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Showing posts with label Kuwait. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kuwait. Show all posts

Sunday, September 21, 2014

IOC president’s call for transparency challenges Middle Eastern/Asian political dominance of soccer

Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa: Commander of Bahrain's armed forces and National Olympic Committee. A divorce between sport and politics?

By James M. Dorsey

Taken at face value, a rare acknowledgment by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach that sports and politics are inextricably intertwined should be a first step towards radical reform that offers a proper structure to govern the relationship. That is nowhere truer than in Middle Eastern, North African and Asian soccer where political domination of the game is dominant despite insistence by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and world soccer governor FIFA that sports and politics are separate.

Speaking at the opening of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Mr. Bach said sports should acknowledge its ties to politics as well as big business but at the same time ensure that it maintains its neutrality.

"In the past, some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business. And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we cannot afford anymore. We are living in the middle of society and that means that we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world," Mr. Bach said. He said politicians and business leaders needed to respect the autonomy of sporting bodies or risk diminishing their positive influence.

Mr. Bach targeted the AFC’s and FIFA’s denial of the marriage between sports and politics that most officials and analysts in the soccer world freely acknowledge by noting that allowing countries to set their own rules in football would mean that "international sport is over.”

The IOC president, who this month celebrates his first year in office, said that governing the relationship between sports, politics and business was a core theme of his presidency.

Mr. Bach’s vision for the Olympic Games is embedded in his agenda for the coming six years which involves making the bidding process more flexible, lowering the cost of hosting tournaments and creating a digital channel to promote Olympic sports and values such as fair play.

Ensuring that the incestuous relationship between sports and politics in Middle Eastern, North African and Asian soccer is transparent and independent will take a lot more than focusing on the organization of tournaments and the projection of values. Little short of restructuring the relationship and developing a governance regime that shields soccer from political interference will break the grip of autocratic regimes on the sport. Middle Eastern and North African autocrats use soccer for a host of self-serving political purposes, including pacifying populations; ensuring that soccer pitches do not emerge as venues of protest; and seeking to improve their tarnished images at home and abroad.

A review of Middle Eastern and North African members of the boards of regional associations like the AFC and the Confederation of African Football (CAF) as well as of officials populating the boards of major soccer clubs and the ownership structures of those clubs in countries like Egypt, the Gulf states, Syria, Lebanon and Iran shows that they are populated by members of autocratic ruling families or executives closely aligned with government. The same is true for Mr. Bach’s own backyard, the national Olympic committees in the Middle East and North Africa. The intimate relationship between sports and politics is symbolized by the powerful role that the president of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) and Olympic Council of Asia, Sheikh Ahmed Al Fahad Al Sabah, a prominent member of Kuwait’s ruling family, plays in world sports.

The election last year of Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa to complete the term of disgraced AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari national at the centre of the Qatar controversy and the FIFA scandals, also says much about the intimate relationship between politics and soccer governance in the Middle East and Asia. Three national soccer players in Sheikh Salman’s home country were three years ago denounced as traitors, detained and tortured for participating in anti-government demonstrations three years ago. The players have been released but Bahrain has since arrested two whole teams.

Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s repressive ruling family and head of the Bahrain Football Association, has refused to comment on the plight of his players insisting that sports and politics are separate. British prosecutors have been considering a petition by a Bahraini national for the arrest of a relative of Sheikh Salman’s,  Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the eldest son of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, commander of the Gulf island’s Royal Guard and head of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, on suspicion of involvement in the abuse of political prisoners. Prince Nasser phoned into the show on state-run television that denounced the three national team players in a demonstration of support of what amounted to a kangaroo court.

Sheikh Salman persuaded the AFC Congress in June in Brazil to tighten his political control of Asian and Middle Eastern soccer governance by agreeing to combine the post of AFC president and FIFA vice president rather than maintain the vice presidency as an elected position. The move was also designed to sideline the current FIFA vice president, Jordanian Prince Al bin Al Hussein, the one member of a ruling family, who has emerged as the foremost reformer in soccer governance, campaigning for greater transparency, accountability, focus on grassroots and women’s rights.

In response, Prince Ali has said he would run for election to the FIFA executive committee when his current term as vice president ends in 2015. “I don’t care about playing musical chairs. If you are an ExCo member, you are an ExCo member; it doesn’t matter where you sit. The composition of Asia has changed and if we want to have all the power in Asia under one person, time will tell if that is a good decision or not... I did notice that coming to Brazil there were many influential players in Asia and outside of Asia and outside of football as well that were pushing for this for whatever reason. If that’s what they want, go ahead. Time will tell if that’s a good decision or not… I don’t give a damn about protocol. I care about football. It doesn’t make a difference, titles or what have you. For me, I’ve done what I had to do to protect the interests of Asian football," Prince Ali told reporters earlier this month.


James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Gulf Security: A Risky New US-Saudi Blueprint




RSIS presents the following commentary Gulf Security: A Risky New US-Saudi Blueprint
by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.).
Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentaries, at RSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg   


                                             No. 225/2013 dated 10 December 2013
                                                     Gulf Security:
              A Risky New US-Saudi Blueprint
                                 By James M. Dorsey
Synopsis
Eager to reassure Saudi Arabia that the United States remains a reliable partner
despite its apparent rapprochement with Iran, Washington has backed a new Gulf
defence arrangement which would strengthen Saudi Arabia’s regional hegemony that 
has sparked criticism from other Gulf states.

Commentary
IN A BID to reassure Gulf states worried about a US-Iranian rapprochement and
critical of American Middle East policy, the Obama administration has opted to back
Saudi efforts for regional hegemony through greater integration of Gulf military
capabilities in the framework of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).    

The United States-backed Saudi blueprint would effectively establish the kingdom as
the region’s military superpower and first line of defence while allowing the US to
balance its commitment to the region with its goal of pivoting towards Asia. But it
risks splitting the GCC which was established to enhance Gulf security.

Giving Saudis what they want
Speaking at a think-tank dialogue just a stone’s throw away from Bahrain’s restive
Shiite neighbourhoods, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel made this move on his first
visit to the Gulf since last month’s agreement between the United Nations Security
Council permanent members – the US, China, Russia, Britain and France – plus
Germany and Iran aimed at resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis.  Hagel handed Riyadh
what it wanted: a first step towards a union of the GCC member states – Saudi Arabia,
the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman – with the kingdom as
the dominant power.

In doing so, Hagel went beyond seeking to reassure Saudi Arabia and its closest allies
within the GCC that its rapprochement with Iran would not be at the expense of the
energy-rich, fragile Gulf autocracies. The US also wanted to show that it would remain
committed to its defence umbrella for the region despite focusing increasingly on Asia.

Confidence between the US and Saudi Arabia, home to a fiercely anti-Shiite puritan
interpretation of Islam, has eroded as a result of Saudi opposition to the Iranian
agreement because of the prospect of Shiite Iran reintegrating into the international
community and emerging as a power house capable of rivalling the kingdom.

Saudi confidence  has been further undermined by American support for the popular
uprisings in the Arab world; failure to provide Syrian rebels with the arms needed to
defeat the regime of embattled president Bashar al-Assad; inability to force a
resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and an increased US focus on Asia rather
than the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi concerns have sparked a series of critical
statements of US policy and persuaded the kingdom to demonstratively refuse to join
the UN Security Council when it was elected to a seat.
   
Fear of being swallowed    
By laying out a series of steps to put the GCC, in which Saudi Arabia is by far the most
powerful member, rather than individual Gulf states at the centre of US defence policy,
Hagel effectively endorsed Saudi calls for a union of Gulf states. This is a move that so
far has been thwarted by fears among some of its smaller members that they would be
swallowed by their big brother. Indeed, the Saudis failed in their initiative in the last year
to forge a union with Bahrain, where Saudi and UAE troops are based since the brutal
squashing of a 2011 popular uprising to bolster the regime.

In a rare public statement against Gulf union, Omani minister of state for foreign affairs
Yousef bin Alawi Al Ibrahim, a onetime representative of a separatist movement,
confronted his Saudi counterpart, Nizar Bin Obaid Madani, in no uncertain terms. “We
absolutely don’t support Gulf union. There is no agreement in the region on this …. If this
union materialises, we will deal with it but we will not be a member. Oman’s position is
very clear. If there are new arrangements for the Gulf to confront existing or future
conflicts, Oman will not be part of it,” he said.

Al Ibrahim suggested that the Gulf’s major problems were internal rather than external
and should be the region’s focus. Last year, Ahmed al Saadoun, at the time speaker of
the Kuwaiti parliament, rejected a Gulf union, saying that as a democracy Kuwait could
not united with autocratic states.

Barely a hundred metres from where he spoke, police vehicles and machine-gun
mounted armoured vehicles patrol the perimeter of the Shiite neighbourhood of Karbad.
Graffiti on its walls reflects the area’s mood. Slogans include: ‘Down with King Hamad’,
‘Martyrdom is our habit’, ‘Our goal is toppling the regime’, and ‘we bow only in front of
God’. A local resident said: “This will never end. It’s gone too far. Reform is the only way
out.”

Saudis pleased, but not smaller Gulf states
Hagel couched the new US approach in terms of “strategic agility” and “wise deployment
of our influence”. The US would help the GCC integrate its missile defence capabilities, he
added, by emphasising the GCC as a “multilateral framework that is the best way to develop
an inter-operable and integrated regional missile defence”. This would include missile
defence in annual meetings of US and Gulf air force commanders and officials; making
missile defence, marine security and counterterrorism-related sales to the GCC as a group
rather than to individual member states; and instituting an annual US-GCC defence ministers
conference. Hagel said the first such conference should be held in the next six months.

Saudi officials, endorsing Hagel’s proposals, said the defence secretary had understood the
kingdom’s needs and in doing so had supported their effort to achieve a Saudi-led Gulf
union. “This fits our agenda perfectly,” one official said.

Integrating regional defence as a step towards union is likely to prove easier said than done
due to  more than just political resistance by smaller Gulf states. The GCC for one has no
mechanism to make military purchases despite its members having signed a joint security
agreement a year ago. Even if it did, Gulf states would likely squabble over every detail of the 
acquisition.

In addition, smaller Gulf states are hesitant to rely on Saudi Arabia for their defence not only
 for political reasons but also because of the kingdom’s checkered military record. Saudi
Arabia was unable to defend Kuwait against Iraq’s 1990 invasion of the Gulf state. More
recently, Saudi troops had a hard time confronting Houthi rebels on the other side of their
border in the north of Yemen.

“The Omani foreign minister’s remarks were unprecedented. Other Gulf states may not say
publicly no, but they certainly won’t buy into it,” said an analyst from one of the smaller
Gulf states.

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



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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Persian Gulf Futures (on Global Brief)


Persian Gulf Futures

FEATURES | March 5, 2013     

Persian Gulf FuturesShaky monarchies, strategic pressures, and threats to energy and shipping

The failure to date by oil- and gas-rich Persian Gulf states to respond seriously to the demands for governance reforms sweeping the Middle East and North Africa poses, alongside potential hostilities with Iran, the most immediate threat to the security of the region’s energy production and international shipping. It raises the question of when – rather than if – revolts that have already driven the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen from office, pushed Syria into civil war, and are simmering in Jordan and Algeria, will disrupt domestic politics in the Gulf and, consequently, oil and gas production in the region. With US and other policy-makers focussed on terrorist threats and region-wide trends, rather than intra-state, domestic threats – not least because they realize that they have little influence in shaping the Gulf states’ internal policies – we now face the spectre of the international community being caught off guard and unprepared for significant turmoil and far-reaching change in the region.
The lack of focus on potential change has allowed Gulf leaders to perpetuate the myth that Arab monarchies are more immune to popular uprisings than their republican counterparts. The region’s oil- and gas-rich unelected, neo-patriarchal royals pride themselves on having so far largely contained widespread discontent bubbling at the surface with a combination of financial handouts, artificial job creation – particularly in the security sector – and social investment. The exceptions are the two monarchies – Jordan and Morocco – that have not been blessed with energy riches. They have instead resorted to elections and a modicum of reform (on which the jury is still out) in a bid to avert mass protests.
It is, however, only a question of time before politically unreformed monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Jordan and even Kuwait, in charge of increasingly liberalized economies, move into the front lines of the region’s convoluted transition from autocracy to more open societies and political systems. The indications thus far are that, with the exception of Jordan, these monarchies will resist rather than embrace change. In doing so, they are likely to fuel rather than calm tensions, and put current levels of oil and gas production at risk. That risk is amplified by the rulers’ encouragement of sectarian tensions through the identification of their Shiite populations with predominantly Shiite Iran in a bid to rally people against a perceived common enemy, and to ensure support from an international community worried about Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
To be sure, the situations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Oman, Jordan and Kuwait differ substantially. Yet, individually and taken together, they feed the worst fear of monarchs and their Western backers – to wit, that a successful popular revolt in one monarchy will open the door to serious challenges to autocratic royal rule in the rest of the region’s mostly energy-rich monarchies. Underlying the differing circumstances is a deeply felt sense of social, economic and political disenfranchisement that Gulf citizens share with those in the larger Arab world who have succeeded in ridding themselves of the yoke of autocratic rule. This discontent cannot be exclusively addressed by increased employment in the police and security forces, handouts and social investment. Warns Saudi journalist Abdul Rahman Al Rashed: “[O]il-producing countries have greater responsibilities, for they have no excuse when one of their citizens has no job, or when a citizen is sick but cannot get treatment, or when a citizen lacks insurance or does not feel safe in his home. It is the government’s duty to provide citizens with these services. When officials are upset [about] being criticized, they forget that it is their job to serve the people and the budget is how a government expresses its plans to serve the people.”
The facts on the ground contradict the notion that Middle Eastern and North African revolts threaten republics more than monarchies. Indeed, that notion would be true only if monarchs were able to lever the one real asset that they have: a remaining degree of legitimacy that comes from truly addressing real, practical concerns, rather than hiding behind security forces and repressing political expression. This is in contrast to the republican leaders in the region, who have so far been deposed in part because they lost all legitimacy, and protesters were unwilling to give them a last chance.
At this point, the writing is on the wall. Bahrain is a revolt calling for regime change in waiting. The country has arguably passed the point of no return in the protesters’ call for regime change. Saudi Arabia is headed for a similar fate in oil-rich, largely Shiite Eastern Province, the country’s most vital economic region. (Social media analysis shows that deep-seated criticism of the Saudi royal family goes far beyond the Shiite minority.) Kuwait is hanging in the balance, with the position of the emir increasingly dependent on whether he can credibly demonstrate his sincerity in wanting to root out corruption. Jordan, for its part, has said that it acknowledges the need for substantive reform, but has yet to say what concrete reforms will be put into place.
Riyadh has sought to fend off popular protest with a US $130 billion programme to shore up public services (including housing) and create employment – particularly in the security sector. In a commentary in Arab News, columnist Khaled al-Dakheel warned that economic reform and addressing social needs should “be followed by other steps of reform dealing with political issues, such as elections, representation, the separation of powers, activation of the Allegiance Commission, freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, and equality before the law. The necessity of political and constitutional reform [stems from] the fact that the positive impact in people’s economic reforms, especially financial, is usually temporary because of the variable nature of their economic and social circumstances.” Al-Dakheel laid out a programme for political and constitutional reform in a country that identifies the Koran as its constitution. The programme called for overhaul of the country’s bloated bureaucracy; longevity and tenure for long-serving officials – many of whom are members of the royal family – to be based on merit; expansion of the powers of the country’s toothless Shoura or Advisory Council in order to gradually transform it into an elected legislature; tackling issues of unemployment, foreign workers’ rights and corruption; and diversification of the Saudi national economy.
The cautionary warnings notwithstanding, in December of last year, Saudi authorities arrested prominent novelist Turki al-Hamad for criticizing Islamists and calling for reform in a series of tweets. Al-Hamad charged that the Islamists “have distracted us with nonsense [such] that we forgot the important issues.” He effectively called for reform of Islam, tweeting: “Our Prophet has come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is a time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed.”
Activist and website designer Raif Badawi was arrested in June 2012. He is on trial for violating Islamic values, breaking Sharia law, blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the Internet. Badawi allegedly insulted Islam by allowing debate on his website – Free Saudi Liberals – about the difference between popular and political Islam.
Similarly, the UAE ushered in 2013 with an announcement that it had arrested 10 people on suspicion of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. In late December of last year, the UAE said that it had arrested a group of Emiratis and Saudis on charges of belonging to a terrorist group. And in July of last year, Abu Dhabi said that it was questioning an unspecified number of people for having formed “a group aimed at damaging the security of the state[,]” “rejecting the constitution and the founding principles of power in the Emirates[,]” and having links with foreign organizations.
Even Qatar, widely viewed as the most progressive state in the region, is cracking down. In November 2011, a Qatari poet, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was sentenced to life in prison in what legal and human rights activists said was a “grossly unfair trial that flagrantly violates the right to free expression” on charges of “inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime.” Al-Ajami’s crime appeared to be a poem that he wrote, as well as his earlier recitation of poems that included passages disparaging senior members of Qatar’s ruling family. The poem was entitled “Tunisian Jasmine.” It celebrated the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
A draft media law approved by the Qatari cabinet would prohibit publishing or broadcasting information that would “throw relations between the state and the Arab and friendly states into confusion” or “abuse the regime or offend the ruling family or cause serious harm to the national or higher interests of the state.” Violators would face stiff financial penalties of up to one million Qatari riyals (US $275,000).
Of course, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to separate domestic Shiite concerns from the interests of Iran is a misreading of a reality in which Shiites view themselves, first and foremost, as nationals of the states of which they are citizens. That fact was more than evident in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which Iraqi Shiites were the ones that fought Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran. Shiites occupy a strategic geography in the Middle East, where the region’s energy and water resources are concentrated. Addressing their justified grievances – including an end to job and religious discrimination – is a key pillar in ensuring energy security and the safety of international shipping. The same is true for Jordan, where preoccupation with security and counter-terrorism – including the discovery of a major terrorist plot in the fall of 2012 – threatens to undermine the equally important emphasis on reform.
Leading up to the January parliamentary elections, Jordan saw protests in a number of cities demanding that King Abdullah step down. The King responded with a series of discussion papers urging citizens to be politically more involved in the electoral process, and also to judge candidates on their merits, rather than on their tribal and family affiliations. However, the general refusal by the Gulf states and Jordan to address head-on genuine popular concerns, and to treat Shiites as full citizens rather than as a fifth wheel, highlights the underlying strategic dilemma of the US and the international community: the concurrent need to ensure energy security and safe shipping in the short- and medium-term based on the status quo in the Gulf, the need to be prepared for likely disruptions of the flow of oil and gas as a result of domestic and regional developments, and the need to anticipate longer-term significant political change in the region. This basic strategic dilemma makes the linkage between Iran’s dispute with the West and Israel over its nuclear programme and domestic stability in the Persian Gulf even more intractable than it already is. And the dilemma is sharpened for most Gulf states by uncertainty about how committed the US will be to ensuring regional security as it becomes ever less dependent, in the coming years, on Gulf energy and emerges as the world’s largest oil exporter.
Gulf rulers perceive the Iranian dynamic – the nuclear question, and also Iran’s growing strategic footprint in the region – primarily as a threat to domestic stability, and only secondarily as a threat to energy production and international shipping. These threats have the potential of becoming self-fulfilling as a result of the rulers’ refusal to accept certain realities on the ground. Gulf opposition to perceived Iranian nuclear ambitions is, for instance, tempered by concerns about the possible domestic fallout of military action against Tehran. In response, Gulf states have responded to Shiite unrest with force, and to Iran’s nuclear posture by opting for international and regional security arrangements, as well as through massive arms purchases. Both approaches have thus far aggravated rather than alleviated the threats.
The ability of the US to act as the region’s defensive umbrella by emphasizing defence and deterrence could further be affected by an eruption of popular discontent in the Gulf. Gulf leaders are proving increasingly reluctant to reinforce perceptions that they are out of touch with public sentiment, and therefore dependent on the US in order to maintain their grip on power. This is all the more true given that the US will have to balance its interests in the Gulf with those in the wider Middle East and the Muslim world – especially because unrest in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s heartland, will resonate more than events in other Middle Eastern countries and across the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world. The most obvious way of compensating for political vulnerabilities would be the expansion of the Gulf’s security umbrella to include other interested parties, such as China and India. However, these parties are, in terms of military capabilities and focus, years away from being able to contribute significantly.
For its part, Iran is not oblivious to opportunities created by domestic Gulf policies. Tehran has sought to pressurize Gulf states into adopting a neutral stance in respect of its dispute with the West and Israel, as well as a more conciliatory attitude to their Shiite populations. Iran’s war games in April 2010 highlighted the threat that the country could pose to international shipping in case of an Israeli and/or US military attempt to take out Iranian nuclear facilities. During the games in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) swarmed, seized and destroyed hypothetical enemy vessels. Moreover, Iran has made clear that, in case of real conflict, it could target tankers with coastal anti-ship Silkworm missiles, patrol boats and short-range aircraft launched from nearby bases, or fast in-shore attack craft packed with explosives.
The assumption that Iranian verbal threats to shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz as a response to a possible Israeli and/or US attack may be little more than bluster because of Tehran’s interest in keeping sea lanes open for its own exports is questionable. US and European sanctions have already reduced Iranian oil exports by about two thirds, and could force further cutbacks. Iran’s vested interest in keeping shipping lanes open has therefore been considerably diminished. By the same token, the effect of an Iranian attempt to shut down shipping lanes is to some extent counterbalanced by the building of new pipelines and the conversion and expansion of existing ones in the Gulf that circumvent the Strait of Hormuz. More serious, however, may be the likelihood of Iranian retaliation against Gulf oil and gas facilities using both its conventional military and cyber capabilities.
The risk of military conflict with Iran (and with it the risk to international shipping, as well as the fear of Tehran exploiting Gulf discontent) turns on the fact that efforts to achieve a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue are undercut by deep-seated prejudices on both sides. Iran is convinced that the strategic goal of US Iranian policy is regime change. It views past offers to reward Iran for agreeing to comply with international demands as efforts to portray it as weak, and as having caved to pressure, rather than as an incentive to reduce its international isolation. For its part, the US believes that Iran is not serious about negotiations, and also that it has Iran increasingly cornered. Washington further assumes that the US can succeed with a big stick and limited carrot policy, and that Iran will ultimately only succumb if it has no choice.
Washington’s analysis could prove correct. The question is whether the Americans’ purposes could be achieved in a more equitable way – that is, one that would allow Iran to save face, help put US-Iranian relations on a more healthy long-term footing, avert the potential fallout of relying primarily on a stick, reduce the cost to ordinary Iranians, and remove at an early stage the threat to energy security and international shipping. The proof will be in the pudding if and when the threat of a US (and/or Israeli) attack becomes imminent. At that very last one-minute-to-twelve moment, Iran is likely to concede.
Governed by middle-aged revolutionaries with vested interests that have been accumulated in the more than three decades since the overthrow of the Shah, Iranian leaders effectively maintain, at best, a revolutionary façade with their provocative hostility toward Israel and their anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric. Traditionally a nation of traders, Iranian leaders, when faced with the real and imminent threat of losing their grip on power or accepting humiliation, will most likely opt for the latter.
Whether the American stick will truly remove the threat to Gulf energy production and international shipping is debatable. Military action would deepen anti-Western resentment among Iran’s elite. Popular sentiment would be split between those who share that resentment and those who see opportunity to exploit the regime’s weakness. This could make potential change messier and ultimately more dangerous. Alternatively, an international effort to resolve the nuclear issue such that Iran is allowed to save face – rather than one aimed at weakening Tehran – could avert the prospect of Iran turning into a cornered cat that jumps in unexpected ways. This could potentially ease and usher in a process of change.
Resolving the nuclear dispute with Iran and addressing popular concerns in the Gulf are two sides of the same coin. Evolutionary transition in the Gulf is feasible, provided rulers address political, and not only economic and social concerns. A first step would be a more inclusive approach by Gulf rulers toward all segments of the population, and a liberalization rather than a crackdown on freedom of expression. Simultaneously, the US would have to adopt a policy that convinces Iran with deeds that it is serious about achieving a negotiated solution – rather than regime change.
Of course, changing policies among Gulf states and in Washington will not be easy. The alternative, however, is less palatable. It would involve a festering of popular discontent in the Gulf to the point that the region’s rulers lose all legitimacy, and are confronted with demands for their demise. Popular agitation for change would intensify, as would violence fuelled by Iranian exploitation of opportunities. Forceful governmental repression would soon follow, and the cycle would resume, with escalating consequences. The bitter pill that Gulf rulers and Western leaders would have to swallow now in order to avert escalation is likely to be a lot less painful than the consequences of failing to grab the bull by its horns.
bioline
James M. Dorsey is a former New York Times foreign correspondent and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Middle East soccer associations campaign for women’s right to play




By James M. Dorsey

Middle Eastern soccer associations have launched a campaign to put women’s soccer on par with men’s football in a region in which a woman’s right to play and pursue an athletic career remains controversial and at a time at which political Islam is on the rise.

The associations announced the campaign at the end of a two-day seminar in the Jordanian capital Amman organized by the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) and the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP). Glaringly absent among the representatives of the 13 Middle Eastern WAFF members was Saudi Arabia where women’s soccer exists at best in a political and legal nether land as well as Yemen.

The campaign comes as women are demanding greater rights in a part of the world that has entered a period of dramatic political and social change. Popular revolts in the past two years have toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, sparked a bloody civil war in Syria and prompted numerous other states to adopt policies designed to shield themselves against a wave of protest that is unlikely to leave any Middle Eastern nation untouched.

A statement at the end of the seminar chaired by FIFA Vice President and AFDP Chairman Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein defined “an athletic woman” as “an empowered woman who further empowers her community.” In a rebuttal of opposition to women’s soccer among some Islamists across the region and more conservative segments of Middle Eastern society the seminar stressed that women’s soccer did not demean cultural and traditional values.

In doing so, the associations backed by representatives of the United Nations, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and the English Football Association, put themselves at the forefront of efforts to secure equality and women’s rights. The seminar’s statement emphasized the right of women to play soccer irrespective of culture, religion and race; a women’s right to opt for soccer as a career rather than only as a sport; and soccer’s ability to promote gender equality and level the playing field on and off the pitch.

The statement called further for the appointment of women to the boards of WAFF member associations, establishment of a WAFF women’s committee, creation of Under-16 and Under-19 women competitions in the Middle East (West Asia) as well as the compulsory rotation of hosting of subsidized WAFF women competitions.

With Saudi Arabia unlikely to comply with the initiative, It was not immediately clear whether member associations who refused to participate would be sanctioned, and if so, how. The statement, however, singled out Saudi Arabia by explicitly stating that the kingdom would be included in women’s tournaments. The statement said it would kick start its campaign with a WAFF Girls Football Festival on International Women’s Day on March 8.

In campaigning for women’s rights, WAFF has its work cut out for it not only with regard to Saudi Arabia but also in relation to many of its members who did sign on to the focus on women. “Female athletes in the Middle East face pressures that include family, religion, politics, and culture,” said a recent study entitled ‘Muslim Female Athletes and the Hijab’ by Geoff Harkness, a sociologist at Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar, and one of his basketball playing students, Samira Islam.

Resistance to women’s sports is moreover not restricted to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa. Palestine’s women soccer team includes 14 Christians and only four Muslims but a majority of the team has similar tales to tell about the obstacles they needed to overcome and the initial resistance they met from their families.

Human Rights Watch last year accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" that will encourage immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the requirements for marriage. The group’s charges contained in a report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ came on the heels of the kingdom backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.

Saudi Arabia, which does not have physical education for girls in schools and has hired consultants to draft its first ever five-year national sports plan but for men only, bowed to pressure last year to field for the first time ever women athletes at an international tournament, the London Olympics. It did so by fielding two expatriate Saudi females.

Women nonetheless play an important role in sporadic anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia, a country where discontent is simmering at the surface. Authorities earlier this month arrested 18 women in Buraida, a bulwark of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s puritan interpretation of Islam, who were protesting the long-term detention of relatives without charges on suspicion of terrorism.

Women in Iran have the right to play provided their uniforms are compliant with Islamic precepts but like in Saudi Arabia are also barred from attending matches in all-men stadiums as spectators. Two women highlighted the issue during a World Cup qualifier last year when they smuggled themselves into the stadium dressed as men only to reveal themselves publicly after the match.

For their part, Kuwaiti Islamists denounced the Gulf University for Science and Technology’s organization of a soccer tournament for Gulf women teams. “Women playing football is unacceptable and contrary to human nature and good customs. The government has to step in and drop the tournament,” Kuwait’s Al Wasat newspaper quoted member of parliament Waleed al-Tabtabai as saying at the time.

Mr. Tabtabai was one of a number of deputies who earlier criticized the government and sports executives for allowing the Kuwaiti women’s national soccer team to take part in the Third West Asian Women Soccer Tournament in Abu Dhabi. The members of parliament charged that the women’s participation had been illegal and a waste of money. “Football is not meant for women, anyway,” Mr. Tabtabai said.

Prince Ali has however put conservatives on the defensive with his successful campaign last year to get FIFA to agree to observant Muslim soccer players wearing a headdress that complies with Islamic precepts as well as the world soccer body’s safety and security standards. The move set the stage for the WAFF campaign by taking away one major obstacle to women’s sports having the same status of the athletic endeavors of men.

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

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Region in Turmoil: Threats to Gulf Energy and Shipping


By James M. Dorsey






Rather than offering a comprehensive, encyclopedic threat analysis, this Insight aims to pinpoint the most immediate threats to the security of Gulf energy and international shipping and the likelihood that they could become a reality. It constitutes a first attempt at looking at the likely scenarios that so far have been given inadequate attention.

In doing so, it also spotlights an underlying policy dilemma: the contradiction between ensuring energy security and safe shipping in the short and medium term based on the status quo in the Gulf, the need to be prepared for likely disruptions of the flow of oil and gas as a result of domestic and regional developments, and a long-term anticipation of significant political change in the region.

Three major threats highlight the urgency of the issue:

–volatility as a result of possible conflict with Iran;

–the potential eruption of brewing discontent in oil and gas producing Gulf states; and

–questions about the United States’ ability to be a reliable guarantor and defender of last resort.

These three factors do not neglect threats from non-state political or criminal actors that may or may not be supported by failing states. They constitute the most immediate, overarching dangers to sea lanes connecting the Gulf to the rest of the world.

Iran

Iran’s war games in April 2010 not only highlight the threat that the Islamic Republic could pose to international shipping in case of an Israeli and/or U.S. military attempt to take out Iranian nuclear facilities. They also serve as an example of the potential threat by non-state actors that may or may not have the backing of a state. During the games in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) swarmed, seized, and destroyed hypothetical enemy vessels. Iran could further target tankers with coastal anti-ship Silkworm missiles, patrol boats and short-range aircraft launched from nearby bases, or fast in-shore attack craft packed with explosives.

Many assume that Iranian verbal threats to shipping in the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz as a response to a possible Israeli and/or U.S. attack are little more than bluster due to Iran’s interest in keeping sea lanes open for its own exports. Yet this is questionable. U.S. and European sanctions have already reduced Iranian oil exports by about two thirds and could force further cutbacks. As a result, Iran’s vested interest in keeping shipping lanes open has been considerably reduced. By the same token, the effect of an Iranian attempt to shut down shipping lanes is to some extent counterbalanced by the building of new pipelines and the conversion and expansion of existing ones in the Gulf that circumvent the Strait of Hormuz. More serious may be the likelihood of Iranian retaliation against Gulf oil and gas facilities using both conventional military and cyber capabilities.

With the threat of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran in advance of the U.S. presidential election having vanished, the focus is on possible post-election Israeli and/or U.S. action. In hindsight, the 
Israeli diplomatic and psychological operations campaign during the last year appears to have been primarily aimed at narrowing U.S. options and achieving a firmer American commitment rather than at preparing the ground for a unilateral Israeli operation. Israelis and Iranians effectively agree that while a successful Israeli attack may set back Iranian nuclear efforts, it would take U.S. involvement to deliver a devastating blow to the Islamic Republic’s operations. In fact, Iranians may well be willing to pay the price of an Israeli attack because of the benefits it offers. These benefits include:

– shifting the blame for economic hardship from the government to Israel and the United States, particularly in advance of next year’s Iranian presidential election;

– emotive popular support in the Middle East and North Africa at a time of rising discontent in the Gulf and elsewhere;

– a distraction from Iran’s unpopular support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria;

– potential opportunities to compensate for the ultimate loss of Syria; and

– leveraging rivalry between the United States on the one hand and China and Russia on the other.

Deep-seated prejudices on both sides undercut efforts to achieve a negotiated solution. Iran is convinced that U.S. policy aims at regime change. It further views past offers to reward Iran for agreeing to comply with international demands as efforts to portray it as weak and having caved to pressure rather than as an incentive to reduce its international isolation. For its part, the United States believes that Iran is not serious about negotiations and that it has Iran increasingly cornered. It further assumes that it can succeed with a big stick and limited carrot policy and that Iran will only succumb if it has no choice.

That analysis could prove correct. The question is whether compromise could not be achieved in a more equitable way that would allow Iran to save face, help put U.S.-Iranian relations on a more healthy footing, avert the potential fallout of relying primarily on a stick, reduce the cost to ordinary Iranians, and remove at an early stage the threat to international shipping. The proof will be in the pudding if and when the threat of a U.S. attack becomes imminent.

At that very last one-minute-to-twelve point, Iran is likely to concede.

Governed by middle-aged revolutionaries with vested interests that have been accumulated in the more than three decades since the overthrow of the shah, Iranian leaders effectively maintain at best a revolutionary façade with their provocative hostility toward the very existence of Israel and their anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric. Traditionally a nation of traders, Iranian leaders, when faced with the real and imminent threat of losing their grip on power or accepting humiliation, will most likely opt for the latter.

Whether that would truly remove the threat to international shipping would remain a question. Anti-Western resentment among Iran’s elite would be deepened. Popular sentiment would be split between those that share that resentment and those that see opportunity in taking advantage of the regime’s weakness. Such developments could make potential change messier, more volatile, and ultimately more dangerous. Alternatively, an international effort to resolve the nuclear issue that is not aimed at weakening Iran could avert the Islamic Republic from turning into a cornered cat that jumps in unexpected ways, thus easing a potential process of change.

I include the threat of cyber warfare as a function of the dispute with Iran. For instance, cyber attacks earlier this year temporarily knocked out a large number of computers related to Iran’s nuclear program, and there were subsequent attacks on state-owned Saudi oil company Aramco and Qatari natural gas producer RasGas. The cyber attacks underscore the emergence of a new battleground with implications that go far beyond the confines of this Insight, including the need to protect critical infrastructure that is owned and/or operated not only by state and public entities but also by the private sector. Potential responses range from hard power attacks against infrastructure to what strategists call “active defense,” or counter cyber warfare. Ultimately, responses will involve multi-sector cooperation and the development of national and international legislation.

Popular unrest in major oil and gas producing nations

Unelected Arab monarchs of oil and gas producing states pride themselves on having so far largely managed widespread discontent bubbling at the surface with a combination of financial handouts, artificial job creation, social investment, and repression. In the cases of Jordan and Morocco, both countries resorted to elections and a modicum of reform.

Yet, in the shadow of the escalating civil war in Syria, it is politically unreformed monarchies such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Jordan in charge of increasingly liberalized economies that threaten to move into the front lines of the region’s convoluted transition from autocracy to more open societies and political systems. The rulers’ expected resistance to real change at whatever cost poses a potential threat to their ability to continue to produce oil and gas at current levels and maintain the security of international shipping in the region. That risk is heightened by the hostility between Iran and the conservative Arab Gulf states as well as the manipulation of sectarian identities by pitting Sunnis against Shiʿa in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

To be sure, the situations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Jordan differ substantially from one another. Yet, individually and taken together they feed the worst fear of monarchs and their Western backers: a successful popular revolt in one monarchy will open the door to serious challenges to autocratic royal rule in the rest of the region’s mostly energy-rich monarchies. Spanning the differing circumstances is a deeply felt sense of social, economic, and political disenfranchisement that fuels the discontent in all three nations. This discontent cannot be exclusively addressed by employment of police and security forces, handouts, and social investment.

The facts on the ground deny the notion that Middle Eastern and North African revolts threaten republics rather than monarchies. That is true only if monarchs leverage the one real asset they have: a degree of legitimacy that gives them the temporary benefit of the doubt. That benefit will hold true only if monarchs truly address real concerns rather than hide behind security forces. This is in contrast to the republican leaders in the region who have so far been deposed in part because they had lost all legitimacy and protesters were unwilling to give them a last chance.

So far, there is no indication that Arab monarchies have understood this need for change. Bahrain is a revolt calling for regime change in waiting; Saudi Arabia is heading for a similar fate in its economically most vital region, the Eastern Province;[1] Kuwait is hanging in the balance with the position of the emir increasingly dependent on whether he can credibly demonstrate his sincerity in wanting to root out corruption; and Jordan has said ‘a’ but has yet to say ‘b’ by paying lip service to reform without enacting it and announcing elections on the basis of a controversial election law. The future of Sultan Qaboos in Oman is also uncertain; witness his crackdown on critics who remain unconvinced by initial reforms.

Unwillingness to separate domestic Shiʿi concerns from the interests of Iran is a misreading of a reality in which the Shiʿa view themselves first and foremost as nationals of the states of which they are citizens. That fact was more than evident in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s when Iraqi Shiʿa were the ones that fought Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran. The Shiʿa occupy a strategic geography in the Middle East where the region’s energy and water resources are concentrated. 

Addressing their justified grievances, including an end to job and religious discrimination, is key to ensuring energy security and the safety of international shipping. The same is true for Jordan, where the recent discovery of an al-Qaʿida-linked terrorist plot focuses attention on security and threatens to undermine the urgent, equally important emphasis on reform.

The U.S. protective umbrella

Leaving aside the consequences of U.S. military budget cuts, political developments in the Middle East and North Africa are certain to impact America’s security umbrella for the Gulf. Potential conflict with Iran is closely tied to domestic stability in the minds of Gulf rulers. The perception of the Iranian threat is thus one of endangering domestic stability rather than international shipping. 

As a result, Gulf opposition to Iranian nuclear ambitions is tempered by concerns about the possible domestic fallout of military action against the Islamic Republic. In response, Gulf states have responded to Shiʿi unrest with force and to Iran’s nuclear policy by opting for international and regional security arrangements as well as massive arms purchases. Both approaches have so far aggravated rather than alleviated the threats. The Gulf’s newfound focus on nuclear energy raises the specter of a future potential nuclear arms race that would further complicate ensuring energy security and safe international shipping.

The ability of the United States to act as the region’s defensive umbrella by emphasizing defense and deterrence could be affected by a potential eruption of popular discontent in the Gulf. Gulf leaders could prove reluctant to reinforce perceptions that they are out of touch with public sentiment and dependent on the United States in maintaining their grip on power.

This is all the more true given that the United States will have to balance its interests in the Gulf with those in the wider Middle East and the Muslim world, all the more because unrest in Saudi Arabia, Islam’s heartland, will resonate more than events in other Middle Eastern countries across Islamic nations. The most obvious way of compensating for political vulnerabilities would be the expansion of the Gulf’s security umbrella to include the military capabilities of other interested parties such as China and India. Asian powers are, however, years away from being able to provide significant support.

Conclusion

Like everything else in the Middle East, nothing can be looked at in isolation. Threats and opportunities are interlinked. The security of energy and international shipping is determined by a multitude of often equally significant factors, among which those examined above are first and foremost.

This Insight has addressed the fundamentals of current policies and as a result offers few, if any, short-term solutions. Yet, it is one that aims to fashion a potential framework for the creation of a long-term stable environment that could be adopted by cautious, at times tacit, incremental steps. Changing current policies and their underlying assumptions is the equivalent of trying to change the direction of a super tanker in the Suez Canal. The question is not whether disruptions are avoidable but how they can be managed and compensated as part of a longer-term effort to create the circumstances that are likely to reduce fundamental risks.

Contemporary history illustrates that disruptions are manageable. Libyan oil production all but dried up during the NATO-backed rebellion against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, depriving Germany of one quarter of its oil and state-owned Italian oil company ENI of an even greater chunk. The disruption prompted a delay in the European Union’s imposition of oil sanctions against Syria and a delay for long-term contracts affected by its measures against Iran. The Libyan disruption prompted the International Energy Agency to tap into its reserves—only the fourth time it has done so since its founding in 1974.

Events of the last two years also illustrate the need to plan for a potential post-revolt future in Gulf energy-producing nations. Post-Qaddafi officials made a point of stressing that contractors from countries that supported the ousted Libyan leader or opposed the NATO intervention were less likely to be awarded contracts. The Libyan prosecutor’s office has been investigating possible irregularities in crude sales to oil giants China International United Petroleum & Chemical Co., or Unipec, and PetroChina Co. as part of a broader probe into Qaddafi-era oil deals despite the fact that China was less resistant to Western demands for intervention than it is in the case of Syria.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and is the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


[1] The fact that deep-seated criticism of the Saudi royal family goes far beyond the Shiʿi minority is evident in social media, which has recently shown an outpouring of hard-hitting criticism of the country’s rulers.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Muslim players win hijab battle in their struggle for women’s rights


Saudi women train on a private pitch


By James M. Dorsey

Observant Muslim women soccer players won a first victory on Saturday with the endorsement by the International Football Association Board’s (IFAB) decision to allow the players to test specially designed headscarves for the next four months.

The proposal presented to the IFAB, the soccer body that determines the game’s rules, was tabled by world soccer body FIFA vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a proponent of women’s rights.

Prince Ali’s campaign to lift the ban on Muslim women wearing a headdress in competition matches garnered over the past year widespread support from among others the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the United Nations and the International Federation of Professional Footballers as well as members of the FIFA executive committee.

Prince Ali launched his campaign after Iran was disqualified for this year’s London Olympics because it appeared last year on the pitch in Amman for a qualifier against Jordan with its players wearing the hijab, the headdress that covers a woman’s hair, ears and neck. Three Jordanian hijab-wearing players were also barred.

IFAB, a grouping whose membership – FIFA, England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland – harks back to British colonialism’s globalization of the beautiful game, will review its decision in early July based on the experience of the coming four months.

"I am deeply grateful that the proposal to allow women to wear the headscarf was unanimously endorsed by all members of IFAB. I welcome their decision for an accelerated process to further test the current design and I'm confident that once the final ratification at the special meeting of IFAB takes place, we will see many delighted and happy players returning to the field and playing the game they love, ," Prince Ali said.

While the IFAB decision constitutes an important tangible as well as psychological victory for Muslim women athletes, it by no way resolves all of their problems, many of which have less to do with religion and more to do with inbred traditions of patriarchic societies as well as non-Muslim prejudices.

“Female athletes in the Middle East face pressures that include family, religion, politics, and culture. These issues often take place over use or nonuse of the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women,” concluded a recent study entitled ‘Muslim Female Athletes and the Hijab’ by Geoff Harkness, a sociologist at Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar, and one of his basketball playing students, Samira Islam.

The study based on interviews with female athletes and their coaches found that sports often empowered young women whose role models are successful sportswomen like Fatima Al-Nabhani, an Omani tennis player, and Bahraini sprinter Roqaya Al-Ghasara, who was fully covered when she ran and won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “Both women not only serve as role models for aspiring female athletes from the region, but also shatter Western stereotypes,” the report said. Eight other female athletes competed in Beijing wearing the hijab in sprinting, rowing, taekwondo and archery.


In a statement French women's groups - the International League for Women's Rights, the French Coordination for the European Women's Lobby and Femix'Sports --  charged that IFAB with its decision was "acceding to the demand of the Iranian Federation football, raises the gravest questions on the interference of politics in sports, as well as on the issue of transparency in decision-making both by leading football bodies and by the United Nations."

Resistance to women playing soccer with or without their head covered is not restricted to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa. Palestine’s women soccer team includes 14 Christians and only four Muslims but a majority of the team has similar tales to tell about the obstacles they needed to overcome and the initial resistance they met from their families.

In a break with tradition, Kuwait this weekend hosted the first Gulf university soccer tournament for females at its Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) in which Saudi Arabia fielded its first ever women’s soccer team in an international competition.

"Out of commitment to its social role, besides the academic one, GUST seeks to promote female sports in Kuwait and in the Arabian Gulf region through organizing and patronizing such competitions," GUST Chancellor Afaf Al-Rakhis said. She described women's sports as a reflection of the social and cultural advancement of a country.

That’s a strong statement given resistance in Kuwait to women’s soccer and the fact that Saudi Arabia bans women’s sports and only tacitly allows women’s teams to be formed in private settings.

Kuwaiti Islamists denounced GUST’s plans for the tournament when they were first announced last year and urged the government the competition. “Women playing football is unacceptable and contrary to human nature and good customs. The government has to step in and drop the tournament,” Kuwait’s Al Wasat newspaper quoted member of parliament Waleed al-Tabtabai as saying.

Mr. Tabtabai was one of a number of deputies who criticized the government and sports executives for allowing the Kuwaiti women’s national soccer team to take part in the Third West Asian Women Soccer Tournament in Abu Dhabi. The members of parliament charged that the women’s participation had been illegal and a waste of money. “Football is not meant for women, anyway,” Mr. Tabtabai said at the time.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite tv quoting Reuters reported that the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority had earlier this year announced plans to introduce after-hours physical education classes for both girls and boys. Public schools in the kingdom do not offer girls physical education. It was not clear why the investment authority rather than the Saudi authority responsible for youth and sports would be spearheading an initiative to facilitate women’s sports.

Al Arabiya conceded that professional women athletes in the kingdom “are publicly slammed for going against their natural role” and reported that Saudi newspapers refer to them as “shameless” because they cause embarrassment to their families. Women athletes often receive text messages urging them to stay home and tend to their household duties as mothers and wives, Al Arabiya said.

“If there is no support from the family we cannot get into these types of activities ... some people are extremist or extra conservative,” it quoted 17-year old basketball player Hadeer Sadagah as saying.

International human rights group Human Rights Watch last month accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" that will encourage immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the requirements for marriage.

The Human Rights Watch charges contained in a report entitled “’Steps of the Devil’ came on the heels of the kingdom backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom’s strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.

The report borrows its name from a religious edict by Sheikh Abdulkareem al-Khudair, a member of the kingdom’s Supreme Council for Religious Scholars, banning sports for women because they “will lead to following in the footsteps of the devil.” Sheikh Al-Khudair said the government could not introduce sports in schools for girls because such activity is forbidden in Islam.

Saudi women, including some members of the royal family, nonetheless are pushing the envelope. A group of women is planning a hiking expedition to Everest base camp this summer as part of a charity fundraising exercise to promote a healthy lifestyle for breast cancer patients.

“As a nation we need to focus on preventative measures that include healthy lifestyle, specifically nutrition and fitness and early detection (of women's illnesses). The inspiration to climb Everest base camp came from the basic idea that a healthy lifestyle and healthy body can fight illness better,” Al Arabiya quoted Princess Reema al-Saud, who is leading the Everest climb as saying.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.