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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Post-2011 Arab World: Change is the Name of the game (JMD on Mobilizing Ideas)

The Post-2011 Arab World: Change is the Name of the game

By James M. Dorsey

Common wisdom has it that ultimately failed or troubled popular revolts in 2011 in the Middle East and North Africa have sparked bloody civil wars and violent extremism, and given autocracy a new lease on life.
Indeed, there is no denying that a brutal civil war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands and dislocated millions. Iraq, like Syria, is seeking to defeat the Islamic State (IS), the most vicious jihadist movement in recent history. Sectarianism and religious supremacism is ripping apart the fabric of societies in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.
Yet, the legacy of the 2011 revolts is not simply massive violence, brutal jihadism, and choking repression. In fact, the revolts kicked off an era of change, one that is ugly, destabilizing, violent and unpredictable, and that may not lead any time soon to more liberal, let alone democratic rule.
It is an era that is buffeted by autocrats’ need to push diversification of their economies and economic reform that involves a radical rewriting of social contracts. It also involves the need to upgrade autocracy to ensure sustainable economic change. That means making repressive rule more palatable by broadening the margins of acceptable social life and behaviour and creating channels for expressions of discontent and frustration.
Change by hook or by crook
Jihadist groups like IS have risen on the back of policies that have excluded or marginalized societal groups, counterrevolutions that have helped reverse advances made in 2011 without producing credible alternatives, mismanagement of expectations in the immediate wake of the popular revolts, and repression of whatever channels existed to express even modest or limited criticism.
IS, like it or not, constitutes a revolutionary force in the sense that it seeks radical and fundamental social, political and economic change. It may not be the kind of change many would want to embrace, but its philosophy thrives in an environment in which alternatives have little opportunity to blossom.
Saudi Arabia, for all its warts, including ideological roots that it shares with jihadism, is like others in the region experimenting with controlled, albeit risky social and economic change. Granted, the purpose of the exercise is to ensure the survival of the ruling Al Saud family. Nonetheless, social change such as greater entertainment opportunities in a culturally austere kingdom, less religious policing, and more opportunities for women, is tangible.
The problem, however, is as detailed in the 2016 Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), that social, economic and political reform is likely to succeed only if freedom to express grievances is guaranteed.
Warning that in the absence of freedoms “some Arabs would eventually resort to violence, with dire consequences,” the report noted that “the events of 2011 and their ramifications are the outcome of public policies over many decades that gradually led to the exclusion of large sectors of the population from economic, political and social life, depriving many people of appropriate health care, good educations and suitable livelihoods.”
A recipe for disaster
Little has changed in much of the Middle East and North Africa. The youth bulge is bulging, accounting for one third of the Arab world’s population. Employment prospects are limited and likely to deteriorate in the coming years.
“In the Arab region, the policies and laws that regulate the labour market hinder the growth of jobs in a manner that matches demographic growth and the needs of the market. This affects youth in particular and prevents the economic empowerment of youth. The prevalence of nepotism and reliance on social connections play a large role in the distribution of the limited available jobs, prompting young people who are looking for jobs to depend on social relationships and family ties,” the report said.
Opportunities for political engagement are even more restricted. In short, issues that drove the 2011 revolts are even more prevalent six years later . Counter-revolutions have rolled back whatever openings were created by the uprisings and engineered situations in which civil war, brutality and political violence set the tone. It amounts to a recipe for disaster in an environment in which state-encouraged sectarianism, supremacist religious ideology, violence and repression create an explosive mix.
The writing is on the wall. The failure of governments to deliver leads many to increasingly stress religious, sectarian or tribal rather than national identities. Many young people have a sense of having been marginalized. The result is a hardening of battle lines. Fifteen years ago, five Arab countries were mired in conflict, today the number is eleven and increasing.
On the surface of things, the counterrevolution, the war in Syria, and the hard-handed policies of secret police and law enforcement have stifled appetite for protest in many Arab countries. Yet, much like in the walk-up to 2011, discontent is simmering. That does not mean that it by definition will erupt. It may not or perhaps more likely be sparked by an unpredictable black swan.
Protest in cycles
The AHDR charts a five-year cycle in the life of protest movements in the Arab world. Each cycle proves to be more volatile than its predecessor. IS is one expression of that. Youth “may prefer more direct, more violent means, especially if they are convinced that existing mechanisms for participation and accountability are useless,” the report warns.
At the bottom line, the counterrevolution coupled with autocratic attempts to ensure a continuation of the fundamental status quo with upgrades and limited reforms harbours the seeds of a next cycle of a push for change.
A survey by the United Nation’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) put the cost of armed conflict in the Arab world at $613.8 billion in lost economic activity and a $243.1 billion in fiscal deficits.
Decades of economic cronyism, lower productivity, reduced investment with the exception of the energy and real estate sectors, the choking of channels to express discontent, and greater emphasis on the repressive arms of the state at the expense of strengthening institutions make autocratic upgrades less likely to succeed and heighten the role of violence in efforts to force change.
Violence does not connote the end of what many believe to have been a short-lived effort to achieve change. It also does not mark an end to a short-lived Arab era of defiance and dissent. Instead, it serves as an indicator of how far Arab regimes are willing to go to ensure their survival and raises the cost of inevitable change.
Since 2011 the Arab world is in transition, albeit one that is likely to continue to be bloody and brutal. It may well be a transition in cycles, some of which may be regressive rather than progressive as in Lenin’s principle of two step forwards, one step backwards. What is nevertheless clear is that the status quo ante is history and change is the name of the game.
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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and two forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Asian ports: Pitfalls of China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative

Source: Daily Mail

By James M. Dorsey

Troubled ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, envisioned as part of China’s string of pearls linking the Eurasian heartland to the Middle Kingdom, exemplify political pitfalls that threaten Beijing’s ambitious One Belt, One Road project.

Political violence over the past decade has stopped Pakistan’s Gwadar port from emerging as a major trans-shipment hub in Chinese trade and energy supplies while turmoil in Sri Lanka threatens to dissuade Chinese investors from sinking billions into the country’s struggling Hambantota port and planned economic hub.

The problems of the two ports serve as pointers to simmering discontent and potential resistance to China’s ploy for dominance through cross-continental infrastructure linkage across a swath of land that is restive and ripe for political change.

Chinese, Pakistani and Russian officials warned in December that militant groups in Afghanistan, including the Islamic State (IS) had stepped up operations in Afghanistan. IS in cooperation with the Pakistani Taliban launched two months later a wave of attacks that has targeted government, law enforcement, the military and minorities and has killed hundreds of people.

China is investing $51 billion in Pakistan infrastructure and energy, including Gwadar port in the troubled province of Balochistan that is struggling to attract business nine years after it was initially inaugurated. The government announced this week that it had deployed 15,000 troops to protect China’s investment in Pakistan, a massive project dubbed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

For Gwadar to become truly viable, Pakistan will have to not only address Baluch grievances that have prompted militancy and calls for greater self-rule, if not independence, but also ensure that Baluchistan does not become a playground in the bitter struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

To do so, Pakistan will have to either crackdown on militant Afghan groups with the Taliban in the lead who operate with official acquiescence out of the Baluch capital of Quetta or successfully facilitate an end to conflict in Afghanistan itself.

That is a tall order which in effect would require changes in longstanding Pakistani policies. Gwadar’s record so far bears this out. Phase II of Gwadar was completed in 2008, yet few ships anchor there and little freight is handled.

Success would also require a break with long-standing Chinese foreign and defence policy that propagates non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. China has pledged $70 million in military aid to Afghanistan, is training its police force, and has proposed a four-nation security bloc that would include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

A mere 70 kilometres further west of Gwadar lies Iran’s southernmost port city of Chabahar that has become the focal point of Indian efforts to circumvent Pakistan in its access to energy-rich Central Asia and serve as India’s Eurasian hub by linking it to a north-south corridor that would connect Iran and Russia. Investment in Chabahar is turning it into Iran’s major deep water port outside the Strait of Hormuz that is populated by Gulf states hostile to the Islamic republic. Chabahar would also allow Afghanistan to break Pakistan’s regional maritime monopoly.

Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa warned Chinese officials in December that public protests would erupt if plans proceeded to build in Hambantota a 6,000-hectare economic zone that would buffet a $1.5 billion-deep sea port, a $209-million international airport, a world-class cricket stadium, a convention centre, and new roads. Protests a month later against the zone turned violent. Similar protests against Chinese investment have also erupted in recent years in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.

In Sri Lanka, the government has delayed the signing of agreements with China on the port and the economic zone after the protests catapulted the controversy onto the national agenda with opposition politicians and trade unions railing against them. A Sri Lankan opposition member of parliament moreover initiated legal proceedings to stop a debt-for-equity deal with China.
China’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang warned that the protests and opposition could persuade Chinese companies to walk away from the $5 billion project. “We either go ahead or we stop here,” Yi said.

“The Hambantota fiasco is sending a clear message to Beijing: showing up with bags of money alone is not enough to win a new Silk Road,” commented Wade Shepard, author of a forthcoming book on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

Adding to China’s problems is its apparent willingness to at times persuade its partners to circumvent or flout international standards of doing business. A European Union investigation into a Chinese-funded $2.9 billion rail link between the Hungarian capital of Budapest and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, could punch a hole into Chinese plans to extend its planned Asian transportation network into Europe. The investigation is looking at whether the deal seemingly granted to Chinese companies violated EU laws stipulating that contracts for large transportation projects must be awarded through public tenders.

The sum total of problems China is encountering across Eurasia highlight a disconnect between grandiose promises of development and improved standards of living and the core of Chinese policy: an insistence that economics offer solutions to deep-seated conflicts, local aspirations, and a narrowing of the gap between often mutually exclusive worldviews. It also suggests that China believes that it can bend, if not rewrite rules, when it serves its purpose.

To be sure, protests in Sri Lanka and Central Asia are as much about China as they are expressions of domestic political rivalries that at times are fought at China’s expense. Even so, they suggest that for China to succeed, it will not only have to engage with local populations, but also become a player rather than position itself as an economic sugar daddy that hides behind the principle of non-interference and a flawed economic win-win proposition.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Whither the Muslim World’s NATO?

Source: Dawn
By James M. Dorsey

Controversy and uncertainty over the possible appointment of a Pakistani general as commander of a 40-nation, Saudi-led, anti-Iranian military alliance dubbed the Muslim world’s NATO goes to the core of a struggle for Pakistan’s soul as the country reels from a week of stepped up political violence.

It also constitutes a defining moment in Saudi relations with Pakistan, historically one of the Gulf state’s staunchest allies and a country where the kingdom is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution. Finally, whether the general accepts the post or not is likely to be a bellwether of the Muslim world’s ability to free itself of the devastating impact of Saudi-like Sunni ultra-conservatism and bridge rather than exasperate sectarian divides.

Retired Pakistani military chief of staff General Raheel Sharif’s acceptance of the command of the alliance, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, would kill several birds with one stone. The alliance, created in 2015 to bolster Saudi Arabia’s two-year old, flailing intervention in Yemen and counter Iran, has so far largely been a paper tiger.

The alliance has staged military exercises that appeared to target Iran but has not yet established a joint command or command infrastructure. The appointment of General Shareef could potentially help the alliance evolve into a force that is credible, assuming that he can overcome widespread hesitancy towards it across the Muslim world.

In personal terms, the appointment would award Mr. Sharif for opposing the Pakistani parliament  rejection in 2015 of a Saudi request for military support in Yemen.

The decision took Saudi Arabia by surprise given that Pakistan has been one of the world’s foremost beneficiaries, if not the largest, of Saudi government and non-governmental largess and its dependency on remittances from Pakistani workers in the kingdom.

The appointment of General Sharif would have also been a favour to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a politician and businessman with close ties to the kingdom who like the general favoured Pakistani military support in Yemen. It would remove the popular general as a potential political rival of the prime minister. Namesakes, Messrs Sharif are not related to one another.

The uncertainty about General Raheel’s appointment that has been lingering since it was first announced two months ago, and then been called into question is indicative of strains in relations between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, once the closest of nations in the Muslim world.

In a telling tale of the times, remittances to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia dropped 5.8 percent over the last seven months while cheaper and better trained Indians and Bangladeshis have begun to replace Pakistani manpower. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has deported 39,000 Pakistanis since October as part of its crackdown on militants.

Abdullah Ghulzar Khan, a Pakistani national who lived in Saudi Arabia for 12 years, last year blew himself up in a parking lot near the US consulate in the Red Sea port of Jeddah. Fifteen Pakistanis have since been arrested on suspicion of being militants. Two of them were believed to be part of a plot to attack the city’s Al-Jawhara Stadium with a truck carrying 400 kg of explosives during a Saudi Arabia-UAE soccer match that was attended by 60,000 spectators.

The arrests like the story of Tashfeen Malik, the Pakistani woman who together with her American-Pakistani husband, gunned down 14 people in San Bernardino, California, in December 2015, tell a much bigger tale about the risks inherent in Saudi backing at home and abroad, including Pakistan, of puritan, supremacist interpretations of Islam.

Ms. Malik moved with her parents to Saudi Arabia when she was a toddler to escape sectarian skirmishes and family disputes. In the kingdom, the family turned its back on its Sufi and Barelvi traditions that included visiting shrines, honouring saints and enjoying Sufi trance music, practices rejected by the kingdom's austere Wahhabi form of Islam. The change sparked tensions with relatives in Pakistan, whom the Maliks accused in Wahhabi fashion of rejecting the oneness of God by revering saints.

Ms. Malik turned even more conservative when she returned to Pakistan in 2009 to study pharmacology. She started attending religion classes at a branch of Al-Huda (The Correct Path) International Welfare Foundation, a controversial academy that has made significant inroads into Pakistan’s upper and middle classes, and propagates an ideology akin to that of Saudi Arabia.

In a statement after the San Bernardino attack, Al Huda described itself as “a non-political, non-sectarian and non-profit organisation which is tirelessly serving humanity by promoting education along with numerous welfare programmes for the needy and destitute.” It said that it “does not have links to any extremist regime and stands to promote peaceful message of Islam and denounces extremism, violence and terrorism of all kinds.” The institution said that it could not be held responsible for “personal acts “of its students.

To be sure, Al Huda like Sunni ultra-conservatism in its various guises does not breed violence by definition. Yet, like any inward-looking, intolerant and supremacist ideology it creates potential breeding grounds in a given set of circumstances. Similarly, as in the case of the Islamic State (IS) or Al Qaeda, the shared basic tenets of ultra-conservatism has lead to the formation of groups that have turned on Saudi Arabia itself.

A newly formed alliance of IS and Pakistani Taliban that strives to impose strict Islamic law was responsible for the series of attacks in the last week that killed 83 people at a Sufi shrine in southern Punjab and targeted the Punjabi parliament, military outposts, a Samaa TV crew, and a provincial police station.

Complicating Pakistan’s struggle with militancy is the fact that massive, decades-long backing of ultra-conservativism by successive Pakistani political, military and intelligence leaders and Saudi Arabia has made it part of the fabric of significant segments of Pakistani society and education as well as key branches of the government and arms of the state.

That coupled with geopolitics and Pakistan’s increasingly troubled relationship with its religious and ethnic minorities is precisely what makes the proposed appointment of General Raheel so problematic.

Pakistan, a country with a long border with Iran and the world’s largest Shiite minority, has long been a major frontline in Saudi Arabia’s almost four-decade long covert proxy war with the Islamic republic, dating back to the 1979 Islamic revolution. Saudi Arabia, in cooperation with the Pakistani military and intelligence as well as senior government officials, has long backed militant sectarian groups that have helped push Pakistan towards Sunni ultra-conservatism and are responsible for a large number of deaths among Shiites, Ahmadis, Sufis and others.

General Raheel’s appointment would bring the chicken home to roost. By taking the command, General Raheel would give the alliance the credibility it needs:  a non-Arab commander from one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries who commanded not only one of the Muslim world’s largest militaries, but also one that possesses nuclear weapons. The appointment would build on decades of Pakistani military support of Saudi Arabia dating back to war in Yemen in the late 1960s.

Yet, accepting the command would put Pakistan more firmly than ever in the camp of Saudi-led confrontation with Iran that Saudi political and religious leaders as well as their militant Pakistani allies often frame not only in geopolitical but also sectarian terms. Ultimately, it was that step that the Pakistani parliament rejected in 2015 when it refused to send troops to Yemen. Acceptance of the command by General Raheel would fly in the face of parliament’s decision.

Pakistani Shiite leaders as well as some Sunni politicians have warned that General Raheel’s appointment would put an end to Pakistan’s ability to walk a fine line between Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

It could raise the stakes in Balochistan, the province bordering Iran where separatists are agitating for independence and China has invested billions of dollars as part of its One Belt, One Road initiative.

Pakistani news reports suggest that General Raheel has sought to alleviate the risk by setting conditions that are unlikely to be acceptable to Saudi Arabia, including that Iran be invited to join the alliance and that he be the mediator in disputes among alliance members with no need to report to a higher i.e. Saudi authority. Iran reportedly advised Pakistan that it would work with General Raheel if he took the command to reach a negotiated resolution of the Yemen war.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, in a speech last weekend to the Munich Security Conference, laid out a vision that rules out General Raheel’s thinking. “Iran remains the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. Iran has as part of its constitution the principle of exporting the revolution. Iran does not believe in the principle of citizenship. It believes that the Shiite, the ‘dispossessed’, as Iran calls them, all belong to Iran and not to their countries of origin. And this is unacceptable for us 
in the kingdom, for our allies in the Gulf and for any country in the world… So, until and unless Iran changes its behaviour, and changes its outlook, and changes the principles upon which the Iranian state is based, it will be very difficult to deal with a country like this.,” Mr. Al-Jubeir 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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Bowing to pressure: Iran grants women spectators access to sporting event

By James M. Dorsey

Iran, bowing to external pressure, has allowed women spectators to attend a premier international men’s volleyball tournament on the island of Kish. The Iranian concession constitutes a rare occasion on which the Islamic republic has not backtracked on promises to international sports associations to lift its ban on women attending men’s sporting events. Human rights groups hailed the move as a positive, albeit small step forward.

The Iranian concession appeared to contradict Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s hard line towards international pressure in the wake of renewed sanctions imposed by US President Donald J. Trump. “Everybody has tested Iran over the past 38 years and they all know that Iran is hardly moved by threats. We do not respond very well to threats. We respond very well to respect and mutual respect and mutual interest,” Mr. Zarif told CNN’s Christian Amanpour this weekend on the side lines of the Munich Security Conference.

In contrast to Mr. Zarif’s assertion, the Iranian concession followed a decision by the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) to dump its quiet diplomacy approach towards Iran and revert to public pressure. The FIVB threatened on the eve of the Kish tournament to suspend the event if Iran failed to grant women spectators access. Iran alongside Saudi Arabia is the only country that bars women spectators from attending men’s sporting events.

"From now on women can watch beach volleyball matches in Kish if they observe Islamic rules," said Kasra Ghafouri, acting director of Iran's Beach Volleyball Organisation.

The FIVB has flip flopped in its attitude towards Iran. The group initially took a lead among international sports associations in publicly declaring that it would not grant Iran hosting rights as long as women were not given unfettered access to stadia. In response, Iran promised to allow women to attend international volleyball tournaments in the Islamic republic. Taking Iranian authorities by their word, women travelled last year to Kish for the 2016 tournament only to discover that Iran would not make good on its promise.

Rather than demonstrating sincerity by following through on its threat, the FIVB said it would not sanction the Islamic republic because gender segregation was culturally so deep-seated that a boycott would not produce results. Instead, the federation argued that engagement held out more promise. 

The decision flew in the face of the facts. Gender segregation in volleyball in Iran was only introduced in 2012, 33 years after Islamic revolutionaries toppled the Shah. Senior volleyball executives said at the time that the FIVB feared that a boycott would put significant revenues at risk.

The FIVB’s change of attitude was seemingly backed by the United States. The US Volleyball Federation on the informal advice of the State Department decided at the time not to send its woman president to Iran when the US national team played there even though the vice president of Iran is a woman and Iranian sports associations have women’s sections that are headed by women.

Ultimately, quiet diplomacy did not pan out, prompting the FIVB to return to a proven tactic, the very threats that Mr. Zarif asserted would not work. Mr. Ghafouri referred in his statement exclusively to Kish, a resort island and free trade zone in the Gulf far from the Iranian heartland known for its somewhat more relaxed enforcement of strict Islamic mores. The litmus test for both Iran and the FIVB’s sincerity in ensuring women spectators’ access to international volleyball events is likely to be this June’s FIVB Volleyball World League in the capital Tehran.

The FIVB’s success in ensuring women’s access to the Kish tournament is remarkable given that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is locked into a tough battle in advance of presidential elections in May that could make him the first Iranian head of state not to serve a second term in more than three decades. Many Iranians are disappointed that Iran’s nuclear agreement that lifted crippling international sanctions and was championed by Mr. Rouhani has failed to meet popular expectations of a swift trickledown effect.

Mr. Rouhani is embroiled in a power struggle with powerful domestic forces like the Revolutionary Guards eager to ensure that Iran’s return to the international fold does not affect their vested interests. Women’s sporting rights do not figure high on Mr. Rouhani’s agenda in this struggle against the backdrop of Mr. Trump has calling the nuclear agreement into question.

Moreover, in contrast to soccer, volleyball has been largely a battle between an international sporting association and Iranian authorities rather than a struggle by Iranian women. British-Iranian national and law student Ghoncheh Ghavami became the exception when she and several others attempted in June 2014 to attend a Volleyball World League match at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Ms. Ghavami was charged with “propaganda against the state,” and held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for months.      

Iranian women disguised as boys or men have, however, repeatedly over the years sought to enter Azadi Stadium, during soccer matches, Iran’s most popular sport. An attempt by eight women wearing men’s clothes, short hair and hats was foiled last month when they were arrested at the entrance to the stadium.

A BBC Persian reporter, one of the few Iranian women to have ever officially attended a post-revolution soccer match in Azadi Stadium, recently countered with her own experience Iranian justification of the ban on the grounds that it was designed to shield women from men’s rowdiness in sport stadia and to pre-empt the temptation of genders mixing.

In the stadium as a translator for a television crew during a 2006 World Cup qualifier, men wildly celebrating Iran’s victory made a path for her as she struggled to make her way through a crowd to a news conference. “They behaved much better, contrary to what the authorities think. If we have women in stadiums, men will behave much better,” the reporter 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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Friday, February 17, 2017

Challenging the state- Pakistani militants form deadly alliance

By James M. Dorsey and Azaz Syed

This week’s suicide bombing of a popular Sufi shrine is the latest operation of a recently formed alliance of militant jihadist and sectarian groups that includes the Islamic State (IS) and organizations associated with the Pakistani Taliban, according to Pakistani counterterrorism officials.

The bombing of the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in the southern Pakistani town of Sehwan in Sindh province by a female suicide bomber that killed 83 people, including 20 children, was the alliance’s 9th attack this week. The grouping earlier this week targeted the Punjabi parliament, military outposts, a Samaa TV crew, and a provincial police station.

The alliance represents a joining of forces by Pakistani and Afghan jihadists and groups who trace their origins to sectarian organizations that have deep social roots. The alliance’s declared aim is to challenge the state at a time that Pakistan is under external pressure to clean-up its counterterrorism act. A recent Pakistani crackdown on militants has been selective, half-hearted, and largely ineffective.

The Pakistani military and foreign office this week twice summoned Afghan embassy officials in response to the campaign of violence to protest the alleged use of Afghan territory for attacks in Pakistan and demand that Afghanistan either act against 76 militants identified by Pakistani intelligence or hand them over to Pakistani authorities. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif asserted that the attack on parliament had been planned in Afghanistan.

Pakistan on Friday closed its border with Afghanistan. Pakistani forces also launched a nation-wide sweep in search of members of the alliance in which as of this writing some 100 people were killed.

Counterterrorism officials said the alliance of eight organizations formed late last year included IS, the Pakistani Taliban and some of its associates, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (LJA), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), and Jundallah.

Members of the alliance have demonstrated their ability to wreak havoc long before they decided to join forces.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for a December 2014 attack on a public military school in which 141 people, including 132 school children, were killed. The attack sparked public outrage and forced the government to announce a national action plan to crack down on militants and political violence. The plan has so far proven to be a paper tiger.

LJA and IS said they carried out an attack last October on a police academy in Quetta that left 62 cadets dead. In August, JuA wiped out a generation of Baluch lawyers who had gathered at a hospital in Quetta to mourn the killing of a colleague, the second one to be assassinated in a week.

The bombings and killings did little to persuade Pakistan’s security establishment that long-standing military and intelligence support for groups that did the country’s geopolitical bidding in Kashmir and Afghanistan as well as for sectarian and ultra-conservative organizations and religious schools that often also benefitted from Saudi funding was backfiring. The support has allowed some of these groups to garner popular support and make significant inroads into branches of the state.

“The enemy within is not a fringe... Large sections of society sympathize with these groups. They fund them, directly and indirectly. They provide them recruits. They reject the Constitution and the system. They don’t just live in the ‘bad lands’ but could be our neighbours. The forces have not only to operate in areas in the periphery, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but have also to operate in the cities where hundreds, perhaps thousands form sleeper cells, awaiting orders or planning to strike,” said Pakistani columnist Ejaz Haider in a commentary.

Credible Pakistani media reports, denied by the government as well as the military, said that the attacks had brought out sharp differences between various branches of government and the state over attitudes towards the militants during a meeting last year of civilian, military and intelligence leaders. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Foreign Minister were reported to have told military and intelligence commanders that Pakistan risked international isolation because of its failure to enforce the national action plan.

JuA last month announced the alliance’s challenging of the state with its declaration of Operation Ghazi, named after Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a leader of Islamabad’s controversial Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, widely viewed as jihadist nerve centre, who was killed in clashes in 2007 with the military. The group said the alliance would target provincial parliaments; security forces, including the military, intelligence and the police; financial institutions; non-Islamic political parties; media; co-ed educational institutions; Shiites and Ahmadis, a group widely viewed by conservative Muslims as heretics that have been declared non-Muslims in Pakistan’s constitution.

There is little indication that the formation of the alliance and the launch of its violent campaign will spark a fundamental re-think of its longstanding differentiation between militant groups that do its geopolitical bidding in Afghanistan and Kashmir and those that target the Pakistani state.

Pakistan’s refusal despite the crackdown in the wake of the most recent attacks to put an end to its selective countering of political violence was evident in an earlier crackdown on groups that are believed to have close ties to the security establishment.

Pakistan, in a bid to prevent a possible inclusion of Pakistan in a re-working by President Donald J. Trump of his troubled ban on travel to the United States from violence-prone Muslim countries with active jihadist groups and pre-empt sanctions by a Bangkok-based Asian money laundering watchdog, last month put leaders of another internationally designated group under house arrest. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global inter-governmental body that combats money laundering and funding of political violence is expected to discuss Pakistan in the coming days at a meeting in Paris.

The government, in addition to treating the leaders of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), widely seen as a front for Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, with kid’s gloves rather than putting them in prison, has so far remained silent about the group’s intention to resume operations under a new name. The government has also said nothing about the group’s plans to register itself as a political party.

Analysts with close ties to the military have argued that simply banning JuD and seizing its assets would not solve the problem because of the group’s widespread popular support. Some analysts draw a comparison to militant Islamist groups in the Middle East such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah in Lebanon that have garnered popular support by functioning both as political parties and social service organizations.

“Ensuring that such groups disavow violence and have a path towards participation in a pluralistic, competitive political environment is more likely to offer the prospect of greater stability. That may work for some groups like JuD but not for those responsible for this week’s wave of indiscriminate killing,” one analyst 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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Azaz Syed is a prominent, award-winning Pakistani investigative reporter for Geo News and The News. He is the author of the acclaimed book, The Secrets of Pakistan's War On Al-Qaida

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Militants put half-hearted Pakistani counter-terrorism at crossroads

Source: The News

By James M. Dorsey

A militant faction associated with the Pakistani Taliban has put Pakistani authorities, already under pressure from the United States and an Asian money laundering watchdog, at a crossroads in their hitherto half-hearted efforts to crack down on violent groups, some of which maintain close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar earlier this week fired its first shots in a new offensive that aims at Pakistan government, military and civilian targets with a suicide attack on the Punjabi parliament. Fifteen people were killed in the attack. The group also attacked three military outposts in the Pakistani tribal agency of Mohmand.

The offensive dubbed Operation Ghazi came as Pakistan sought to fend off potential steps against Pakistan, including inclusion on a possible revision of President Donald J. Trump’s embattled list of countries whose nationals are temporarily banned from travel to the United States, and punitive steps by the Bangkok-based Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering (APG). APG has been looking into Pakistani financial transaction of internationally banned groups that continue to operate with Pakistani acquiescence.

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar demonstrated its ability to force Pakistan to act against militants, no matter how half-heartedly, with its December 2014 attack on a public military school in which 141 people, including 132 school children, were killed.

The attack sparked public outrage and forced the government to announce a national action plan to crack down on militants and political violence. The plan has largely proven to be a paper tiger.

With its announcement on February 10 of Operation Ghazi and this month’s attacks, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar could force Pakistan’s government and security establishment to again review its counterterrorism strategy, employment of militant proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and implementation of the action plan. The operation was named after Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a leader of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, who was killed in clashes in 2007 with the military.

While any review is likely to amount in the short term to finetuning rather than a fundamental revision of Pakistani policies, it would probably nudge Pakistan one step closer to realizing that its strategy is backfiring and increasingly proving too costly. Pakistan has long denied supporting militant groups and has repeatedly charged that Jamaat-ul-Ahrar was a creation of Indian intelligence.

Pakistan last month put one of the world’s most wanted men, Hafez Muhammad Saeed, a leader of the banned group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) and its alleged front, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), under house arrest. Although internationally listed as a globally designated terrorist, Mr. Saeed was restricted in his freedom of movement rather than incarcerated while his movement has started operations under a new name, Tehrik-e-Azadi Jammu o Kashmir.

Earlier, Pakistan’s State Bank, the country’s monetary authority announced the freezing of accounts of 2,000 militants that militants and analysts said did not hold the bulk of the militants’ assets.

Projecting himself as a key figure in radical Islamist opposition to the state, Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz, the brother of Mr. Ghazi and current head of the Red Mosque, a notorious militant nerve centre, spelled out the philosophy of the militants in a recent interview. Sporting a white wild growth beard as he sat cross-legged on a mattress on the floor of a booklined room in a rundown compound that houses the mosque’s seminary, Mr. Abdul Aziz rejected the Pakistani government’s authority.

“These corrupt rulers are not fit to rule. They don’t have moral authority. They live in wealth while the people live in abject poverty. If the state is not within the boundaries of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, we have no right to recognize its authority. Pakistan is not a Muslim country. We still have the law of the colonial power. We disagree with those who believe in democracy,” Mr. Abdul Aziz said with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye.

The International Crisis Group warned in a just released report that “ethno-political and sectarian interests and competition, intensified by internal migration, jihadist influx and unchecked movement of weapons, drugs and black money, have created an explosive mix” in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. The report said the city was a pressure cooker as a result of a failure of government policy, lack of action against militant and criminal groups, and “a heavy-handed, politicised crackdown by paramilitary Rangers.”

The report noted that “anti-India outfits like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa (LeT/JD) and Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to operate madrasas and charity fronts with scant reaction from the Rangers or police.”

The ICG called on federal and local government to “replace selective counter-terrorism with an approach that targets jihadist groups using violence within or from Pakistani territory; regulate the madrasa sector; and act comprehensively against those with jihadist links.”

Pakistan has a vast number of uncontrolled madrassas or religious seminaries that are run by militant groups, many with close ties to Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, that teach an intolerant, supremacist, often sectarian interpretation of Islam. Complicating any government effort to supervise madrassas, is the fact that the government has no reliable data on how many seminaries exist.

A military campaign in 2009 against the Pakistani Taliban in the country’s tribal areas prompted the group to set up shop in Karachi. Its estimated 8,000 operatives in the city heightened tension and increased levels of violence.

“Karachi thus changed from a city in which jihadist combatants mainly rested and recuperated from fighting elsewhere to one that also generated vital funding. TTP (Pakistani Taliban)-run extortion rackets, for instance, targeted marble factory owners in strongholds such as Manghopir, while kidnapping for ransom and robberies generated additional revenue. The police were regularly attacked, bans were enforced on ‘immoral activities’ and ‘peace committees’ (mobile courts and jirgas – councils of elders) were established to win over constituents and consolidate local authority,” the ICG report 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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Women’s gyms lay bare limits of Saudi reforms


By James M. Dorsey

A Saudi decision to license within weeks the kingdom’s first women-only gyms constitutes progress in a country in which women’s rights are severely curtailed. It also lays bare the limitations of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan for social and economic reforms that would rationalize and diversify the kingdom’s economy.

Restrictions on what activities the gyms will be allowed to offer reflects the power of an ultra-conservative religious establishment and segment of society critical of the long overdue reforms that became inevitable as a result of sharply reduced oil revenues and the need to enhance Saudi competitivity in a 21st knowledge-driven global economy.

At least two years in the making, the licensing rules announced by Princess Reema bin Bandar, vice president for women’s affairs of the General Authority of Sports, the kingdom’s sports czar, focus on Prince Mohammed’s plans laid out in a document entitled Vision 2030. The plans involve streamlining government expenditure, including public health costs in a country that boasts one of the world’s highest rates of obesity and diabetes.

“It is not my role to convince the society, but my role is limited to opening the doors for our girls to live a healthy lifestyle away from diseases that result from obesity and lack of movement,” Princess Reema said in announcing the licensing.

Princess Reema, the kingdom’s first ever women’s sports official, hopes to open gyms in every district and neighbourhood in the kingdom. The move constitutes progress in a country that has yet to introduce sports in public girl’s schools and has no public facilities for women’s sports.

Commercially run gyms catering primarily to upper and upper middle class women as well as privately organized women’s sports teams have been operating in the kingdom in a legal nether land for several years.

Princess Reema indicated that gyms would be licensed to focus on activities such as swimming, running and bodybuilding but not for sports such as soccer volleyball, basketball and tennis.

The licensing rules are in line with a policy articulated in 2014 by Mohammed al-Mishal, the secretary-general of Saudi Arabia's Olympic Committee. At the time, Mr. Al-Mishal, responding to pressure by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said women would only be allowed to compete in disciplines that were "accepted culturally and religiously in Saudi Arabia" and conform to a literal interpretation of the Qur’an. Mr. Al-Mishal identified such sports as equestrian, fencing, shooting, and archery.

They are also in line with unrealistic hopes abandoned several years ago to emphasize individual rather than team sports in a men’s only national sports plan. The idea to de-emphasize team sports was intended to limit the potential of soccer becoming a venue of anti-government protest as it had in Egypt and elsewhere during the 2011 popular Arab revolts. It proved unrealistic given that Saudi Arabia, like most nations in the region, is soccer-crazy. Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that it would privatize five of the kingdom’s top soccer clubs.

Women’s sports is one litmus test of Saudi Arabia’s ability to tackle its social, political and economic challenges head on and move forward with Prince Mohammed’s outline of how the government hopes to diversify the economy, streamline its bloated bureaucracy and safeguard the Al Saud’s grip on power.

Vision 2030 identifies sports “as a mainstay of a healthy and balanced lifestyle and promises “to encourage widespread and regular participation in sports and athletic activities.”

The licensing of women’s gyms is occurring even though Vision 2030 made no reference to facilities for women. The document also failed to even implicitly address demands by the IOC and human rights groups that women be allowed to compete freely in all athletic disciplines rather than only ones mentioned in the Qur’an.

The Washington-based Institute of Gulf Affairs, headed by Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed, reported in 2014 that up to 74 percent of adults and 40 percent of children are believed to be overweight or obese.

“Women in Saudi Arabia are being killed softly by their government. Not by public executions or brutal rapes and beatings, but by day-to-day restrictions imposed on them by their government… It must be understood that restrictions on women sports and physical activity have nothing to do with culture or religion, but rather, are fuelled by the ruling elite as a means to control the population. As long as the Saudi government continues to claim that such bans are a result of cultural and personal practices, women will continue to suffer a decline in physical and mental health, as well as their social, economic and political status,” the report asserted.

It said that the restrictions amounted to “an almost completely sedentary lifestyle forced on women by the government through a de facto ban on physical education and sports participation for women that stems from the Wahhabi imperative of ‘keeping women unseen.’”

Saudi media have reported that lack of exposure to sun had led to vitamin D deficiency among 80 
percent of Saudi women.

A Human Rights Watch report concluded last year that “inside Saudi Arabia, widespread discrimination still hampers access to sports for Saudi women and girls, including in public education.”

The group noted that Saudi women were denied access to state sports infrastructure and barred from participating in national tournaments and state-organized sports leagues as well as attending men’s national team matches as spectators. Women have difficulty accessing the 150 clubs that are regulated by the General Authority, which organizes tournaments only for men.

Human Rights Watch called on the Saudi government to demonstrate its sincerity by making physical education for girls’ mandatory in all state schools; ensuring that women can train to teach physical education in schools; establishing sports federations for women and allows them to compete domestically and internationally; supporting women who want to compete in international sporting competitions on an equal footing with men; and allowing women to attend sporting events involving men’s national teams.

“Saudi authorities need to address gender discrimination in sports, not just because it is required by international human rights law, but because it could have lasting benefits for the health and well-being of the next generation of Saudi girls,” Human Rights Watch director of global initiatives Minky Worden said at the time.

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 the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and a forthcoming book, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa