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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Soccer: Iranian moderates and hardliner lock horns on the pitch


By James M. Dorsey

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suffered in the run-up to crucial elections in early 2016 what amounted to at least a symbolic defeat when state-run television banned Iran’s most popular soccer program from running an interview with his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, on soccer and politics.

Amid confusion about the reason for the ban, Iranians worried that not only was their beloved, already highly politicized sport being dragged further into the country’s power struggle but also that government-controlled television was taking sides in a partisan struggle.

Iranian media reported that Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the country’s broadcast authority, had banned Mr. Zarif’s appearance because of his liberal views and the fact that his appearance on the soccer show might brand him as a leader in the mould of nationalist president Mohammed Mossadegh, who was toppled in 1953 in a US and British-backed coup.

“Iran's soccer diplomacy: ‘anything goes’ in fight for parliament seats,” said one headline referring to polling in February to elect both the Islamic republic’s legislature as well as its Assembly of Experts, the forum that appoints the country’s spiritual leader. The assembly, which is elected for a period of eight years, could well be the first in 26 years to appoint a new spiritual and political leader with 76-year old Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei believed to be suffering from prostate cancer.

Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate who headed the assembly until 2009 said in a reference to Mr. Khamenei’s health that the council had recently “appointed a group to list the qualified people that will be put to a vote (in the assembly) when an incident happens.”

He said Iran was “getting ready for determining its fate for years to come" with February’s elections for parliament and the assembly. Mr. Khamenei has rejected attempts in recent months by Rouhani to limit the assembly’s ability to bar moderates from standing as candidates.

Efforts by hardliners with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the lead to control soccer underline the importance of the pitch as a battleground in the struggle for Iran’s future in the wake of the nuclear agreement with Iran and the expected lifting of stringent United Nations sanctions that Western nations hope will boost Mr. Rouhani in the elections.

The significance of soccer has been heightened by Iran’s poor international performance as well as allegations of match-fixing scandals that have forced the guard to justify its involvement in the sport.

In a recent interview with sports magazine Tamashagaran Emrooz (Today's Spectators), Guards commander Azizallah Mohammedi, a former board member of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) argued that the military group’s involvement in soccer had grown from the fact that some of its members had played soccer in the past. He said they had become soccer managers not as part of a Guards strategy but because of the qualifications and skills they brought to the table.

Mohammed Dadkan, who served as FFIRI president from 2002 to 2006, however dismissed Mr. Mohammedi’s portrayal in an interview in August.  “Managers in the world of football world are corrupt. Unfortunately, people who know nothing about football are involved in this sport - managers from the Guards and the Law Enforcement Forces," Mr. Dadkan said.

IGRC commanders have served at various times as head of Persepolis FC, one of Iran and Asia’s top clubs while Lotfollah Forouzandeh Dehkordi, a guard commander and former vice-president under Rouhani’s hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a member of its board.

Fajr Sepasi FC, a club in Shiraz owned by The Organization for Mobilization of the Oppressed or Basij, a voluntary militia associated with the guards, is directed by Colonel Zohrab Qanbari Mahardou.

Brigadier-General Gholam-Asgar Karimian is chairman of Tractor Sazi FC, a top flight club in Tabriz, the capital of East Azerbaijan, whose supporters have protested in recent years against the government’s environmental policy and at times raised Azeri nationalist slogans. The club’s president is former Guard Saeed Abbassi while another commander, Mostafa Ajorlou, the guards’ former head of physical training, is a member of its board.

Traktor Sazi is owned for 70 percent by the city’s state-owned tractor company, which in turn is owned by Mehr-e Eqtesad-e Iranian Investment Company that was sanctioned by the US Treasury as a subsidiary of Mehr Bank, an IGRC financial institution. The remain 30 percent by the Defence Ministry’s by Kosar Financial Institution.

Mr. Ajorlou, wh en he headed Steel Azin FC before joining the Traktor Sazi board, tried to sack top Iranian player Ali Karimi for allegedly not fasting during Ramadan and questioning the commander’s decisions.

Azar news, a news agency operated by the National Resistance Organization of Azerbaijan (NROA), a coalition of opposition forces dominated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group that was tainted when it moved its operations in 1986 to Iraq at a time that Iraq was at war with Iran, this month leaked a letter allegedly written by General Karimian detailing how Traktor Sazi could be used to unite Azeris against what the general termed “racist and separatist groups.”



The letter said the groups were campaigning for a “study the mother tongue day.” It suggested that the mother tongue referred to was Talysh, a dying northwest Iranian language that is still spoken by at most a million people in the Iranian provinces of Gilan and Ardabil and the southern Azerbaijan.

The letter implied that the groups General Karimian was concerned about were Azeris separatists, Islamists and Turkish Alevis, a sect viewed as heretical by orthodox Islam that accounts for up to 20 percent of Turkey’s populations.

If anything, the letter’s focus appeared to advocate measures to weaken Azeri separatist groups by combatting widespread racist attitudes towards Azeris and improving services in East Azerbaijan. Racial attitudes towards Azeris is something Traktor Sazi knows a lot about.

“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” said a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

As a result, stadia in which Traktor Sazi Tabriz FC play are repeatedly the venue for protests demanding greater rights for Iran’s Azeri minority. During one clash in 2013 in Teheran’s Azadi stadium with the capital’s storied Persepolis FC, Traktor Sazi supporters unfurled a banner saying in English: “South Azerbaijan isn’t Iran,” a reference to East Azerbaijan that borders on Azerbaijan.


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Trade unions test Qatari sincerity with demands for labour reform


By James M. Dorsey

International trade unions have stepped up pressure on Qatar with a series of demands, a majority of which the Gulf state could implement without having to reform its autocracy or threaten the privileged position of its citizenry who account for a mere 12 percent of the population and fear that change could cost them control of their culture and society.

The demands in a report by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) that also include calls for changes that would challenge autocratic rule, come at a time that world soccer body FIFA could become obliged to more forcefully pressure Qatar to move beyond baby steps it has already taken towards speedy implementation of far-reaching reform of its kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

Many of the ITUC demands are likely to be on FIFA’s list if it implements recommendations to incorporate UN human rights guidelines in all its procedures, processes and decision-making. FIFA has requested a Harvard University professor to present it by March with a report on how to adopt the guidelines.

The ITUC report and FIFA’s potentially greater role come as pressure on Qatar is mounting with legal investigations into the integrity of its successful 2022 World Cup bid. A Swiss judicial investigation focusses exclusively on the Qatari bid as well as Russia’s winning of the hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup, while US attorney general Loretta Lynch recently expressed hope that Qatar would cooperate with a Department of Justice investigation into FIFA that has already led to the indictment of some 40 officials and entities.

Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary general of Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, said Qatar has yet to be contacted by Swiss or US authorities.

Theo Zwanziger, the former FIFA executive committee member who was in charge until last May for monitoring Qatari progress towards labour reform, has meanwhile lost confidence in the Gulf state’s sincerity.

Mr. Zwanziger, who has been sued by Qatar for libel after he described the Gulf state as a “cancerous growth on world football,” said Qatari labour reforms were “a sham.” He called for depriving Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights and a fan boycott in protest against the Gulf state’s violations of human rights.

In its report, the ITUC demanded Qatar begin reform of kafala by eliminating exit visas and giving workers the right to change jobs, authorize contracts between employers or reputable recruitment companies and employees, and introduce a national minimum wage, a company grievance procedure and an independent labour court.

Implementation of these demands would not challenge the fundament’s of Qatar’s family rule political structure compared to other ITUC demands such as the trade unions’ insistence on worker representation through elected representatives and the right to collective bargaining. The ITUC, however, stopped short in its report of demanding abolition of kafala or the formation of independent trade unions.

Qatar by moving on ITUC’s non-political demands, most of which could be implemented quickly, would significantly counter mounting pressure and perceptions that it is not serious about making good on pledges for reform. Qatari moves so far fall far short of the Gulf state’s initial promises.

Significant segments of Qatari society oppose labour reform out of fear that it would open a Pandora’s Box to demands for more political and cultural rights by the Gulf state’s majority non-Qatari population.

Fears in the business community that abolishment of the exit visa would potentially enable expatriates who manage Qatari businesses to abscond with company funds could easily be assuaged with the introduction of a government guarantee modelled on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in the United States that guarantees deposits in US banks. Despite the drop in global commodity prices and a projected budget deficit of $12.77 billion in 2016, Qatar would be capable of absorbing the cost of a minimum wage.

The ITUC report put foreign companies involved in the construction in Qatari projects, including ones related to the World Cup, on the spot by accusing them of exploiting underpaid workers that they in the trade unions’ words use as "modern-day slaves.” The report asserted that workers building the Khalifa International Stadium were earning $1.50 an hour.

The report estimated that “$15 billion profit will be made by companies working in Qatar on infrastructure… Every CEO operating in Qatar is aware that their profits are driven by appallingly low wage levels -- wages that are often based on a system of racial discrimination -- and that these profits risk safety, resulting in indefensible workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths," the report quoted ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow as saying.

Speedy and serious moves towards labour reform would not only strengthen Qatar’s hand in fending off ITUC’s more political demands but also hand it a needed public diplomacy success at a time that the Gulf state has on balance taken a public relations beating.

News about the World Cup has been dominated by questions about the integrity of the Qatari bid and criticism of the Gulf state’s labour regime. Add to that reporting on the recent blocking of an article critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record on the main websites of the state-owned Al Jazeera television network in a bid not to offend Qatar’s big brother.

Further contributing to Qatar’s woes, is a report by a senior professor from Northwestern University, which prides itself on its journalism program, that concluded that lack of academic freedom deprived the university of any justification to maintain its campus in the Gulf state.

“Should we pull out? Yes, if we can’t be assured that students and faculty can investigate and report what they want without fear of arrest or expulsion. The education of Qatar women — the daughters of millionaires — and other Middle Eastern elites (worthwhile as it may be), is not an essential mission of Northwestern University,” said art historian Stephen F. Eisenman.


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Turkish-Russian tension set to spill onto European pitches


By James M Dorsey

The escalating Turkish-Russian crisis following Turkey’s downing in November of a Russian war plane promises to spill onto European soccer pitches with FC Lokomotiv Moscow set to play Fenerbahce SK, notorious for its fiery fan base, in a Europa League match.

With Russia seeking to punish Turkey with punitive economic and sporting sanctions and Russian President Vladimir Putin refusing this week to meet his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the expected clash between the two teams as well as between fans is likely to not only raise tempers in both countries.

It will also demonstrate once more the inextricable relationship between sports and politics at a time that world soccer body FIFA unwittingly is putting the incestuous ties between the two high on its agenda by seeking advice on how to embed United Nations guidelines on human rights into its processes, procedures and decision-making.

Ignoring Mr. Putin’s snub, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he was looking forward to the February matches between Lokomotiv and Fenerbahce.

"The Turks and Russians who will fill the stadiums here and in Russia are not adversaries, and still less enemies. If the match is played in a gentlemanly spirit and helps reduce the tensions between the countries, then something positive will come from a draw that could seem negative," Mr. Davutoglu told A-Haber TV.

Turkish fans have a tendency to pick their own battles rather than take into account their government’s interests. Fans, who carry their Turkish nationalism on their sleeve, played a key role in mass anti-government protests in 2013.

The Lokomotiv-Fenerbahce clash could prove to be the first of more confrontations on European pitches if both Turkey and Russia progress in qualifiers for Euro 2016. "We already hit them in the air and now on the turf -- wait for us, Lokomotiv Moscow," said Turkish soccer fan Huseyin Uysal on Twitter.

The tensions and the reputation of Turkish fans as Europe’s scariest soccer enthusiasts will not only raise concerns about crowd control but also fears that stadia where the two teams battle it out on the pitch could be targets for jihadist attacks.

Fears of clashes between Turkish and Russian fans persuaded Russian soccer authorities to recently council supporters of FC Zenit Saint Petersburg supporters not to travel to Belgium for the team’s European Champions League match against KAA Gent because of the Belgian town’s large Turkish community.

Islamist fans shocked when in November they twice shouted Allahu Akbar, God is Great, during moments of silence to commemorate the victims of the Islamic State attack in Paris held at the beginning of two matches. One of the Paris targets was a friendly between France and Germany at Paris’ Stade de France that French President Francois Hollande was attending.

Russia, slated to host the 2018 World Cup, had already demonstrated its political control of soccer immediately after the downing in November of the Russian plane with the country’s sports ministry banning clubs from hiring Turkish players and ordering Russian clubs to cancel winter training sessions in Turkey that they had planned.

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said that any future World Cup-related contracts would not be awarded to Turkish construction companies but that existing commitments would not be affected. "They won't be here in the future but at the moment they have contracts and these will not be looked into," Mr. Mutko said.

The bans as well as some refusals to play Turkish sports clubs may however already be backfiring and handing Turkey at least some small victories in what promises to be extended chilly relations with Russia.

Turkey is counting that its sporting points will translate into political victories as Russia becomes ever more bogged down in the Syrian quagmire rather than emerging as Mr. Putin had hoped as the saviour who defeated extremist political violence. Like the more than one-year old US air campaign against the Islamic State, Russian military hardware has hardly dented Islamist opposition to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad despite Moscow’s ability to coordinate with Syrian ground forces.

Mr. Mutko, a former chairman of the St. Petersburg team who doubles as head of the Russian Football Union (RFU) and a member of FIFA’s executive committee, admitted this week that Russia had made a mistake by stopping volleyball clubs from travelling to Turkey for European championship matches. Two Russian teams were handed technical defeats as punishment for not playing the Turkish games despite their insistence that security concerns had prevented them from going to Turkey.

In rare Russian praise for Turkey since the downing of the jet, Mr. Mutko appeared to be making an about face by stating that "The Turkish side is capable of providing security and there were never any problems in this regard. If they were unable to host tournaments of such level, the international organizations would have never given them the rights to do it," Mr. Mutko said.

FIFA has suggested that Russian soccer could be violating the world body’s rules and regulations if it decisions proved to be politically influenced. "FIFA will monitor the situation and any potential issues on a case-by-case basis, should there be any appearance of a breach of FIFA statutes or regulations,” a FIFA spokesperson said.

Mr. Mutko’s dual position as a member of Mr. Putin’s Cabinet and head of the RFU makes a mockery of FIFA’s assertion that sports and politics are separate. They also make a mockery of FIFA’s alleged policing to ensure that the two don’t mix and underline the need to acknowledge rather than deny a relationship that is unbreakable.

Turkey’s Russian soccer and sports travails were not earning it a great deal of empathy in far flung places like Argentina. Argentinian `soccer club Racing Club de Avellaneda refused a Turkish Airlines offer for sponsorship while another team, CA San Lorenzo de Almagro, turned down a similar offer from Azerbaijan, a Turkic republic with close ties to Turkey. The two clubs cited repression of dissent and freedom of expression in both Turkey and Azerbaijan as reasons for their rejection of the offers.


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

FIFA’s human rights litmus test: Will it clean house?


By James M. Dorsey

Ridden by the worst corruption scandal in its history, world soccer body FIFA is breaking new ground by seeking to put United Nations guidelines for human rights at the centre of its activities.

If fully implemented, the move would not only set a precedent for other international sports associations but could also have far-reaching consequences for FIFA’s future selection of World Cup hosts, current tournament hosts Russia and Qatar, and the eligibility of various members of the executive boards of the group and its regional soccer federations.

The move would also put centre stage the relationship between politics and sports in general and soccer in particular. With human rights inextricably linked to politics, the initiative makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for FIFA to maintain its position that sports and politics are separate.

Denial of the incestuous relationship between the two has allowed FIFA and other international sports associations to enable autocracies and violators of human rights to use the World Cup and other tournaments to launder their reputations, distract attention from alleged abuse and suppression of human rights and basic freedoms, and project themselves favourably on the international stage.

The proof of FIFA’s sincerity in becoming the first international sports federation to make human rights an integral part of its processes, procedures and decisions will lie in how it applies the principles.

FIFA’s decision to seek external help in adopting human rights principles as part of its DNA is remarkable given the group’s past support for autocracies and flouting of moral and ethical standards. FIFA moreover has an abysmal track record in following external advice it commissioned on how best to reform the deeply troubled organization.

FIFA’s sincerity is likely to be put to the test from the day the UN principles are formally adopted with the hosts of both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Russia and Qatar, accused of systematic violations of human rights, and some members of the executive committees of the group as well as of regional soccer confederations facing unanswered questions about their own human rights record or that of the organizations they represent.

Much will depend on a report FIFA commissioned by Harvard international affairs and human rights professor John Ruggie, a former UN Secretary-General special representative for business and human rights. Mr. Ruggie is scheduled to deliver his report in March on how FIFA can best embed the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in everything it does.

Mr. Ruggie’s report is due just after FIFA’s extraordinary congress in February that is set to elect a new president to succeed Sepp Blatter, who after 40 years with the group, 17 of which he served at the helm, has been suspended on suspicion of corruption.

Scores of FIFA and other soccer executives have been indicted on corruption charges in the United States while Switzerland is looking into the integrity of the awarding of the Russia and Qatar World Cups. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said earlier this month that she hoped that Qatar would cooperate with her department’s ongoing investigation that has so far focussed on wrongdoing in the Americas.

The investigations focus on financial transgressions rather than political corruption, which is harder to tackle in legal terms without a structure that governs the relationship between politics and sports.

Under the guidelines that would change with FIFA having to take a far more forceful stand on issues like labour rights in Qatar and gay rights in Russia as well as having to take a more detailed look at human rights allegations against Bahraini FIFA executive committee member and Asian Football Confederation chief Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a frontrunner in the world body’s presidential election – all issues that are political in nature and tied to the politics of the various countries.

FIFA has so far been wishy washy in its criticism of Qatar’s kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers. Significantly improved labour standards adopted by several Qatari institutions, including the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, have yet to be enshrined in national legislation and stop short of giving migrant workers, who constitute the majority of the Qatari population, full basic rights.

FIFA for example failed to follow the advice of Theo Zwanziger, a former German soccer executive, who was responsible for monitoring Qatari progress on labour reform before surrendering his FIFA executive committee seat in May, that Qatar be held to deadlines.

Mr. Zwanziger had called for sanctioning of Qatar if it failed to establish by May an independent commission that would oversee labour reform. A report commissioned by Qatar by British-based law firm DLA Piper had proposed the oversight mechanism. Qatar has yet to act on the advice.

"Unfortunately, almost nothing has happened until today. I strongly doubt the will to change something of the Qataris," Mr. Zwanziger said at the time. Qatar has sued Mr. Zwanziger for libel for saying that the Gulf state was a “cancer on world football.”

FIFA has shied away from passing judgement on Mr. Salman, who has denied allegations based on extensive reporting by the state-owned Bahrain News Agency (BNA) that serves exclusively as a channel for official government pronouncements that he was involved in the identification of some 200 athletes and sports executives who were penalized for their alleged participation in a popular uprising in 2011.

Some of the athletes, including two national soccer team players, were tortured at the time. Mr. Salman, who was the then head of the Bahrain Football Association (BFA), has never denied the abuse nor condemned it.

In his most explicit statement to date, Mr. Salman recently denied any involvement, saying that the committee to identify the athletes and executives he was said by BNA to have headed had never been established. Similarly, the players who spoke about their abuse four years ago and have since remained silent recently denied their earlier statements in interviews organized by Mr. Salman’s presidential campaign.

FIFA has opened the door to making history with its commissioning of Mr. Ruggie and expected adoption of the UN guidelines. It will be up to the group to set the example by not only applying the principles to future decisions and initiatives but also by applying them to major current issues.

The guidelines, according to Mr. Ruggie, would oblige FIFA to “apply maximum leverage” to address existing human rights issues and “to withdraw from contracts” if its efforts fail. With a deficit of $100 million as a result of the corruption scandal, “FIFA is killing the golden goose. They are realizing that,” Mr. Ruggie said in an expression of hope that FIFA would act on his advice on how to apply the UN human rights principles.


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fearful of protests, Egypt keeps stadia closed


By James M Dorsey

Egyptian law enforcement authorities and the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), in a reflection of fears that stadia in Egypt could once more emerge as platforms for anti-government protest, have extended a ban on spectators attending matches that has been in place for much of the last five years.

The decision dashed expectations that the ban would be lifted in February with a new competition season. It comes against the backdrop of repeated Egyptian poor performance in international tournaments that many blame on the absence of fan support at matches.

Sports minister Khaled Abdel-Aziz used last month’s jihadist attacks in Paris as well as the cancellation of an international soccer match in Germany because of an alleged threat by the Islamic State to justify continued closure of Egyptian stadia.

“There’s no need to be hurried on fans’ return as the world is on the edge of a cliff,” Mr. Abdel-Aziz said.

Egypt has failed to suppress its own jihadist insurgency in the remote Sinai that has also sparked a number of attacks in Cairo and other cities. The insurgency has been fuelled by the military’s brutal tactics as well as years of social and economic neglect of the Bedouin population in the north of the peninsula.

The decision to keep stadia closed constitutes a rejection of demands of some of the government’s key supporters in the business community who had called for a reversal of the ban. “The absence of football fans is a failure for Egypt and the interior and youth ministries. People are bored with politics now, but they never bore of football. Fans must attend matches again, but without new incidents. Matches are boring without fans,” billionaire Naguib Sawiris said last month.

Authorities have struggled with multiple options to enhance security in stadia that would have involved a possible replacement of Egypt’s hated security forces with private security firms some of which are owned by retired military officers and the introduction of security technology such as cameras and an electronic ticketing system.

Disagreement over who would pay for enhanced security has complicated efforts to lift the ban. So have differences between the interior and the sports ministry as has Turkey’s experience with electronic ticketing that fans viewed as a way for the government to regain political control of stadia and identify dissenters. The Turkish attempt sparked a fan boycott that lead to a dramatic drop in match attendance.

The issue of spectator attendance has put the government of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in a bind. If opening up stadia bares political risk, so does continued closure. The rival, militant, well-organized, and street battle-hardened soccer fan groups of storied Cairo clubs Al Ahli SC and Al Zamalek SC insisted in a rare joint statement that the crowd ban be lifted immediately.

Deliberate or unwittingly lax imposition of stadium security measures by security forces resulted twice in the past four years in scores of deaths. Seventy-two Al Ahli died in February 2012 in a politically loaded brawl in Port Said that had the hallmarks of security forces deliberately looking the other way. Three years later 20 Zamalek fans were killed in a stampede at a Cairo stadium as the result of poor crowd control. Soccer fans are on trial in a number of court cases related to the two incidents as well as other protests.

Both incidents highlighted an urgent need for security sector reform in Egypt. The interior ministry, which is responsible for police and security forces, has however so far successfully fended off calls for a thorough overhaul.

Al Ahli’s Ultras Ahlawy and Zamalek’s Ultras White Knights issued their statement after the two groups attended a handball match without incident. "Today, at Ahi's Abdullah bin Faisal court, fans decided to teach (authorities) an effective lesson. Everyone witnessed the presence of the largest sets of fans with few metres separating them and not a single problem occurred although there wasn't any security," the two groups said on Facebook.

Thousands of hard-core supporters of Al Ahli and Al Zamalek have for months attended their clubs’ training sessions to demonstrate that it was not them but the security forces that were responsible for repeated violent incidents.

The fans insisted in their statement that they were capable of handling security themselves. “Every time the fans take responsibility of their own safety, things pass very smoothly… The fans trust themselves and their ability to organize themselves. It's not our fault that some parties are not able to carry out their duties," they said in a snide at security forces and the interior ministry.

The notion of fans handling their own security is anathema to a regime that allows for no uncontrolled public space. Jihadist targeting of stadia in France, Germany, Iraq and Nigeria moreover gives the government a legitimate excuse in an environment in which security forces are as much part of the solution as they are part of the problem.

Allowing fans to shoulder responsibility for security is also a no-go for the government given the fact that the ultras played a key role in the 2011 popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and most subsequent anti-government protests.

Militant soccer fans further formed the backbone of student protests against the government of Mr. Al Sisi, who in 2013 staged a coup against Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected government.

Mr. Al Sisi has since then brutally suppressed Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood as well as all other expressions of dissent. He squashed the student protests by arresting hundreds, if not thousands, and turning universities into security fortresses.

“The ban on spectators is uniting rival fan groups. We have a common cause in fighting for our right to return to stadiums. This is an opportunity for the government to reach out to frustrated youth. They shouldn’t waste it,” said one ultra.


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Future of Islamic State: Not Merely Religion


By James M Dorsey and Mushahid Ali

As the threat from Islamic State (also known as IS or ISIS or by its Arabic acronym of Daesh) continued to grow, US-led coalition forces intensified their aerial attacks on IS militants and strategic installations in Syria and Iraq, in a concerted effort to destroy and degrade the self-styled caliphate. However, far from caving in, IS has expanded its territorial reach by moving across the Mediterranean Sea into Libya's coastal region, the Sahel and West Africa.

Some scholars argue that the ability of IS to attract foreign fighters as well as idealistic Muslims from across the globe willing to become cannon fodder in suicide missions at home, make it a lethal force and very dangerous to any government willing to confront it. These analysts say that the militants' ideology has been fuelled by the austere and puritanical interpretation of Islam by Saudi Arabia, a country which has significantly advanced Salafi-Wahhabi beliefs (a return to Islam as espoused by the first three generations of Muslims who are collectively known as the salaf).

German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, in a rare attack by a Western official, accused Saudi Arabia recently of financing extremist mosques and communities in the West that constitute a security risk and warned that it must stop. “We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over,” Gabriel said in a German newspaper interview. “Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany,” he said.

Algerian author and columnist Kamal Daoud wrote in The New York Times recently that the penchant of IS for beheading, killing, stoning, and amputating victims; and despising women and non-Muslims, mirrors the practice of Saudi Arabia. “The kingdom relied on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimises, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on," Daoud declared.

The difference was that Saudi Arabia, governed by a labyrinthine ruling family-religious complex, was less crude in the way it presented itself to the global community. Daoud asserted that Saudi Arabia was what IS rule could look like once it had settled in and discarded its jihadist and expansionist tendencies.

Mainstream Muslim scholars, including those in Southeast Asia, have long warned that Wahhabism threatens other versions of Islam in countries where the Muslims are either a majority or a minority. British author and former intelligence officer Alastair Crooke believes that IS has undermined the legitimacy of the Saudi ruling family by returning to the rigours of the 18th century alliance between the founding fathers of modern Saudi Arabia and the fundamentalist Sunni preacher Sheikh Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab who rejected as innovation everything that had been introduced after the salaf.

To be sure, IS in its present reiteration, was not created by Saudi Arabia; it was forged in the wake of the US toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 by among others the disbandment of Saddam Hussein's army, whose senior officers were mostly Sunnis who already had Islamist networks; the insurgency and civil war between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis that continues to this day; and the morphing of Al-Qaeda in Iraq into ISIS, which was in turn energised by civil strife in Syria and evolved into IS.

These militant groups expanded and consolidated under the umbrella of IS, culminating in the singular act of declaring a caliphate that covers Iraq and the Levant (which includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria). IS challenges Saudi Arabia for the allegiance of Sunnis across the Middle East. The group’s ultimate objective is to set up the first major caliphate since the demise of the last caliph with the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire by Western imperial powers in the wake of the First World War. IS strives to spread Salafi-Islamic rule across the globe.

Conscious of the enormous political and strategic fallout from IS’ affinity with Saudi Arabia’s religious, social and moral system as well as other forms of association with IS (such as the use of Saudi secondary school books in Mosul, Iraq, after its capture by IS in 2014), the Saudi government has come to view the militants as a threat. It has over the years condemned militants led by Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

In response to the November 2015 bloody rampage in Paris, the Saudi rulers have called on the international community to "eradicate this (referring to IS) dangerous and destructive plague". Saudi Arabia clearly does not want the world to identify the kingdom’s puritan interpretation of Islam with IS and jihadism despite the fact that it has served as a breeding ground for ever more virulent strands of the faith.

That said, it was King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, whose mother was a descendant of Abdul Wahhab, who advocated modernity in the conservative kingdom while at the same time launching Wahhabism’s global proselytisation campaign on the back of the huge cash revenues earned in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo that sent oil prices skyrocketing. Some reasoned that Faisal's campaign was initially payback for the support of the ulama (religious scholars) in a protracted power struggle with his brother, King Saud that ultimately secured him the throne.

British author and religious scholar Karen Armstrong suggests that IS may have over-reached itself with its unsustainable policies and jihadist philosophy. A majority of Sunnis and Shias reject what IS stands for. Armstrong notes that Saudi Arabia, with its impressive counter-terrorist resources, has already thwarted IS attacks in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states nonetheless have made clear that dealing with IS does not top their priorities. The kingdom and its Gulf allies, bogged down in an intractable war in Yemen viewed by the Saudis as a proxy war against Iran, have effectively withdrawn militarily from the US-led campaign against IS.

The key to removing the challenge from IS has to be the realisation that the terror group’s appeal is not its alleged goal of an atavistic return to the glorious past of Islam, as Armstrong put it. Nor is Islam at the core of its multiple conflicts. The current appeal of IS is the opportunity it offers the socially, economically and ethnically disenfranchised to revolt and its ability with the help of technological advances to take the battle to historically new levels. Military defeat of IS will not soothe the anger of the disenfranchised. Addressing their concerns will.


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title. Mushahid Ali is a Senior Fellow in RSIS.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Soccer unites China and UAE in pursuing global ambitions

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak with Prime Minister David Cameron at an FA Cup final

By James M. Dorsey

A $400 million sale by a senior member of the UAE ruling family of a 13 percent stake in Manchester City FC to China Media Capital (CMC), a subsidiary of China Media Group Corporation (CMG), a state-backed investment conglomerate, highlights the importance of soccer in the two countries’ ambitions to project themselves on the international stage.

The sale, which values Manchester City at $3 billion, puts to bed any suggestion that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahayan’s original $400 million acquisition in 2008 of the then troubled English club was an act of vanity. It further underscores the UAE’s development from what Bloomberg news called the Switzerland of the Gulf to its military and diplomatic Sparta.

The sale is part of a bid to employ the UAE’s financial muscle to project the Gulf state despite its small population and loose federal structure as a major military, political and diplomatic power capable of marshalling its armed forces, foreign service and ruling family to shape politics and policies far beyond its borders. The sale also signals UAE intentions to further expand into China and cement relations with a global behemoth.

City Football Group (CFG), which owns clubs in New York and Melbourne alongside Manchester City, said in a statement that “the deal will create an unprecedented platform for the growth of City Football Group clubs and companies in China and internationally, borne out of CFG’s ability to provide a wealth of industry expertise and resources to the rapidly developing Chinese football industry.”

The deal puts into perspective Manchester City’s earlier decision to appoint its former player, Sun Jihai, as its ambassador to China and to include him in the hall of fame at Manchester’s National Football Museum, a move that initially raised eyebrows in the British soccer community.

China last year stressed the importance it attributes to soccer domestically as well as internationally with the unveiling of a 50-point plan to turn the country into a football giant. In a first step, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC won the Asian Football Championship.

The plan made soccer a mandatory part of China’s school curriculum, pledged to establish 50,000 soccer schools and multiple academies over the next decade, and to set up a soccer lottery that would help fund the sport’s development. The plan also envisions professionalization of the Chinese Football Association (CFA), by separating it from China’s ports bureaucracy but not from Chinese politics.

Taiwanese soccer scholar Tien-Chin Tan argues that Chinese leaders see their country’s poor soccer performance as a “slap in its leader’s face” against the backdrop on China being a top scorer in Olympic competitions.

The Chinese emphasis on soccer, alongside the hosting of mega events like various Olympic games, further reflects President Xi Jinping’s personal passion first expressed in 2011 during a meeting with South Korean officials even before he became his country’s leader. Mr. Xi said that his three personal ambition were for China to qualify for the World Cup, host the event and, ultimately win it.

The Manchester City deal follows the adding of Le Sports, a subsidiary of China’s largest online video company, LeTV, to the list of Dutch club AFC Ajax’s Chinese sponsors, which includes Huawei, Sengled, and CST. The agreement calls for the establishment of an Ajax training camp in China.

“Football is now at a fascinating and critical stage of development in China. We see unprecedented growth opportunities in both its development as an industry, being China’s most watched sport, and its inspirational role bringing people of all ages together with a shared passion,” said CMG chairman Li Ruigang. “We and our consortium partner CITIC Capital also see this investment as a prime opportunity for furthering the contribution of China to the global football family.”

The sale has significant economic benefits, including opening up to the UAE what is likely to become the world’s foremost soccer market involving opportunities to market its Manchester City and other brands in China, capitalize on opportunities arising from the country’s soccer development plan, and the English Premier League’s increasing popularity in China.

The degree to which soccer allows the UAE, which packages its repression of dissent at home and fierce opposition to any expression of political Islam that translates into pressuring other countries into adopting its hard line views, to exert leverage and project itself as a force of enlightenment is obvious in public statements by its representatives as well as media reports on its diplomatic moves.

The Guardian reported last month that Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, a close business associate of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, had warned the UK that his country would block multi-billion dollar arms deals, halt investment in Britain and suspend intelligence cooperation if Prime Minister David Cameron failed to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Success on the battlefield may be the easy part,” the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, said in an article in Foreign Policy, entitled ‘A Vision for a Moderate, Modern Muslim World. Mr. Al Otaiba was referring to the UAE’s military engagements, first and foremost among which Yemen in which some 50 Emirati soldiers have so far died. “

We know that to win, we must not only defeat what we are against, but we must also define what we as Muslims and Arabs are for,” Mr. Al Otaiba added.

He said that the UAE was “testing a new vision for the region — an alternative, future-oriented ideology. It is a path guided by the true tenets of Islam: respect, inclusion, and peace. It empowers women, embraces diversity, encourages innovation, and welcomes global engagement.”

In many respects, the UAE’s social and economic achievements as well as the projection of its military prowess in countries like Yemen and Libya is beyond doubt. Nonetheless, the UAE’s achievements are also geared to cementing autocratic family rule.

Soccer with Manchester City in the lead, alongside high expenditure on public relations, has allowed the ambitious Gulf state to project itself as a modern, enlightened state rather than a repressive, autocratic regime that understands that economic and social development coupled with the ability to punch internationally above its weight is key to the survival of its regime.

The sale to China of a stake in Manchester City strengthens the UAE’s strategy and adds an arrow to its quiver. It aligns the UAE’s global ambitions with those of China and strengthens perceptions of the UAE as a global player.

Ian Smith of Sports Integrity Matters underlined soccer’s importance to the UAE and other Gulf states when he noted that “nothing happens without there being a political overtone to it because of the nature in which these countries are governed.” Harnessing soccer for political interests, Mr. Smith said, stems both from the sport’s utility as well as a “pervasiveness (in the Gulf) that there is no matter that the government should not be involved in.”


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Qatar’s World Cup hero becomes invisible man (JMD quoted on AFP)

Qatar’s World Cup hero becomes invisible man

AFP/File / Fabrice Coffrini<br />Mohammed bin Hammam, pictured on May 29, 2011, has become Qatar's invisible man -- tainted by the scandal that has engulfed world football
AFP/File / Fabrice Coffrini
Mohammed bin Hammam, pictured on May 29, 2011, has become Qatar's invisible man -- tainted by the scandal that has engulfed world football

This should be a time of celebration for Mohamed bin Hammam, the man who achieved the impossible and brought the World Cup to Qatar.

Doha (AFP)
His beloved Al Rayyan football team have just set a Qatar Stars League record by winning their first 10 games of the season to dominate the standings.
And on Wednesday, five years will have passed since his spectacular achievement in persuading FIFA to award sport’s most watched event for the tiny desert Gulf state in one of the most controversial votes in sporting history.
But the 66-year-old tycoon has become Qatar’s invisible man — tainted by the scandal that has engulfed world football.
Since his spectacular fall began in 2011, when his decision to challenge Sepp Blatter for the FIFA presidency led to him being banned for life from football, bin Hammam has become a symbol of the corruption crisis which has rocked the world body.
Although he did not play an official role in Qatar’s bid, bin Hammam stands accused — though not proven — of helping to secure the World Cup through payments to officials, including more than $1.5 million to Caribbean powerbroker Jack Warner.
– Evidence wanted –
Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper alleged that the Qatari entrepreneur made secret payments ahead of the 2010 vote for the World Cup and, later to buy votes during his disastrous presidential campaign.
From being at the very centre of world football, including as head of the Asian Football Confederation, by the end of 2012 bin Hammam had disappeared without trace.
But his presence still casts a shadow over world football.
Earlier this month, Swiss investigators examining how Qatar won the race for 2022, said they would “particularly welcome” a statement from bin Hammam.
There was no public response.
Bin Hammam would like to talk, it is said, but he has been advised not to give his side of the story, at least not yet, according to sports officials in the region.
Despite the silence, bin Hammam’s presence is felt.
“It’s not that he’s been outcast, it’s just that it is in nobody’s interest that he is seen to be in contact with them,” James M. Dorsey, an academic and writer who follows Middle East football, told AFP.
It is believed however that bin Hammam retains the support of former colleagues within the football administration world, who remain on speaking terms with him.
Although he is no longer thought to travel outside Qatar, bin Hammam regularly attends Al Rayyan matches, though missed their record-breaking win at the weekend, and is still a successful businessman.
As well as being a football administrator, he is said to be genuinely passionate about the sport.
Bin Hammam — who was born in the year Qatar first exported oil — remains in the construction industry in which made his fortune.
He heads a construction business with some 2,000 employees and friends say he inspires great loyalty among those who work for him.
“Qatar will not hand him over (to investigators),” added Dorsey, acknowledging the debt many still feel is owed bin Hammam within the Gulf.
AFP/File / 
A general view taken on November 13, 2014 shows Khalifa Stadium in Doha which is undergoing complete renovation in preparation to host some of the matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
In Qatar, many still view him as a man who achieved the impossible and, like the country itself, has been unfairly tarnished in the fallout.
There is talk of his generosity and his gesture in meeting the medical costs for one employee who suffered a heart attack.
Other Qataris and officials in the region talk of his modesty, calm and even shyness.
Bin Hammam may have to overcome that last trait though, as he may well be forced centre stage again during the investigations into 2022, by Switzerland’s Attorney General and US federal prosecutors.
Qatar’s position on the investigations is that they have always cooperated fully, while denying any charges of corruption.
But any request from investigators for evidence from bin Hammam could test Qatar’s resolve.
“There’s obviously no interest in making more of a scapegoat than he already is, but circumstances can change,” added Dorsey.
“Qatar is not in the driving seat anymore, it has lost control of the issue.”
© 2015 AFP

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Qatari labour reforms: Words but no actions


By James M. Dorsey

Words but no actions. That is Amnesty International’s evaluation of promised Qatari labour reforms on the fifth year of the awarding of the 2022 World Cup hosting rights to the Gulf state.

Qatar’s failure to enact wide-ranging reforms heightens the risk of its hosting rights being called into question against a backdrop of legal investigations into the integrity of its bid and world soccer body FIFA presidential elections that could spur increased pressure on the Gulf state in FIFA’s bid to put a massive corruption scandal that involves Qatar behind it.

In a statement, Amnesty researcher Mustafa Qadri, asserted that “too little has been done to address rampant migrant labour abuse. Qatar’s persistent labour reform delays are a recipe for human rights disaster... Unless action is taken – and soon – then every football fan who visits Qatar in 2022 should ask themselves how they can be sure they are not benefiting from the blood, sweat and tears of migrant workers.”

Mr. Qadri noted further that FIFA had “played its part in this sorry performance” given that it was aware of the labour issues when it awarded the World Cup to FIFA. He said FIFA needed to work with Qatar and business to address the issue.

Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a frontrunner in next February’s presidential election, has warned that FIFA could revisit Qatar’s hosting rights if it failed to follow through on promises to improve the living and working conditions of migrant workers working on World Cup-related construction sites. He said human and workers’ rights were important criteria in the awarding of the tournament, which together with the Olympic Games is the world’s foremost sporting mega event.

“As an Asian, I am asking that they (Qatar) have to abide by that. I have seen suggestions from Qatar especially in terms of workers’ rights that they want to move ahead but FIFA has to guarantee that they do so. Because that is the basis of how we should be. Football can be a right conduit to serve the society and that for me is the most important thing,” Prince Ali said.

FIFA’s corruption scandal has so far led to the indictment in the United States of 14 serving and former FIFA executives as well as suspension of the group’s president, Sepp Blatter, and European soccer chief Michel Platini.

It has also sparked a Swiss investigation into the awarding in December 2010 of the tournament to Qatar and the 2018 World Cup to Russia. The US Department of Justice proceedings could be expanded to include the Qatari bid, which has been tarred by allegations of corruption and bribery.

Qatar initially built goodwill by responding positively to criticism by trade union and human rights activists who described its regime for migrant worker force that constitutes a majority of the Gulf state’s population as ‘modern slavery.’ Qatar’s kafala or sponsorship regime puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

The goodwill has since largely been wasted by Qatar failing to forcefully follow through on promised reforms. In a first positive fallout from the awarding of the tournament, Qatar broke with the Gulf practice of barring entry to the country or imprisoning its critics. Instead, it opened its doors to the likes of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

As a result, the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery& Legacy alongside Qatar Foundation and Qatar Rail adopted labour standards applicable for all their contracts that significantly improved workers’ living and working conditions but stopped short of abolishing the kafala system. That may help to assuage FIFA’s next president but will not convince Qatar’s critics who argue that the standards need to be enshrined in national law rather than only applicable to a limited number of Qatari institutions. It raises questions about Qatari sincerity and the value of engagement.

In its statement, Amnesty noted that Qatar has backtracked on promises to implement limit changes by the end of this year. Among other things, Qatar has postponed until the end of next year expanding its labour inspector force as well as limited changes of the kafala system. The changes moreover fail to abolish one of the most onerous facets of kafala, the need for an employee to obtain his or her employer’s consent to change jobs.

A series of related events have called into question the effectivity or the sustainability of the kafala system and cast a further shadow over how Qataris, who constitute a minority of the Gulf state’s population, approach communal affairs.

Qatar last month introduced a long delayed wage protection system that requires businesses to pay workers on time by direct bank deposits. Yet, several hundred employees of Drake & Scull in a rare work stoppage that is banned in Qatar went on strike last week in a dispute over unpaid wages.

Moreover, heavy rains that last month led to flooding, including of Qatar’s newly opened $15 billion Hamad International Airport, prompted an investigation into the quality of construction and a temporary ban on contractors and workers leaving the country.

Qatar appeared to be underlining de facto segregation in a move that cast a further shadow over its sincerity about labour reform with Doha’s Central Municipal Council set to vote on barring single men from entering malls on at least one day a week. Most of Qatar’s migrant workers arrive leaving their families behind in their home countries. Under the proposal, they would be unable to visit malls on the one day a week that they are off.

Malls are alongside sports facilities Qatar’s main venue for public relaxation and entertainment. In another facet of de facto segregation, those facilities are off limits to migrant workers. Qatari institutions that have adopted improved standards like the supreme committee are building separate sports facilities for workers in cities that are exclusively built for them.

"This looks like discrimination by stealth. It will certainly have a detrimental effect," warned Human Rights Watch Gulf researcher Nicholas McGeehan.

While Qatar’s national soccer team has recently performed well and invested heavily in grooming potential foreign players, Guardian reporter Robert Booth noted recently that the Gulf state has ignored a potentially significant talent pool in its own backyard: soccer-crazy migrant workers.
Qatar “should scout the migrant camps for football stars, make the best of these citizens and throw them into national sides. It would be a statement of intent,” Mr. Booth said.

The politics of its citizenry being a majority in its own country is what complicates labour reform that many Qatar’s fear would open a Pandora’s Box of foreigners demanding more rights that ultimately could threaten Qatari control of their culture, society, and state. Wasting goodwill and the calling into question of the sincerity of Qatar’s declared intentions threatens however to deprive the Gulf state of the time and space it needs to enact reforms its critics were willing to grant it.


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, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.