups like the Catalans and the Iraqi Kurds grapple with a more fundamental obstacle: resistance by nation states like Spain and Iraq to cede economically valuable territory and an international community whose Pavlov reflex is to oppose secession.

Political scientists Alberto Alesino and Enrico Spolaore argued in a book published more than a decade ago, The Size of Nations, that both large and small states have to make cost/benefit trade-offs that determine their ability to provide populations with public goods and services and carve out their place in an international order. The integrity of larger states like Iraq and Spain whose size means that their populations are more heterogeneous is called into question by groups who feel that the state does not serve their interests and needs. Small states are either more homogenous or like Singapore find it easier to cater to different segments of a heterogeneous population but need to manoeuvre more nimbly internationally to ensure their independence.

The struggle of smaller states to escape the yoke of a regional behemoth and various groups to carve out small states of their own may have gained pace because of a realization that the benefits of being big have decreased and an expectation articulated by political scientists Sverrir Steinsson and Baldur Thorallsson that big states will grow increasingly smaller. “Thankfully for small states, it has never been as easy being small as it is in the current international system with its unprecedented degree of peace, economic openness and institutionalization,” Steinsson and Thorallsson said in a recent study entitled The Small-State Survival Guide to Foreign Policy Success.

The Gulf crisis fits the mould of smaller states seeking to carve out their place in the regional and international order, but also breaks it. At stake in the Gulf is more than just the ability of small states to chart their own course. No doubt, that is one aspect of Qatar’s refusal to bow to demands by the UAE-Saudi-led alliance that it radically alter its foreign and security policies that embraces political change for others and align them with those of others in the region.

Yet, the root of the dispute goes beyond that. The Gulf crisis is a clash of diametrically opposed strategies for the survival of autocratic rule fought in ways that threaten independence of choice of others as well as regional stability. It is a battle between two small states with massive war chests garnered from energy exports that have megalomaniac ambitions to shape a swath of land that stretches from North and East Africa into Asia in their own mould. To achieve their goals the UAE and Qatar act not as small states but as big powers, using the kind of tools big powers use: financial muscle, support of opposition forces to stimulate or engineer regime change, foreign military bases, military coups, covert wars, and cyberwar. Buried in their megalomania is a naïve belief that the consequences of their actions will not come to haunt them.

As a result, the parameters of debate sparked by the Gulf crisis about the place of small states in the international order is different when it comes to the ambitions of Qatar and the UAE as opposed to countries like Singapore who rely more on soft power, opt to fly more under the radar, and stick more to strategies generally associated with small state efforts to ensure their independence of choice.

What Singapore, Qatar and the UAE have in common however, is that their quest to jealously guard their ability to chart their own course is driven by fear. Singapore’s fear, unlike that of Qatar and the UAE that face very different demographic challenges involving citizenries that account for only a small percentage of the population, is grounded in race riots surrounding its birth, the perception of living in a volatile neighbourhood, and concern resulting from the fallout of convoluted transitions that have wracked the Middle East and North Africa and fuelled religiously-inspired militancy.

While all three states are in some ways corporations, Singapore in contrast to Qatar and the UAE, has institutionalized its system of government to a far greater degree than the Gulf states in terms of institutions, the rule of law, and checks and balances irrespective of its warts. Qatar has so far ignored the opportunity offered it by the wave of unprecedented nationalism unleashed by the Gulf crisis as Qataris rallied around the ruling Al Thani family that accounts for 20 percent of the citizenry in a nation of 300,000 nationals. As a result, debate in Singapore focuses on survival as an independent state rather than survival of a ruling family. In Singapore, the debate about what it can and should do to stand up for its interests is public; in Qatar and the UAE far more repressive restrictions on freedom of expression stymie debate or drive it into clandestinity.

Similarly, Qatar and the UAE project themselves as regional and global hubs that are building cutting-edge, 21st century knowledge societies on top of tribally-based autocracies in which education, in contrast to Singapore, is designed to ensure that citizens have marketable skills and can interact globally rather than develop the skills of critical thinking that could result in criticism of their regimes. While there is no public debate in either Gulf state about governance, Singapore’s transition away from the Lee family’s dominance and to a post-Lee generation is one that is cushioned by discussion and expression of aspirations.

Both Qatar and the UAE have glimmering and bold skylines that rival that of Singapore. But beyond the trappings of modernity, neither are states that empower their citizens. The limitations of modernity are evident. Criticism after Qatar won the 2022 World Cup hosting rights of its controversial labour regime that governs the lives of migrant workers, a majority of the country’s population, did not resonate among Qataris, largely because of the country’s demographic deficit. In fact, Qataris protested in 2009, when some households hired Saudis as maids, yet never raised their voice about the widespread abuse of Asian maids. Saudi unlike Asian maids were too close to home. If Saudis could be reduced to the status of a maid, so could one day Qataris pampered by a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Qatar and the UAE share building blocks of soft power creation and the manufacturing of national identity some of which are also employed by Singapore. They include foreign military bases; world class airlines that service global hubs; museums that both attract tourism and manufacture a national heritage; high profile investments in blue chips, real estate and the arts, sports and the ambition of becoming centres of excellence in multiple fields.

While political Islam plays a less important role in Singapore’s management of its heterogeneity, Qatar and the UAE have adopted radically different approaches even though both have developed societies in which religious scholars have relatively little say and Islamic mores and norms are relatively liberally interpreted. This, however, is where the communalities in their survival strategies stop. Whereas Qatar embraced support of political Islam, the UAE has opted to suppress it. Nonetheless, both states project their approach as part of their effort to garner soft power.

As a result, the UAE has backed regime change in a number of countries, including Egypt and reportedly Turkey; supported anti-Islamist, anti- government rebels in Libya; joined Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen; and in the latest episode of its campaign, driven imposition of a diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In contrast to the UAE, Qatar has sought to position itself as the regional go-to go-between and mediator by maintaining relations not only with states but also a scala of Islamist, militant and rebel groups across the Middle East and northern Africa. It moreover embraced the 2011 popular Arab revolts and supported Islamist forces, with the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead, that emerged as the most organized political force from the uprisings. Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood amounted to aligning itself with forces that were challenging Gulf regimes and that the UAE alongside Saudi Arabia was seeking to suppress. Qatar did so in the naive belief that it could encourage transition everywhere else without the waves of change washing up on its own shores.

What puts the Gulf crisis in a bracket of its own in the discussion about the place of small states in the international pecking order is the fact underlying the crisis are issues that go far beyond the debate. One root cause of the crisis is Qatar and the UAE’s radically different definitions of terrorism that is enabled by the international community’s inability to agree on what does and does not constitute terrorism and anchor that agreement in international law. The failure to do so fuels differences in perceptions of national security threats, undermines governments’ ability to effectively combat political violence, and allows them to shy away from advancing greater accountability and transparency, and ensuring protection of basic human rights.

As a result, the Gulf crisis has a pot blaming the kettle quality. It pits autocracies against one another. None of the protagonists advocates a more liberal system of government for its own people. Their differences are rooted in their histories of independence and concepts of national security that are defined by geography and differing threat perceptions.

Qatar, the UAE and Singapore are all unique in their own ways. In many ways, they don’t fit the mould of the world’s average small state. Yet, they all offer lessons for other small states or territories aspiring to join the international community as independent countries. Singapore, unlike Qatar and the UAE has established itself as a model of good governance and of a small state that turned the liability of having no resources but its human capital into an asset. The UAE has so far succeeded in positioning itself as the small state most capable of punching above its weight. Qatar has become the example of a small state capable of resisting heavy external pressure. Ultimately, however, Singapore may prove to have a more sustainable survival strategy by grounding it in institutions, performance and human capital rather than the wielding of financial muscle in an effort to shape the world around it in its own mould.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa