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Thursday, May 24, 2018

What to do with Pakistani militant Hafez Saeed? Pakistan and China grope for ambiguity



By James M. Dorsey

Recent remarks by several senior Pakistani officials suggest that Pakistan and China are groping with how to deal with globally designated Pakistani militant Hafez Saeed as the South Asian nation gears up for elections expected in July and risks being next month put on an international terrorism finance and money laundering watchlist.

The Pakistani-Chinese dilemma stems from a China-backed Pakistani refusal to fully implement designations of Hafez Saeed by the United Nations Security Council and the US Treasury.

The United States has put a $10 million bounty on the head of Mr. Saeed, who is believed to lead the outlawed militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as well as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an alleged LeT front, and is suspected of being the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed.

Pakistan has repeatedly put Mr. Saaed under house arrest, only to release him on court orders that asserted that there was insufficient evidence against him. The government has half-heartedly sought to seize Jamaat-ud-Dawa assets and prevent it from collecting donations through its charity arm, Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation.

Pakistan’s election commission has so far refused to register a political party established by Jamaat-ud-Dawa in advance of the elections. The refusal would not prevent party members from running as independents.

To reduce focus on Mr. Saaed, a senior aide to Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that Chinese President Xi Jinping had asked Mr. Abbasi during a meeting on the side lines of last month’s Boao Forum to explore relocating Mr. Saaed to a Middle Eastern country.

“At a 35-minute meeting, at least 10 minutes of the discussion dealt with Saeed. The Chinese President was keen on pressing the Prime Minister to find an early solution to keep Saeed away from the limelight,” The Hindu quoted the aide as saying.

In separate remarks, Major General Asif Ghafoor, a spokesman for Pakistan’s intelligence service, Inter Services Intelligence, told Indian Express that “anything (Mr. Saeed) does, other than violence, is good. There is a process in Pakistan for anyone to participate in politics. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has its rules and laws. If he (Mr. Saeed) fulfils all those requirements that is for the ECP to decide.”

The divergent proposals to either remove Mr. Saeed from the limelight or mainstream him by integrating him into the political process are unlikely to satisfy either the United Nations or the United States.

They are also unlikely to prevent the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global financial watchdog that monitors the funding of political violence and money laundering, from next month putting Pakistan on its watchlist.

The FATF action could negatively affect the Pakistan economy. Pakistan risks downgrading by multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) as well as by international credit rating agencies Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch.

Mr. Xi’s suggestion to Mr. Abbasi reflects Chinese ambivalence towards those Pakistani militants that both Islamabad and Beijing see as useful tools to keep India off balance. China protected Mr. Saeed from UN designation prior to the Mumbai attacks and has since prevented another Pakistani militant, Masood Azhar, from being designated by the Security Council.

At the same time, China refrained in February from shielding Pakistan from censorship by FATF.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson nonetheless argued at the time that "in recent years, Pakistan has made important progress in actively strengthening financial regulations to combat terror financing… China highly recognises that and hopes all relevant parties of the international community could arrive at an objective and fair conclusion on that."

Implementing Mr. Xi’s proposal to remove Mr. Saeed from the limelight is easier said than done. Its hard to see what Middle Eastern nation would risk international criticism by granting Mr. Saeed asylum without tacit approval by the United States and/or the United Nations. By the same token, its unlikely that either would agree to the scheme.

Similarly, neither the UN nor the United States are likely to be persuaded by a belief within the Pakistani military that the best way of blunting militancy that has over the decades been woven into the fabric of significant segments of the armed forces, intelligence and society is by mainstreaming militants and integrating them into the political process.

Ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif kicked up a storm when he earlier this month appeared to confirm the pervasiveness of militancy by suggesting that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks had been supported by Pakistan.

“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it. We could have already been at seven per cent growth (in GDP), but we are not,” Mr. Sharif said.

The remarks by the Pakistani officials suggest that both Pakistan and China are attempting to square circles.

Pakistan needs to be seen as cracking down on militancy while considering the domestic influence of ultra-conservative religious groups as well as seemingly misguided beliefs that support for anti-Indian militants serves its purpose.

For its part, China’s justification of its hardhanded crackdown in the north-western province of Xinjiang as a bid to counter jihadism and nationalism among, Uighurs, a Turkic people, is weakened by its reluctance to be equally firm in countering militants in Pakistan.

The problem for both countries is that 1 + 1 = 2, whichever way one looks at it.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, May 21, 2018

The battle for the Iranian nuclear deal: China approaches a watershed



By James M. Dorsey

Conventional wisdom has it that China stands to benefit from the US withdrawal from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran, particularly if major European companies feel that the risk of running afoul of US secondary sanctions is too high. 

In doing so, China would draw on lessons learnt from its approach to the sanctions regime against Iran prior to the nuclear deal. China supported the sanctions while proving itself adept at circumventing the restrictions.

However, this time round, as China joins Russia and Europe in trying to salvage the deal, things could prove to be different in ways that may give China second thoughts.

The differences run the gamut from an America that has Donald Trump as its president to a Middle East that is much more combative and assertive and sees its multiple struggles as existential, at least in terms of regime survival.

Fault lines in the Middle East have hardened because of Israel, Saudi and United Arab Emirates assertiveness, emboldened by both a US administration that is more partisan in its Middle East policy, yet at the same time less predictable and less reliable.

Add to this Mr. Trump’s narrow and transactional focus that targets containing Iran, if not toppling its regime; countering militancy, and enhancing business opportunities for American companies and the contours of a potentially perfect storm come into view.

That is even truer if one looks beyond the Gulf and the Levant towards the greater Middle East that stretches across Pakistan into Central Asia as well as China’s overall foreign trade.
China’s trade with the United States stood last year at $636 billion, trade with Iran was in that same period at $37.8 billion or less than five percent of the US volume.

The recent case of ZTE, one of China’s largest IT companies, tells part of the story.

Accused of having violated sanctions, the US Department of Commerce banned American firms from selling parts to ZTE, bringing the company to near bankruptcy. Mr. Trump appears to be willing to help salvage ZTE, but the incident significantly raises the stakes, particularly as China and the United States try to avoid a trade war.

That is but one consideration in China’s calculations. Potentially, other major bumps in saving the nuclear agreement lurk around the corner and could prove to be equally, if not more challenging.

Tensions in the Middle East are mounting. The fallout of Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and seemingly unqualified backing of Israel in its almost certainly stillborn plan for peace with the Palestinian is reverberating.

Discontent across the region simmers just below the surface, magnified by youth and next generations in countries like Syria and Yemen who have little to look forward to.

The bumps fall into three categories: the degree to which China feels that it can continue to rely on the US defence umbrella in the Gulf; pressure on China by Middle Eastern states to shoulder the responsibility that comes with being a great power, if not take sides; and change in a region that is in a process of transition that is volatile, violent and could take decades to play out.

Yet, as China takes stock of the Middle East’s volatility and China’s strategic stake in regional stability, it appears ill-equipped to deal with an environment in which its traditional policy tools either fall short or no longer are applicable.

Increasingly, China will have to become a geopolitical rather than a primarily economic player in competitive cooperation with the United States, the dominant external actor in the region for the foreseeable future.

China has signalled its gradual recognition of these new realities with the publication in January 2016 of an Arab Policy Paper, the country’s first articulation of a policy towards the Middle East and North Africa.

But, rather than spelling out specific policies, the paper reiterated the generalities of China’s core focus in its relations with the Arab world: economics, energy, counter-terrorism, security, technical cooperation and its Belt and Road initiative.

Ultimately however, China will have to develop a strategic vision that outlines foreign and defence policies it needs to put in place to protect its expanding interests; its role and place in the region as a rising superpower, and its relationship and cooperation with the United States in managing, if not resolving conflict.

To be sure, China is taking baby steps in that direction with its greater alignment with international moves to combat Islamic militancy even if its campaign in north-western China risks straining relations with the Islamic world, the creation of a military facility in Djibouti, work on a naval base in Pakistan’s Jiwari peninsula, and cross-border operations in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Those may be the easier steps. Dealing with partners like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that seek to establish regional hegemony by imposing their will on others at whatever cost may be more difficult. So far, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not pressured China to choose in their rivalry with Iran.

But it can only be a matter of time before they do, particularly if Chinese investment in Iran and trade were able to offset the impact of US sanctions to the degree that the Islamic republic is not forced to compromise. To evade that situation, China has offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, an offer the kingdom was unwilling to take up.

China is not immune to Saudi pressure. To protect their Saudi and UAE interests, Chinese alongside Hong Kong and Japanese banks refused earlier this year to participate in a one-year extension of a $575 million syndicated loan to Doha Bank, Qatar’s fifth-biggest lender.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia in April forced major multi-national financial institutions to choose sides in the Gulf spat with Qatar. In response to Saudi pressure, JP Morgan and HSBC walked away from participating in a $12 billion Qatari bond sale opting for a simultaneous Saudi offering instead.

The stakes for Saudi Arabia in Iran are far greater than those in Qatar. Iran poses an existential threat to the House of Saud for reasons far more intrinsic than the accusations Riyadh lobs at Tehran. The more Iran is able to defeat US sanctions, the more Saudi Arabia is likely to push China and to reduce their support of the nuclear agreement.

That pressure can take multiple forms. With US-backed efforts at regime change in Tehran potentially on the horizon, Saudi Arabia has put building blocks in place over the last two years.

Large sums originating in the kingdom have found their way to militant, virulently anti-Shiite, ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim madrassas or religious seminaries in the Pakistani province of Balochistan that borders on the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan.

A Saudi thinktank allegedly backed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has developed plans to stir unrest among the Baloch minority in Iran, partly in a bid to complicate operations at the Indian-backed port of Chabahar, a mere 75 kilometres up the coast from Gwadar, a crown jewel of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, China’s $50 billion plus Belt and Road stake in Pakistan.

China, moreover, has so far relied on its economic clout as well as Saudi Arabia to remain silent about a crackdown in Xinjiang that targets Islam, putting the kingdom as custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities in an awkward position.

The long and short of all of this is that, in an environment in which the Middle East views conflicts as zero-sum games, China is likely to find it increasingly difficult to remain aloof and straddle both sides of the fence. Salvaging the Iranian nuclear deal could come at a cost China may not want to pay.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Ex-Pakistani Prime Minister puts Pakistani military and China on the spot



By James M. Dorsey

Ousted Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif kicked up a storm when he earlier this month seemingly admitted that Pakistan had supported militants who attacked multiple targets in Mumbai in 2008,  killing 166 people.

Mr. Sharif’s admission, which he has since tried to walk back, put a finger on Pakistan’s controversial policy of selective support of militant groups at a sensitive time. Pakistan is gearing up for elections that would secure its third consecutive handover of civilian political power.

Mr. Sharif’s remarks, moreover, stirred up a hornet’s nest because Pakistan is likely to next month be put on a watch list by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global financial watchdog that monitors the funding of political violence and money laundering worldwide.

The remarks also put China in a difficult position. China has been pressuring Pakistan to crack down on militants, particularly in the troubled province of Balochistan, the crown jewel in its Belt and Road-related $50 billion plus infrastructure investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Yet, at the same time, China has at Pakistan’s behest prevented the United Nations Security Council from declaring Masood Azhar, believed to have been responsible for an attack in 2016 on India’s Pathankot Air Force Station, as a globally designated terrorist.

The militants, dressed in Indian military uniforms fought a 14-hour battle against Indian security forces that only ended when the last attacker was killed. Mr. Azhar was briefly detained after the attack and has since gone underground.

Mr. Sharif’s made his remarks as China was building up its military infrastructure in Pakistan. The build-up is occurring against the backdrop of Pakistan risking being involuntarily sucked into potential attempts to destabilize Iran if Saudi Arabia/and or the United States were to use Balochistan as a staging ground.

In line with a standard practice in Pakistan that has repeatedly seen groups that are outlawed resurrecting themselves under new names, Lashkar-e-Taibe (LeT), the banned group believed to be responsible for the Mumbai attacks, and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be an LeT front, are  rebranding under a new name and as a political party, Milli Muslim League, that would compete in the forthcoming election.

The League is headed by Hafez Saaed, a former LeT leader, who was last year released from house arrest despite having been declared a designated global terrorist by the Security Council and the US Treasury, which put a $10 billion bounty on his head. China vetoed Mr. Saeed’s designation by the UN prior to the Mumbai attacks.

Activists, even though the party was last month designated by the US Treasury, are likely to run as independents in the election if the government maintains its rejection of the party’s registration.

So are operatives of Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, a front for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a banned, virulently anti-Shiite group that long enjoyed support from Saudi Arabia and operates multiple militant madrassas or religious seminaries in Balochistan that have witnessed an injection of funds from the kingdom in the last two years.

“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it. We could have already been at seven per cent growth (in GDP), but we are not,” Mr. Sharif said, referring to stalled Mumbai attacks-related trials in a Rawalpindi anti-terrorism court.

Taking Mr. Sharif’s comments a step further, prominent journalist and author Ahmed Rashid asserted that “the deep state of Pakistan is supporting the banned outfits as it has done in the past. This game should be stopped, and the government should show its commitment and sincerity in disarming these groups and not to allow them to enter into politics.”

Former Pakistani strongman General Pervez Musharraf, in an apparent manifestation of links between the circles close to the military and hardliners, said prior to the designation by the US announced that he was discussing an alliance with Mr. Saeed’s league.

Speaking on Pakistani television, Mr. Musharraf pronounced himself “the greatest supporter of LeT… Because I have always been in favour of action in Kashmir and I have always been in favour of pressuring the Indian army in Kashmir," Mr. Musharraf said.

Pakistan’s military and intelligence service are believed to favour integration of militants into the political process as a way of reducing violence and militancy in a country in which religious ultra-conservatism and intolerance has been woven into the fabric of branches of the state and significant segments of society.

Critics charge that integration is likely to fail in Pakistan. “Incorporating radical Islamist movements into formal political systems may have some benefits in theory… But the structural limitations in some Muslim countries with prominent radical groups make it unlikely that these groups will adopt such reforms, at least not anytime soon… While Islamabad wants to combat jihadist insurgents in Pakistan, it also wants to maintain influence over groups that are engaged in India and Afghanistan,” said Kamran Bokhari, a well-known scholar of violent extremism.

Citing the example of a militant Egyptian group that formed a political party to participate in elections, Mr. Bokhari argued that “though such groups remain opposed to democracy in theory, they are willing to participate in electoral politics to enhance their influence over the state. Extremist groups thus become incorporated into existing institutions and try to push radical changes from within the system.”

Chinese ambiguity about Pakistani policy goes beyond shielding Mr. Azhar from being designated. A Chinese-Pakistani draft plan last year identified as risks to CPEC “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

Security has since improved substantially in significant parts of Pakistan. The question, however, is whether integration of militants into the political process would stabilize Pakistani politics in the absence of a concerted effort to counter mounting ultra-conservative religious fervour in the country. It may be too early to judge, but so far the answer has to be no.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Monday, May 14, 2018

Trump’s abrogation of Iran deal may put his America First policy to the test


Credit: Iran Front Page

By James M. Dorsey

President Donald J. Trump’s abrogation of the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran is likely to put his America First policy to the test.

Mr. Trump’s decision to walk away from the agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program risks fuelling a nuclear race in the Middle East, particularly if Iran decides that the US withdrawal has rendered the deal unbeneficial.

Competition for a slice of the Middle East’s nuclear pie is already in full swing with Saudi Arabia emerging as one of the world’s largest and most immediate export markets.

To ensure that the United States remains competitive, Mr. Trump is likely to have to compromise on strict US conditions that have governed US nuclear exports until now.

Failure to do so could deprive America’s nuclear industry of its best option for recovery from the fallout of overregulation, foreign competition and the rise of rival energy sources, including gas and renewables.

Raising the spectre of a nuclear race, Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir last week reiterated the kingdom’s warning that it would develop a nuclear weapon if Iran were to pursue military aspects of its program.

Mr. Al-Jubeir as well as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have not defined what they would consider Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon if Iran too decides to walk away from the 2015 agreement and revitalize its nuclear effort unfettered by the deal’s restrictions.

Saudi distrust of Iranian intentions has been reinforced by Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s recent disclosure that the Jewish state’s intelligence service had laid hands on 100,000 Iranian files that document Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon prior to the 2015 agreement.

Iran has consistently denied that it wanted to develop a nuclear weapon. The Islamic republic has also said it would remain committed to the nuclear agreement despite the US withdrawal and re-imposition of sanctions if the other signatories – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – fulfilled their obligations and ensured that Iran would benefit economically.

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif is visiting Beijing, Moscow and Brussels to ascertain whether the signatories are committed to defying Mr. Trump by doing business with and investing in Iran despite the risk of their companies suffering the wrath of the US Treasury.  

US Energy Secretary Rick Perry is meanwhile hoping that Saudi Arabia’s ambitious civil nuclear program will create opportunity for American companies. The program entails building 16 reactors by 2032 with a capacity of 17.6 gigawatts (GW).

Mr. al-Jubeir said In March that the kingdom was engaged in talks with ten nations about its nuclear program, including Russia and China, countries that likely would be more amenable than the United States to reduced safeguards and broader arrangements.

Saudi Arabia has demanded in discussions with the Trump administration the right to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel into plutonium, potential building blocks for nuclear weapons, as part of any agreement with a US company. The Saudis argue that Iran has that right under the 2015 agreement.

Mr. Perry, in a first step to ensure that Westinghouse, the US company most immediately concerned, would have a fighting chance, persuaded Saudi Arabia to include American firms in a bid for its first two reactors. The kingdom had initially invited only Chinese, French, Russian and South Korean bidders.

The energy secretary is at the same time negotiating a non-proliferation trade or 123 agreement with Saudi Arabia that is required by US law as a pre-condition for participation of American companies. A sticking point in the negotiations is the fact that the United Arab Emirates set a high benchmark when it accepted to foreswear enrichment and reprocessing as part of its 123 agreement.

The UAE this year completed construction of the Arab world’s first commercial nuclear reactor. UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba warned in 2015 after the conclusion of the Iran deal that it may want to amend its agreement to have the same right as Iran to enrich uranium.

“Your worst enemy has achieved this right to enrich. It's a right to enrich now that your friends are going to want, too, and we won't be the only country,” Mr. Al-Otaiba was quoted as saying at the time.

The UAE has not publicly raised the issue since but could well do so if the Iran nuclear deal is definitively cancelled or Saudi Arabia is given the right to enrich.

Arguing in favour of boosting US nuclear exports to the Middle East, Katie Tubb, an analyst with the Washington-based Heritage Foundation that prides itself on two-thirds of its recommendations having been adopted by the Trump administration, noted that US support has helped “dissuade Saudi Arabia from extremism, boost its ability to defend itself against a rogue Iran, and enable it to fulfil its commitment to quell terrorism.”

Ms. Tubb went on to say that “contributing to Saudi Arabia’s economic growth can be another powerful and persuasive answer to extremism by offering opportunity, greater freedom, education and jobs, social mobility, stability, and a dynamic, innovative future. Engaging with Saudi Arabia’s new nuclear power industry through a 123 Agreement can play a big role in making that happen.”

Saudi demands for the right to enrich and a potential UAE backtracking on its arrangements that have been declared the gold standard for nuclear exports potentially leave Mr. Trump with a stark choice, Ms. Tubb’s reasoning notwithstanding.

He either lowers the bar and risks fuelling a nuclear race in the Middle East or sticks to the high ground at the expense of opportunity for America’s nuclear industry.

If Mr. Trump’s record is anything to go by, his choice would seem a foregone conclusion.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Middle Eastern rivalry spills onto Asian soccer pitches



By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia’s bitter rivalry with Iran has spilled onto Asian soccer pitches with the newly created South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) reflecting the kingdom’s bid for regional hegemony, including domination of soccer.

Saudi Arabia’s most recent victory on the pitch was evident in the absence in SWAFF, formed by a merger of the West Asian and South Asian football federations, of almost half of the members of the West Asian grouping, including Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria. Also, not included were South Asia’s Nepal and Bhutan.

The absence of Jordan and Palestine speaks volumes about the depth of polarization in the Middle East and the willingness of some states to quietly but firmly resist Saudi aspirations. 

So does the fact that Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family that is closely associated with Saudi Arabia, did not attend SWAFF’s founding in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. SWAFF will be initially headed by Adel Ezzat, the president of the Saudi football federation.

Mr. Al-Khalifa’s absence fuelled speculation that SWAFF seeks to create a Saudi-dominated governing body in Asia in competition with the AFC and launch Asian soccer championships that would compete with AFC tournaments.

The AFC groups all Asian soccer federations, including Iran and other countries at odds with Saudi Arabia’s regional power-grabbing efforts.

“The South West Asian Association aims to develop the sport in Asia and hold many tournaments and events on an annual basis,” SWAFF said in a news release that also announced Saudi sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as its honorary president.

Pakistani news reports suggested that the Saudi effort to impose its will on Asian soccer may not be smooth sailing. Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) officials refused to confirm membership in SWAFF despite the participation of two its representatives in the Jeddah meeting.

The PFF has close ties to Mr. Al-Khalifa and its Bahrain counterpart which funds the salary of the Pakistani national team’s coach.

SWAFF has been tight-lipped about its ambitions with members reluctant to discuss the federation’s purpose in public. "I am not authorised to talk about it," said All India Football Federation general secretary Kushal Das.

There was also no explanation for the exclusion of Nepal and Bhutan. Sources said the founding meeting of SAFF had been so hastily arranged that Nepal and Bhutan were unable to attend. They said the two countries were likely to join at a later stage.

With Saudi Arabia and the UAE, its closest regionally ally, heavily invested in Central Asian nations, SWAFF is likely to want to expand to include former Soviet members of the Central Asian Football Federation (CAFF).

Mr. Al-Khalifa recognized Central Asia as a separate region within the AFC after CAFF was established in 2014 at the initiative of Iran. Iran swapped its membership in the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) for association with CAFF, a grouping in which it expected to be able to wield greater influence.

“Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are seeking a political return on their investment in Central Asia” said Gulf expert Theodore Karasik in an article discussing the Gulf states’ Central Asia strategy.

Central Asia is likely to emerge as an ever more important Saudi-Iranian battlefield in the wake of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program given plans for multiple pipelines, some of which include Iran.

A potential inclusion in SWAFF of Central Asian soccer federations at the expense of Iran would tally with Saudi Arabia’s reversal of its attitude toward the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Once one of only three countries that recognized the Taliban when the group controlled Afghanistan in the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia today is pressuring the group to engage in negotiations with the government of President Ashraf Ghani in a bid to ensure that a Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative force shares power in a country that borders on Iran.

To achieve that, Saudi Arabia has moved from supporting the Taliban to trying to isolate it. Saudi Arabia has endorsed US allegations of Iranian support for the Taliban and is seeking to force the group or dissident elements within it to come to the negotiating table.

The Saudi pressure is also intended to thwart plans for a Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline.

Saudi Arabia initiated the creation of SWAFF after Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, the head of the WAFF, a former FIFA presidential candidate, and advocate of reform of soccer governance that has been wracked by multiple corruption scandals, reportedly resisted Saudi pressure to move the headquarters of the West Asian group from Jordan to Saudi Arabia.

The refusal amounted to a rejection of Saudi efforts to create one more building block for regional dominance.

Relations between Jordan and Saudi Arabia have been strained over Amman’s refusal to back the 11-month-old Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led boycott of Qatar and Jordan’s refusal earlier this year to succumb to Saudi pressure regarding its participation earlier this year in a summit of Islamic leaders in Istanbul called to confront US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Palestine’s exclusion from SAFF suggests Saudi irritation with Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to accept the United States as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem decision and protests by soccer fans against a Saudi effort to impose a coach on the Palestinian national team who has close ties to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s bid for regional soccer hegemony runs parallel to Mr. Trump’s vow to sanction non-American companies that do business with Iran in the wake of the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear agreement. It suggests that Saudi Arabia intends to expand its battle with Iran into areas beyond the Middle East and sectors that claim to be aloof of politics.

In doing so, the Saudi move challenges international sports governance’s insistence on a separation of sports and politics and is likely to put pressure on East Asian nations who are influential soccer powerhouses within the AFC and maintain close economic and diplomatic ties to the kingdom but have studiously remained on the side lines of its battles.

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom

Friday, May 11, 2018

SPACE SCIENCE AND THE ARAB WORLD Astronauts, Observatories, and Nationalism in the Middle East

NEW BOOKS NETWORK INTERVIEW WITH:

JÖRG MATTHIAS DETERMANN, aUTHOR OF:
Space Science and the Arab World
Astronauts, Observatories, and Nationalism in the Middle East
I. B. TAURIS 2018
May 11, 2018 BY James M. Dorsey
Space Science and the Arab World, Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East (I. B. Tauris, 2018) a recently published history of Arab exploration of space, offers a fascinating insight into fundamental issues shaping the contemporary Middle East, including efforts to turn Arab societies into twenty first-century knowledge-based economies and  the role of the religion and its relationship to science. Assistant Professor Jörg Matthias Determann takes the reader on a highly readable and well-documented tour of the struggle of Arab scientists to contribute to the development on space studies and how scientific research contributes to reform and change in the Arab world. It is a process that often meant that scientists were forced to pursue their studies and explorations outside of the region and in doing so contributed to concepts of cosmopolitanism in the region.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
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Thursday, May 10, 2018

Playing US sanctions: China walks a fine line in Iran



By James M. Dorsey

Chinese businessman Sheng Kuan Li didn’t worry about sanctions when he decided in 2010 to invest $200 million in a steel mill in Iran that started producing ingots and billet within months of the lifting of punitive measures against the Islamic republic as part of 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

With no operations in the United States, Mr. Li was not concerned about being targeted by the US Treasury. Mr. Li, moreover, circumvented financial restrictions on Iran by funding his investment through what he called a “private transfer,” a money swap that was based on trust and avoided regular banking channels.

In doing so, Mr. Li was following standard Chinese practice of evading the sanctions regime by using alternative routes or establishing alternative institutions that were in effect immune.

To be able to continue to purchase Iranian oil while sanctions were in place, China, for example, established the Bank of Kunlun to handle Chinese payments.

The Chinese experience in circumventing the earlier sanctions will come in handy with Beijing rejecting US President Donald J. Trump’s renewed effort to isolate Iran and force it to make further concessions on its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs as well as the Islamic republic’s regional role in the Middle East by walking away from the 2015 agreement and reintroducing punitive economic measures.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in response to Mr. Trump’s announcement that the People’s Republic was committed to the deal and would “maintain communication with all parties and continue to protect and execute the agreement fully.”

China’s likely willingness to circumvent US sanctions is one factor that will influence Iran’s decision on whether it will stick to the agreement. Iran’s decision depends on the readiness and ability of the other signatories - Britain, France, Germany and Russia – to also stand up to the United States.

China’s experience in circumventing sanctions could come in handy as Europe, that like China has rejected Mr. Trump’s move and vowed to ignore the sanctions, weighs ways of putting its money where its mouth is by attempting to shield European companies from potential US punitive action. One possibility would be to use alternative Chinese financial networks.

Nonetheless, this time round, rejecting and violating US sanctions may prove for China as well as the other signatories to be a trickier undertaking. Last time round, China and the other signatories were part of an international consensus that aimed to force Iran to accept restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program even if they at times circumvented the sanctions.

China and other signatories are in the wake of the re-imposition of US sanctions likely to be operating in a far more confrontational environment in which the subtext of Mr. Trump’s decision as well the positions of Saudi Arabia and Israel appears to be a policy that seeks to achieve regime change in Tehran.

Saudi Arabia as well as the United Arab Emirates have suggested in recent months in their 11-month old economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar that they are willing to quietly sanction those who fail to support them.

There is little reason to doubt that they would do the same in their confrontation with Iran with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman describing the dispute with Qatar as “trivial’ in comparison to the kingdom’s existential battle with Iran.

Saudi Arabia demonstrated its greater assertiveness by forcing major multi-national financial institutions to choose sides in the Gulf spat. In response to Saudi pressure, JP Morgan and HSBC last month walked away from participating in a $12 billion bond sale.

Earlier, Doha Bank, Qatar’s fifth-biggest lender, was forced to reduce the size of a two-year, $575 million bank loan that it had raised in December 2015 to $400 million, when it sought a one-year extension of the facility because Chinese, Hong Kong and Japanese banks opted not to participate.

In the utmost consequence, China’s concerted effort to remain aloof of the Middle East’s multiple conflicts could be severely compromised if it were forced to take sides in a conflict between Iran, a country with which China feels that it has much in common and that it in the past has helped develop its ballistic and nuclear programs, and Saudi Arabia, a more recently found friend that is economically important to the People’s Republic.

To be sure, greater Saudi assertiveness does not mean that the kingdom does not have to tread carefully in potentially seeking to penalize China and others for their potential refusal to go along with Mr. Trump’s confronting of Iran.

Saudi Arabia desperately needs foreign investment to implement Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030, a far-reaching plan for social and economic reform that aims to diversify the kingdom’s conservative society and oil-dependent economy and turn it into a 21st century, knowledge-based state.

China, moreover, is one of Saudi Arabia’s foremost oil export markets. While the Saudi military remains focussed on US and European arms purchases, China, at a time that a military confrontation with Iran is not beyond the realm of the possible, is a source of weaponry the United States has been so far unwilling to sell to the kingdom.

With the United States refusing to share its most advanced drone technology, China agreed last year to open its first overseas defense production facility in Saudi Arabia. State-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) will manufacture its CH-4 Caihong, or Rainbow drone as well as associated equipment in Saudi Arabia. The CH-4 is comparable to the US armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.

The stakes in the battle to save the Iranian nuclear deal in the wake of Mr. Trump’s decision go however far beyond a belief that the nuclear deal is serving its purpose in curbing potential Iranian nuclear ambitions and economic opportunity.

Leveraging its experience, an effort by China together with Russia and Europe that keeps the Iranian nuclear deal in place and thwarts US sanctions would deliver one of the heaviest body blows to US credibility and perceptions of US power since Mr. Trump came to office in January of last year.

Said a Middle Eastern diplomat: “A successful countering of US sanctions would demonstrate beyond doubt limits to America’s ability to impose its will. That would have wide-reaching consequences, not in the least question marks in Saudi Arabia and Israel on the degree to which they can risk continuing putting most of their eggs in Washington’s basket.”

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,  Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom