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


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

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


Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach: "James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport: “Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”
Play the Game: "Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal: "No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
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Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life:
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Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Saudi Prince Mohammed’s Achilles Heel: Misreading tea leaves in Washington

Source: Iroon
By James M. Dorsey

Emboldened by perceived White House support, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to have stepped up his risky, so far faltering effort to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.

The kingdom, despite Prime Minister Saad Hariri complicating Saudi efforts to curb the political and military power of Hezbollah, the country’s Shiite militia, by putting on hold his decision to resign, is signalling that it is looking beyond Lebanon to fulfil Prince Mohammed’s vow in May that the fight between the two rivals would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia

Speaking earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned that “any way you look at it, they (the Iranians) are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner. We are reacting to that aggression and saying, ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore.’”

Militant Iranian Arab nationalist exiles this week started broadcasting promos for an allegedly Saudi-funded satellite television station that would target Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan. It was the latest indication that Saudi Arabia was mulling an effort to undermine the government in Tehran by capitalizing on grievances among Iran’s ethnic minorities. Ahmad Mola Nissi, a 52-year old exile associated with the television, was mysteriously shot dead in The Hague earlier this month.

Pakistani militants in the province of Balochistan have reported a massive flow of Saudi funds in the last year to Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative groups while a Saudi thinktank believed to be supported by Prince Mohammed published a blueprint for support of the Baloch and called for “immediate counter measures” against Iran.

Prince Mohammed’s track record in confronting Iran more aggressively is at best mixed. The kingdom’s 2.5-year old intervention in Yemen has driven Iran and the Houthis closer together and raised the spectre of the rebels organizing themselves on Saudi Arabia’s border with Hezbollah as their model.

Saudi backing of Syrian rebels failed to turn the tables on President Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian ally, while the kingdom reversed its 13-year boycott of Iraq in a bid to counter Iranian influence through engagement with Baghdad.

In Lebanon, the odds are against Hezbollah bowing to pressure that it disarm and halt its military involvement beyond the country’s borders even if the group appeared to want to avert a crisis by announcing that it was withdrawing forces from Syria and Iraq. Hezbollah also denied that it was supplying weapons to the Houthis, including a ballistic missile fired at the airport of the Saudi capital Riyadh earlier this month.

“So far, the Iranians have effectively won in Lebanon, are winning in Syria and Iraq, and are bleeding the Saudis in Yemen… There is precious little evidence to suggest that the Saudis have learned from their earlier failures and are now able to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East,” said researcher and Jerusalem Post columnist Jonathan Spyer.

If Prince Salman’s apparent strategy and track records risks escalating regional tensions and raising questions about Saudi Arabia’s ability to successfully confront Iran, it also may be based on a misreading of the dynamics of US policymaking.

Prince Salman appears to believe that he can ignore signals from the State Department, Pentagon and members of Congress, who have been counselling greater caution, as long as he is backed by US President Donald J. Trump and Jared Kushner, a senior advisor and the president’s son-in-law. The Saudi crown prince appears to be reinforced in this belief by his United Arab Emirates counterpart, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, with whom he coordinates closely.

The evolution of the US approach to the six-month old UAE-Saudi-led boycott of Qatar suggests a complexity of policy making in Washington that both princes have so far failed to take into account or effectively address.

Al-Monitor Washington correspondent Laura Rozen reported that UAE ambassador Youssef al-Otaiba in June called then-US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones in the middle of the night to give him advance notice of the boycott. “What are you guys doing? This is crazy,” Mr. Jones told the ambassador. To which Mr. Otaiba responded: “‘Have you spoken to the White House?’”

Despite Mr. Trump's expressed support for the Saudi UAE position involving a refusal to negotiate or lift the boycott unless Qatar accepts demands that would compromise its ability to chart its own course, US policy administered by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ has pushed for a negotiated resolution – a position far closer to that of Qatar.

Speaking at conference in the UAE, Republican lobbyist Ed Rogers urged Gulf countries to broaden their outreach in Washington from one narrowly focused on Mr. Trump’s White House to other branches of government as well Democrats in Congress. “I made the point that lobbying efforts and Washington should not ignore the Democrats in Congress and that they may be coming back in one house or another in 2018,” Mr. Rogers told Al-Monitor.

The US House of Representatives last week, in an indication of the risk of relying exclusively on the White House, set the stage for a debate of US military support for Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated Yemen by overwhelmingly adopting a non-binding resolution that recognized that the aid was being provided without Congressional authorization. The resolution noted that Congress had exclusively authorized operations against jihadist militants in Yemen, not against domestic rebel groups like the Houthis.

The Saudi and UAE reading of the lay of the land in the US capital and singular reliance on the White House is somewhat surprising given that both Mr. Al-Otaiba and Mr. Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, have a track record as savvy Washington operators, and the fact that a host of public relations and lobby firms are paid hefty fees to advise the kingdom.

Widely viewed as one of the most well-connected and influential foreign diplomats in Washington, Mr. Al Otaiba has been ambassador to the United States for almost a decade. Educated in the US, Mr. Al-Jubeir served in the kingdom’s Washington embassy, and years later became ambassador to the US before being appointed foreign minister.

The Saudi and UAE focus on the White House is rooted in Prince Salman’s efforts, dating back to his initial rise in early 2015, two years before Mr. Trump came to office, to counter President Barak Obama’s policy of reducing US engagement in the Middle East.

“The United States must realise that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” Prince Mohammed told The Economist in early 2016. He suggested that the sooner the US re-engages the better. Reengagement meant to the Saudi leader, aggressive US support for the kingdom’s efforts to shape the Middle East and North Africa in its image.

Mr. Trump’s policy priorities in the region, including confronting Iran, fighting extremism, and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a bid to open the door to overt Israeli-Saudi cooperation, stroked with those of the crown prince. Those goals are shared in Washington beyond the White House, but many in the administration and Congress worry that Prince Mohammed’s way of achieving them may either backfire or be counterproductive.

In a sign of concern, the State Department this week cautioned Americans travelling to Saudi Arabia. In a statement, it warned “US citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Saudi Arabia due to continuing threats from terrorist groups and the threat of ballistic missile attacks on civilian targets by rebel forces in Yemen.”

Salman Al-Ansari, the head of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), advised Saudi Arabia, days after Mr. Trump was inaugurated, to reach out to different segments of American society in what he described as the kingdom’s real battle.

“One of Saudi Arabia’s glaring weak points is public diplomacy, especially with regards to communicating its economic and national security concerns to the American public. The Kingdom’s media efforts remain woefully behind where it needs to be… In an age where information is disseminated so rapidly, the Kingdom has no excuse but to reach out to the American people,” Mr. Al-Ansari said.


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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

FIFA on Trial: Qatar’s World Cup back in the firing line


By James M. Dorsey

Testimony of a star witness in a New York courtroom has revealed new allegations of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful bid for the 2022 World Cup hosting rights.

The allegations by Alejandro Burzaco, the former head of Argentine sports marketing company Torneos y Competencias, are likely to revive partially politically-motivated calls for Qatar to be stripped of its rights.

Lurking in the background of the Mr. Burzaco’s allegations is, however, the little discussed issue of the nexus of sports and politics that underlies and enables massive financial and performance corruption in sports.

Indicted on corruption-related charges, Mr. Burzaco, who has agreed to a plea bargain, pleaded guilty and is expected to be sentenced next May.

Mr. Burzaco is one of more than 40 officials, business executives and entities that have been indicted in the United States since Swiss police accompanied by FBI agents in 2015 raided a hotel in Zurich where senior FIFA members were gathered for a congress of the world soccer body.

Mr. Burzaco asserted that the first three defendants to stand trial in the warren of FIFA-related cases – former South American soccer confederation CONMEBOL president Juan Angel Napout and past heads of the Brazilian and Peruvian soccer federations, Juan Maria Marin and Manuel Burga – were among several senior Latin American soccer officials who had been paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes for their votes in favour of the Qatari World Cup.

Qatar’s sports-related financial dealings are under scrutiny on several fronts. In a separate investigation, Swiss prosecutors last month opened criminal proceedings against Qatari national Nasser al-Khelaifi, the chief executive of beIN Media Group, the Qatari state-owned Al Jazeera television network’s sports franchise, and chairman of French soccer club Paris St-Germain.

The proceedings involve Mr. Al-Khelaifi allegedly having bribed disgraced former FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke to ensure that beIN was awarded the broadcasting rights for the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.

Qatar as well as Mr. Al-Khelaifi have consistently denied any wrongdoing. A renewal of the debate about withdrawing the Gulf state’s hosting rights comes, however, as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are campaigning to have it stripped of its rights as part of their almost six-month old diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

Qatar this week urged the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar to allow their nationals to attend the World Cup despite the travel ban they imposed as part of their boycott. “We separate politics from sports,” said Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general at Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, ignoring the fact that Qatar’s sports strategy is a key part of its soft power policy.

A top UAE security official, Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan, suggested last month that the only way to resolve the Gulf crisis would be for Qatar to surrender of its World Cup hosting rights. "If the World Cup leaves Qatar, Qatar's crisis will be over ... because the crisis is created to get away from it," Lt. Gen. Khalfan said.

Leaked documents from an email account of Youssef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, revealed a UAE plan to undermine Qatar’s currency by manipulating the value of bonds and derivatives. If successfully executed, the plan would have allowed Qatar’s distractors to argue that the Gulf state’s financial problems called into question its ability to organize the World Cup.

The plan was the latest instalment in a covert UAE-Qatari media and soccer war since Qatar won its hosting rights in 2010.

The intrinsically political nature of the debate about Qatar and the politics that drove alleged financial corruption of the Gulf state’s bid complicate any discussion of what to do if Qatari wrongdoing were legally proven.

It distracts from the fact that Qatar, whose bid has been at the core of multiple scandals in global and regional soccer governance, happens to be in the hot seat at a time that often politically-driven, widespread corruption in past World Cups is becoming ever more evident. In other words, what Qatar stands accused of was common practice even if Qatar was willing to do it on a much larger scale.

The issue of Qatar’s World Cup raises a host of questions that if addressed could contribute to a fundamentally cleaner governance of the sport. No issue is more fundamental than the question of the relationship between a sports and politics.

It is a relationship that sports executives, politicians and government officials deny despite the fact that it is public and recognizable. The relationship has asserted itself repeatedly in recent months with decisions on referees made on political rather than professional grounds as well as FIFA’s refusal to apply its own rules in differences between Palestinians and Israelis under the mum of a separation of sports and politics.  

The denial has long served as cover for sports executives, politicians and officials do whatever they want. In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events, FIFA president Gianni Infantino in June rejected involving the group in the Gulf crisis by saying that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics."

Yet, on the same day that he made his statement, Mr. Infantino waded into the Gulf crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors.

A demand last week by the Egyptian Football Federation (EFA) to disbar a Qatari from refereeing Egyptian and Saudi matches during next year’s World Cup in Russia puts FIFA in a position in which it will have to decide to either opt for professionalism over politics or also disbar game officials from Qatar’s distractors– Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – who have likewise been appointed for the tournament from refereeing politically sensitive matches.

FIFA’s tying itself up in knots in response to the Gulf crisis like the politics underlying corruption charges in New York cries out for putting the inextricable relationship between sports and politics on the table and developing ways to govern a relationship that is a fact of life. Legal proceedings in New York may force FIFA to clean up part of its act, they won’t resolve the underlying structural problem.


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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Transition in the Middle East: Transition to what?

Source: Iran Review

By James M. Dorsey

Transition is the name of the game in the Middle East and North Africa. The question is transition to what?

Dominating the answer is an Arab autocratic push for a Saudi-led regional order that would be based on an upgraded 21st century version of autocracy designed to fortify absolute rule. To achieve that autocrats have embraced economic reform accompanied by necessary social change that would allow them to efficiently deliver public goods and services. It is an approach that rejects recognition of basic freedoms and political rights and is likely to produce more open and inclusive political systems that ensure that all segments of society have a stake.

At the core of the volatile and often brutal and bloody battle that could take up to a quarter of a century to play out is the determination of Arab autocrats to guarantee their survival at whatever cost. Geopolitics play a major role in Arabic autocratic ambition. To compensate for their inherent weakness and lack of the building blocks needed for sustainable regional dominance, Arab autocrats except for Egypt, the one Arab state with the potential of being a dominant, long-term regional player, need to contain first and foremost Iran, and to a lesser degree Turkey.

It is a geopolitical struggle, dominated by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that has enveloped the Middle East and North Africa for almost four decades and progressively undermined regional stability; fuelled the rise of extremism and jihadism; encouraged supremacist, intolerant and anti-pluralistic tendencies far beyond its borders in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia; and turned it into the most volatile, repressive, and bloody part of the world.

Littered with the bodies of the dead and the dying, countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen have been scarred for generations to come and are struggling to ensure territorial integrity against potential secessionist ethnic, regional and religious challenges. Possible US-backed Saudi efforts to destabilize Iran with attempts to stir ethnic unrest risk the Islamic republic and Pakistan becoming the next victims. Countries such as Lebanon teeter on the brink.

Restive populations meanwhile hang in the balance, hoping that their continued surrender of political rights in new social contracts unilaterally drafted by autocratic leaders will bring them greater economic opportunity. In some countries like Egypt expectations have been dashed, in others such as Saudi Arabia expectations are unrealistic and poorly, if at all, managed.

The successful and brutal Saudi and UAE-led counterrevolution has killed hopes and popular energy that exploded onto the streets of the Arab cities during the revolts of 2011 and produced tyrants and mayhem. For now, it has all but erased popular will to risk challenging autocratic rule that has failed to deliver or that has created expectations that may prove difficult to meet.

That is not to say that like in the period prior to the 2011 revolts, popular anger and frustration is not simmering. Like in the walk-up to the uprisings, popular sentiment remains ignored or unrecognized by officials, scholars and pundits, who, if it explodes are likely to be caught by surprise. No one knows whether it will explode and, if so, in what form and what might spark an explosion.

It was the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in Tunisia in late 2010 that set the Middle East and North Africa alight. While history may not repeat itself literally, events six years later in the Rif, a rebellious region of northern Morocco, sparked by the death of Mouchine Frikri, an unemployed street merchant, suggest the writing may be on the wall.  

Mr. Fikri was crushed to death in a trash compactor while trying to retrieve fish confiscated by the authorities. A year of protests since Mr. Fikri’s death suggests that the effectiveness of King Mohammed VI’s constitutional reforms in an initially successful bid to co-opt the demonstrators as well his support for the Rif’s indigenous Berber culture and promises of state investment that would turn the region into a manufacturing hub have either run their course or fallen short.

Nasser Zefzafi, a 39-year-old unemployed man with an understanding of the power of social media, has despite the government’s use of security forces, succeeded with online videos and fiery speeches denouncing corruption and dictatorship, to not only keep the protests alive but also encourage their intermittent spread to other parts of the country. The Moroccan capital of Rabat witnessed in June its largest anti-government protest since the 2011 revolts.

“Regimes have closed off channels for political expression, and responded to popular protests with increasing brutality. The governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, to some extent, Morocco, epitomize Arab regimes’ seeming inability to escape the autocracy trap – even as current circumstances suggest that another popular awakening is imminent,” said Moroccan-born former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Mr. Ben-Ami’s timeline may be optimistic, but the underlying message remains valid. Regime survival-driven, government-controlled economic reform that seeks to ensure that private enterprise remains dependent on the public sector, limited social reforms, exclusionary rather than inclusionary policies, and rejection of political change may buy time, but ultimately will not do the trick.

Autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa are, for now, riding high buffeted by the ability to divert public attention with promises of economic change, the spectre of Iran as a foreign threat, US support for regional autocrats and containment of Iran, and the fuelling of ethnic and sectarian tension.

At best, that buys Arab autocrats time. The risk is festering and new wounds that are likely to come to haunt them. Four decades of global Saudi propagation of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservativism to counter what initially was Iranian revolutionary zeal but later transformed into Iranian strategy in a long-standing covert war has turned Arab Shiites and their militias into potent political and military forces. The spectre of the Houthis organizing themselves on the border of Saudi Arabia on the model of Lebanon’s Hezbollah is but the latest example.

Autocratic self-preservation and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, coupled with disastrous US policies, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have wracked countries across the region and fostered a generation of Syrians and Yemenis that is likely to be consumed by anger and frustration with their human suffering and what is likely to be a slow rebuilding of their shattered countries, whose existence in their current form and borders is at best uncertain.

In short, transition, in the Middle East and North Africa has deteriorated into a battle for retention of political control. It constitutes a struggle for the future of a region that with near certainty will produce more conflict as well as black swans that could create even more havoc long before it yields sustainable solutions that ensure equitable economic development and transparent and accountable rule of law.


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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Saudi-UAE push to mobilize tribes against Qatari emir


By James M. Dorsey

Nearly six months into the Gulf crisis, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are attempting to mobilize tribal opposition as well as little known members of one branch of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family in a bid to weaken, if not topple, Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The attempt, suggesting anything from constituting a dig at Sheikh Tamim’s popularity to thinking in some quarters about possible regime change in Qatar, comes against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s failure to garner international support for their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The international community has responded to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s insistence that Qatar accept humiliating demands that would effectively curtail its independence with calls for a negotiated resolution. Qatar has said it wants direct talks with its detractors but would not compromise its sovereignty. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have insisted they would not use force to resolve the crisis.

Speaking in Washington in advance of talks this week with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and members of Congress, Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani, said his country was “well-prepared” for any military attempt to remove Sheikh Tamim from office. Sheikh Mohammed asserted that Qatar could count on the support of France, Turkey, Britain and the US. Qatar hosts the largest US base in the Middle East

“We have enough friends in order to stop them from taking these steps,” but “there is a pattern of unpredictability in their behaviour, so we have to keep all the options on the table for us,” Sheikh Mohammed said.

State-controlled media in the Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two countries leading an alliance of financially dependent states that in June declared their boycott of Qatar, have promoted in recent weeks Sheikh Sultan Bin Suhaim al-Thani, a 33-year old son of former emir Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Thani.

Initially, the media spotlighted a relative of Sheikh Sultan, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al-Thani, who lives in Saudi Arabia, but more recently has focused attention on his nephew. Saudi and UAE media toted the two men as influential members of Qatar’s ruling family capable of solving the Gulf rift.

Resident in Paris, Sheikh Sultan is believed to have business interests in the kingdom. Sheikh Sultan’s SST Holdings was last year awarded an $8.8 billion contract for a 1.4 million square metre real estate development in Riyadh that would include a shopping centre as well as mosques, hotels, exhibition halls and artificial lakes.

Qatari authorities reportedly raided Sheikh Sultan’s Doha home in October, confiscating his father’s archive. At almost the same time, they froze Sheikh Abdullah’s assets in the Gulf state.
Sheikh Khalifa was deposed in 1995 by his son and the father of Sheikh Tamim, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who abdicated in 2013.

The Al Arabiya television network, in what appears to be a broadening of the Saudi-UAE effort, this week showed video of Sheikh Sultan addressing thousands of members of the Bani Hajer branch of the Qahtan tribe gathered in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Members of the tribe live primarily in the kingdom, but also in Qatar. Tribal members responded with seemingly lukewarm applause to Sheikh Sultan’s call for a purge in his home country and his urging of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to ensure that Qatar does not become a safe haven for militants and corruption.

The broadcast was part of a Gulf media war that is pockmarked on both sides of the divide by inaccurate and sensational reporting that often is little more than blatant propaganda. The Gulf crisis was sparked by false news reports that attributed provocative statements to Sheikh Tamim that he apparently never made. US intelligence concluded that the fake reports had been orchestrated by the UAE.

Al-Arabiya founder and co-owner Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of the late Saudi King Fahd, is among prominent businessmen, princes and officials who were detained earlier this month in Prince Mohammed’s sweeping power grab under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign.

Sheikh Taleb bin Lahem bin Shraim, the head of the Qatari branch of another tribe, the Al Ghafran, fled to Saudi Arabia in September after Qatar stripped him and 54 of his relatives of their Qatari citizenship. Sheikh Taleb said he had been penalized for refusing “to insult the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Sheikh Taleb was one of several Al Ghafran tribal leaders who met with Prince Mohammed in early September. Sheikh Sultan al-Murri, who attended the meeting in Jeddah convened at the request of the tribal leaders, accused Qatar of resorting to “lies and attempts to distort the tribes of Qatar in order to tear up the tribal social fabric in favour of the minority of Iranians.” Qatar has a minority of Shiites and Qatari nationals of Iranian descent.

Relations between Qatar and the Al Ghafran have long been strained. Qatar revoked the citizenship of the entire Al Ghafran clan, some 5-6000 people, after ten of its leaders were accused of plotting a coup in cooperation with Saudi Arabia in 1996. More members of the tribe have lost their Qatari nationality since 2004.

Many have since won a reprieve, but thousands remain in limbo, according to Misfer al-Marri, a tribe member who lives in exile in Scotland. Signalling its support for the clan, than Saudi Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud met in 2010 with the coup plotters after their release from Qatari prison.

For now, the promotion of opponents of Sheikh Tamim appears to be more of a public relations stunt and fixture of the media war than a serious challenge in a country that has witnessed a wave of nationalist sentiment in response to the boycott. Yet, the longer the Gulf crisis drags on and the longer Qatar sustains its refusal to accept Saudi and UAE demands, the more difficult it becomes to find a way out in which all parties can save face.


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

Friday, November 17, 2017

Did they or didn’t they? The battle for control of Brussels’ Grand Mosque


By James M. Dorsey

It’s hard to prove beyond doubt a direct causal link between militancy and Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative forms of Sunni Muslim Islam. That hasn’t stopped the Belgium’s parliament from attempting to wrest control from Saudi Arabia of Brussel’s downtown Grand Mosque after three years in which Belgians played a prominent role in Islamic State attacks in the Belgian capital as well as Paris.

At first glance, the battle for the mosque, Europe’s largest and most influential Saudi-funded institution that in 1969 was leased to the kingdom rent-free for 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin in a gesture of friendship, constitutes an attempt to counter militant Islamic ideology. It raises nonetheless prickly issues.

Breaking the contract would amount to equating various strands of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism with militancy and political violence – a tenuous assertion given that it propagates Muslim supremacy but in a majority of its expressions rejects violence and often refuses engagement in politics.

That is not to say that militants and ultra-conservatives do not draw on the same textual sources, deny that some militants hail from ultra-conservative backgrounds, or ignore the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism has fuelled intolerance and greater conservatism in countries like Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Belgium boasted the highest number of Islamic State foreign fighters per capita of the population.

Breaking the contract would also put the Belgian government in the awkward position of determining what constitutes good or bad Islam, raising questions of whether that is the role of a democratic administration, and potentially compromising the separation of church and state as well as freedom of religion and expression.

A Belgian move to break the contract, which could take up to a year to complete, would create a precedent in Europe and beyond that the kingdom may not welcome, despite a vow earlier this month by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to move Saudi Arabia, that adheres to Wahhabism, an 18th century puritan and literal interpretation of Islam, to an undefined, more moderate form of the faith.

Some analysts suggest that a Belgian move would strengthen his efforts to curb the power of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment derived from a power-sharing agreement with the ruling Al Saud family that dates to the founding of Saudi Arabia. Ultra-conservative religious leaders have bent over backwards to endorse Prince Mohammed’s reforms and the rollback of their powers, despite evidence that they have misgivings.

The battle for control of the mosque also has implications for escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and its arch rival, Iran. The Brussels mosque is operated and funded to the tune of $1.2 million a year by the World Muslim League, a government-sponsored group, that for decades served as a prime vehicle for the propagation of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism.

The League, whose staff was believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, was a major beneficiary of up to $100 billion that Saudi Arabia invested globally over the last 40 years in religious and educational facilities as well as groups that often adhered to ant-Shiite, and by implication, if not explicitly, anti-Iranian positions.

The League’s secretary general, Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, has in the last year sought to project the group as “a global umbrella for Islamic people that promotes the principles and values of peace, forgiveness, co-existence, and humanitarian cooperation” by organizing inter-faith conferences and meeting the Pope.

On a visit to Brussels earlier this year, Mr. Al-Issa denied that Saudi Arabia had funded extremism and sectarianism. "Islam is a 1,400-years old religion. It cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect," Mr. Al-Issa told a conference in the European parliament on Islam and Islamophobia

Mr. Al-Issa has also positioned the League squarely behind Prince Mohammed by backing the Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar and allegations that the Gulf state supports extremism.

report by the conservative Henry Jackson Society charged in July that  Saudi Arabia was the primary funder of extremism in Britain as well as elsewhere. It said the kingdom “since the 1960s has sponsored a multimillion dollar effort to export Wahhabi Islam across the Islamic world, including to Muslim communities in the West.”

A prominent Indonesian scholar, wittingly or unwittingly, lent justification to the Belgian move rooted in calls for the furthering of a more tolerant, pluralistic, European version of Islam by unequivocally linking ultra-conservatism to extremism.

“There is a clear relationship between fundamentalism, terrorism, and the basic assumptions of Islamic orthodoxy. So long as we lack consensus regarding this matter, we cannot gain victory over fundamentalist violence within Islam,” said Yahya Cholil Staquf, the 51-year old general secretary of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

NU, one of the world’s largest Muslim movements that was founded almost a century ago in Indonesia in opposition to Wahhabism, but includes prominent figures who espouse Saudi-style anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian attitudes.

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative who as a young officer lived across the street from the Brussels mosque, described it as “not a house of worship, but a museum to teach Belgians about Islam and the Middle East.”

The mosque is a mere 16 kilometres from Molenbeek, Belgium’s second poorest neighbourhood, that emerged as a hotbed of militancy, with many of the Belgian perpetrators of attacks in recent years in Paris and Brussels hailing from the area. At least two Belgians, who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State, studied Islam at the mosque, according to Belgian intelligence.

A Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed, advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Saudi-inspired "Salafist sentiments are solidly anchored in the minds of Muslims in the Belgian capital. Belgian authorities have been playing with fire for 30 years," said Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism. Mr. Privot estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith…. Discrimination in housing and employment has produced clear lower-class ‘ghetto’ areas of greater Brussels, such as Molenbeek, Schaerbeek and St. Josse, disproportionately inhabited by Muslims regardless of their education and income.” 

The cable noted that “according to the OECD (Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development), unemployment among foreign-born residents is twice that of indigenous Belgians...  Saudi Arabia continues as a source of material support to the Islamic community.  A member of the Muslim Executive told us that the Saudi embassy keeps mosques furnished with Korans and help with such material needs as mosque upkeep and repair,” the cable said, referring to the Belgian Muslim community’s umbrella organization.

Controversy over the Brussels mosque has simmered for several years. In 2015, the Belgian government advised Saudi ambassador Abdullah bin Yahya Almoa'limi that it had problems with the mosque’s director, Khalid Alabri, who was also on the embassy staff.

"His sermons were Salafist, anti-Israel and anti-West. The guiding principle was the primacy of Salafism above all else," a worshipper told Belgian television and radio station RTBF. Mr. Alabri was quietly removed from his post.

In the latest round, Belgium is effectively expelling the mosque’s recently resigned imam, Abdelhadi Sewif, an Egyptian national, by refusing to extend his residency permit because he used his 13-year tenure to espouse Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative.

Mr. Sewif "is a dangerous man to the national security of our country," said Belgian state secretary for asylum and migration Theo Francken in a RTBF interview. Mr. Al-Issa, the World Muslim league head, denied the allegations, noting that investigations of the mosque had cleared it of wrongdoing.

The League, in a bid to counter criticism of the mosque returned its Saudi director, Jamal Saleh Momenah, to the kingdom, and replaced him with Tamer Abou el Saod, a Luxemburg consultant who has Swedish nationality. Mr Momenah, who like Mr. Alabri, enjoyed diplomatic status, was removed after deputies walked away from his parliamentary testimony in Arabic in March convinced that it would be impossible to work with him.

“You can’t build an inclusive society with someone like that. This is an enemy of our Western values. He doesn’t even know the European Treaty on Human Rights,” said Flemish nationalist member of parliament, Christoph D’Haese.

Mr. Sewif was succeeded by Ndiaye Mouhameth Galaye, a Senegalese national who teaches a more liberal interpretation of Islam but has yet to convince parliamentarians that he will take the mosque in a different direction.

In an apparent underestimation of Belgian sentiment and the kingdom’s tarnished reputation, Saudi Islamic affairs minister Ibrahim Al-Zaid this week offered Belgian deputy foreign minister Dirk Achten to train Belgian imams. A “hypocritical suggestion,” quipped a Belgian news website.


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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s return to Lebanon: A moment of truth


By James M. Dorsey

The proof will be in the pudding when Prime Minister Saad Hariri returns home in the coming days to a country in which friend and foe have rallied around him and he clarifies whether he intends to follow through on his controversial decision to resign.

Few in Lebanon and beyond believe that Mr. Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen whose family company in the kingdom declared bankruptcy earlier this year in one of the first casualties of Saudi Arabia’s fiscal crisis, voluntarily stepped down on November 4 while on a visit to Riyadh.

Mr. Hariri’s subsequent interview on his own Lebanese television station did little to erase suspicion that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman forced him to resign in an opening bid to counter Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia that constitutes one of Lebanon’s most formidable political forces. Mr. Hariri warned that Saudi Arabia and its allies could ride roughshod on Lebanon’s economy by imposing sanctions and expelling hundreds of thousands of Lebanese employed in the kingdom.

The fact that Mr. Hariri announced that he would leave his wife and children in the kingdom when he returns to Beirut will reinforce suspicion of Saudi arm twisting should he, once back in the Lebanese capital, move forward with his resignation.

Further calling into question Mr. Hariri’s independence, were reports that Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the head of late King Abdullah’s court, who was among scores of princes, officials and businessmen arrested earlier this month on corruption charges in a sweeping purge, had illicitly paid the Hariri family company $9 billion.

Rumours that Prince Mohammed’s leverage over Mr. Hariri involves the prime minister potentially been sucked into the crown prince’s power grab, executed under the mum of an anti-corruption campaign, were reinforced by the fact that the fate of one of Mr. Hariri’s closest Saudi business associates, Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, remains unclear.

A son of late King Fahd, whose immediate relatives were one target group in this month’s selective of purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials and prominent businessmen, Prince Abdul Aziz was first reported to have been put under house arrest during a crackdown in September when scores of Islamic scholars, judges and activists were arrested. It remains unclear whether he is still under house arrest or has been transferred to Riyadh’s gilded prison in the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

Lebanon’s foremost Sunni politician, Mr. Hariri was widely credited with keeping the government. in which Hezbollah is represented, together, and ensuring that the country remained on the side lines of the Syrian war despite Hezbollah fighting alongside Syrian government forces and more than a million Syrian refugees spilling into the country.

Mr. Hariri announced his resignation a day after meeting in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Hariri’s office said the prime minister had urged Iran to halt its support of the Houthis as a first step towards ending the war in Yemen. Mr. Hariri denied Mr. Velayati’s assertion that the prime minister had offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In his resignation speech on Saudi television, Mr. Hariri uncharacteristically dropped his effort to maintain a modicum of unity in Lebanon by echoing Saudi allegations that Iran and its surrogate, Hezbollah, were attempting sow unrest and instability in the Arab world.

Mr. Hariri may well have been caught in a Catch-22 with Saudi Arabia and more hard-line Lebanese Sunnis demanding that he take a firmer stand towards Hezbollah and the militia and other Shiite groups insisting that Lebanon normalize relations with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Lebanon minimized contact with Mr. Al-Assad as part of its effort to disassociate itself from the conflict in Syria.

Reporting from the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, one of the country’s poorest urban centres that is home to both Sunnis and Shiites, journalist Sunniva Rose described how some hard liners, supporters of former justice minister Ashraf Rifi, who resigned earlier this year in protest against Hezbollah’s domination of politics, were putting up posters with portraits of Mr. Rifi and Prince Mohammed.

The risks for the Lebanese is that they will pay the price for Saudi efforts to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East that is being fought on their backs. Saudi Arabia exploited Mr. Hariri’s resignation with Gulf affairs minister Thamer al-Sabhan declaring two days later that the Lebanese government would “be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia” because of Hezbollah.

Mr. Al-Sabhan warned that “there are those who will stop (Hezbollah) and make it return to the caves of South Lebanon”, the heartland of Lebanon’s Shia community. “Lebanese must all know these risks and work to fix matters before they reach the point of no return,” Mr. Al-Sabhan went on to say.

Prince Mohammed, in a gesture, towards Lebanese Christians and an effort to project the kingdom’s transition to what he described as an undefined form of moderate Islam, received Lebanon’s Maronite Christian Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rai this week. The patriarch met separately with Mr. Hariri.

Sporting a big cross on his chest in a country that bans expressions of non-Muslim religions, Patriarch Al Rai’s visit constituted a rare occasion on which the kingdom welcomed a non-Muslim religious dignitary. He was the first Lebanese public figure to visit Saudi Arabia since Mr. Hariri’s resignation.

Lebanon’s political elite, including the prime minister’s Future Movement and Hezbollah, beyond rallying around Mr. Hariri, has called for calm and sought to ensure that the political crisis does not destabilize the country further, or even worse, constitute a prelude to its descent into renewed sectarian strife.  

The elite as well as many ordinary Lebanese fear that their country has become the latest pawn in a Saudi-Iranian proxy war that has primarily been at the expense of others. Saudi efforts to counter Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle sparked the kingdom’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen with devastating humanitarian consequences. Iranian and Saudi intervention in Syria alongside many others aggravated the bloodshed in a brutal six-year long civil war.

Mr. Hariri’s risky resignation constitutes a Saudi-inspired bid to deprive Iranian influence of the legitimacy conveyed upon it by being part of the Lebanese government.

Speaking in Paris, Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil insisted that “Lebanon would like for its decisions to be taken freely. Lebanon creates its internal and foreign policy with the will of its people and its leaders who are elected by the people…. Once Hariri is back in Lebanon he can take any decision he sees as right and possible.”


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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Arab media: Saudi purge promises tighter control

Prince Alwaleed at Al Arab

By James M. Dorsey

Long-standing Saudi efforts to dominate the pan-Arab media landscape appear to have moved into high gear with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s purge that targeted members of the ruling Al Saud family as well as prominent businessmen, including at least two media moguls. The purge could also signal an escalation of the Saudi-Qatari media war.

Among those detained was Waleed al-Ibrahim, a founder of Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) that operates the Al Arabiya television network, established to counter Qatar’s state-owned Al Jazeera, and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, whose Rotana Group has partnered with media baron Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Saudi Arabia’s quest for media dominance dates back to the founding of MBC in 1991 as well as two pan-Arab newspapers, As Sharq Al Awsat and Al Hayat. Qatar not only challenged Saudi dominance with the creation of Al Jazeera in 1996, but also revolutionized the region’s media landscape with its freewheeling, often highly opinionated reporting and programming.

Al Jazeera’s success was one reason why a UAE-Saudi alliance that in June declared a diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state included the shuttering of the network among its core demands. Al Jazeera English that in contrast to Al Jazeera Arabic largely adheres to standards of independent reporting, stands out in a tightly state-controlled media landscape in which many outlets have lost a degree of credibility by projecting themselves as partisans in a media war rather than purveyors of the truth.

The detentions of Mr. Al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of late King Fahd, and Prince Alwaleed, a nephew of King Salman, have sparked speculation that Prince Mohammed wants control of all the kingdom’s major media assets even though those that were held by individuals rather than the state toed the government line in their news broadcasting.

“The prospect of bringing the giants of Saudi and Arab media under unified government control is worrying. It raises concern that the diversity of opinion and coverage will be further curtailed. Mohammed bin Salman is clearly intent on controlling the message as he conducts a dramatic restructuring of the Saudi state and economy,” Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, told the Financial Times.

Mr. Al-Ibrahim and Prince Alwaleed’s media outlets could well change hands as part of Prince Mohammed’s intention to confiscate assets worth $800 billion under the mum of his anti-corruption campaign. With a large portion of the assets of those detained in the purge difficult to access because they are parked outside of the kingdom, media assets take on added significance.

An anti-corruption commission established hours before the purge was empowered by decree with “returning funds to the state’s public treasury (and) registering the assets and funds as state property.”
The fact that the two moguls’ major media assets are based in Dubai may make a possible takeover easier. Regulators in the United Arab Emirates have asked UAE banks for information about those detained in Prince Mohammed’s purge in what bankers said was a likely prelude to freezing their accounts.

Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, noted that Prince Mohammed "needs cash to fund the government's investment plans" formulated in Vision 2030 and designed to diversify and rationalize the Saudi economy. "It was becoming increasingly clear that additional revenue is needed to improve the economy's performance. The government will also strike deals with businessmen and royals to avoid arrest, but only as part of a greater commitment to the local economy,” Eurasia said in a note to clients.

The apparent move to tighten state control of media strokes with the crown prince’s crackdown on any form of criticism and/or dissent that manifested itself with an earlier wave of arrests of Islamic scholars, judges, intellectuals and activists as well as his quest to centralize power. The crackdown and potential takeover of media assets comes at a time of unprecedented, more freewheeling public debate on social media about Prince Mohammed’s reforms and policy changes as well as the kingdom’s foreign policy and national security challenges.

Prince Alwaleed, in what appeared to be a naïve attempt to establish a pan-Arab television station that would to some degree divert from official government policy, launched Al Arab in 2015 in Bahrain, another Gulf state in which media censorship is pervasive. In a statement by Kingdom Holding, Prince Alwaleed promised that “Al Arab will break the mould of news presentation, becoming a platform for transparent presentation and discussion of the region’s most intractable issues.”

Al Arab was headed by Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent and at times controversial Saudi journalist, who since going into exile in the United States earlier this year has become more vocal in his criticism of the government. It was taken off the air by Bahraini authorities a day after it went live for broadcasting an interview with Bahraini opposition leader Khalil al-Marzooq.

In the interview, Mr. Al-Marzooq, who resigned his seat in parliament in 2011 in protest against the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters, took issue with the regime’s revocation of the citizenship of 72 Bahrainis, including Turki al-Binali, one of the leading ideologues of the Islamic State, Shiite and human rights activists, journalists, and medical personnel.

It was not clear whether Al Arab was suspended because of differences within Bahrain’s ruling family or in response to pressure from Saudi Arabia whose troops helped Bahrain squash the 2011 popular revolt.

Prince Alwaleed announced earlier this year that he was closing the station, which had not returned to the air since its suspension two years earlier, but had last year decided to move operations to Qatar.

Had Al Arab relaunched in Qatar, it would have put Prince Alwaleed in an awkward position with the eruption in June of the Gulf crisis. With or without Al Arab, Prince Mohammed’s probable media grab will, however, likely escalate what is already a media war that often has little to do with journalism.


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