Richard Whittall:

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


Middle East Eye: "

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

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


Bob Bradley, former US and Egyptian national coach: "James Dorsey’s The Turbulent World of Middle Eastern Soccer (has) become a reference point for those seeking the latest information as well as looking at the broader picture."
Alon Raab in The International Journal of the History of Sport: “Dorsey’s blog is a goldmine of information.”
Play the Game: "Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
Andrew Das, The New York Times soccer blog Goal: "No one is better at this kind of work than James Dorsey"
David Zirin, Sports Illustrated: "Essential Reading"
Change FIFA: "A fantastic new blog'

Richard Whitall of A More Splendid Life:
"James combines his intimate knowledge of the region with a great passion for soccer"

Christopher Ahl, Play the Game: "An excellent Middle East Football blog"
James Corbett, Inside World Football


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

UEFA decision on Gibraltar opens AFC prospects for Kurds



By James M. Dorsey

A decision by European soccer body UEFA to grant Gibraltar the right of membership potentially opens the door to Kurdistan to seek association with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in a move that would acknowledge demands for increased autonomy and the possible shifting of national borders in the Middle East as a result of a wave of change sweeping the region and the civil war in Syria.

The UEFA decision on Gibraltar following a ruling by the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) and the possible Iraqi Kurdish application to the AFC puts pressure on world soccer body FIFA to loosen its rules on membership as the group gears up for its general assembly in Mauritius next week.
CAS ruled that UEFA’s adoption in 1999 of FIFA’s rule that members need to be recognized by the United Nations was unfair. UEFA originally accepted the UN rule in 1999 to appease Spain which was opposed to the British outpost’s membership.

FIFA has used the rule to bar groups like the Kurds but relaxed its criteria for Palestine, which was granted membership despite not having full UN membership. The AFC’s statutes refer to the UN rule only indirectly by stating that membership has to comply with FIFA’s statutes.

An application by Iraqi Kurdistan is likely to be resisted by Middle Eastern members of the AFC that are largely controlled directly or indirectly by governments that have been put on the defensive as a result of the popular revolts in the region and an international community that is reticent to see a redrawing of colonial-era borders.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been autonomous within Iraq since Western powers imposed a no-fly-zone in the early 1990s to protect the Kurds from retaliation by then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Kurds see their national soccer team as a vehicle to assert nationhood and achieve eventual statehood.

The Kurds are but one group, albeit the most important one in the Middle East, that is demanding greater self-rule and recognition of national rights. The civil war in Syria has raised questions about what a post-Bashar Al-Assad state would look like with Syrian Kurds demanding autonomy and fears that Mr. Al-Assad’s last resort may be to carve out a state for his minority Alawite sect. Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey are negotiating with the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greater rights within Turkey.

Sunni Muslim tribal leaders in Iraq are demanding a federation that would give them greater control of their own affairs against the backdrop of increased sectarian violence. Other multi-ethnic states in the Middle East like Iran risk minorities demanding greater rights. Israel and the Palestinians have yet to agree on their borders as part of an elusive peace agreement.

“Ominous political realities may be rendering the nation-state system incompatible with the emerging new Arab world….the disintegration that the region has already witnessed – and will undoubtedly continue to witness – will reverberate beyond the Arab map with the creation of a sovereign Kurdish state. Such a state, whether existing de facto or with widespread formal recognition, will have an ever-lasting effect on the boundaries of the Arab world (Syria and Iraq) and of the wider Middle East (Turkey and Iran),” said Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, in a recent analysis.

A statement by Iraqi Kurdish president Massoud Barzani equating sports to politics as a way of achieving recognition adorns Iraqi Kurdistan’s three major stadiums and virtually all of its sports centers and institutions. “We want to serve our nation and use sports to get everything for our nation. We all believe in what the president said,” says Kurdistan Football Federation (KFF) president Safin Kanabi, scion of a legendary supporter of Kurdish soccer who led anti-regime protests in Kurdish stadiums during Saddam Hussein’s rule.

While Arab states’ natural inclination would be to reject an Iraqi Kurdish application to the AFC, some believe that opponents of Mr. Al-Assad, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar may use it as leverage to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to reduce support for Mr. Al-Assad. Iraq has a one year, 800,000 ton oil contract with Syria and is believed to allow Iranian cargo planes headed for Syria to regularly transit its air space.

The KFF has been demanding since last year that FIFA grant its team the right to plqy international friendlies in much the same way that the soccer body allowed Kosovo and Catalonia to do so.

“Like any nation, we want to open the door through football. Take Brazil. People know Brazil first and foremost through football. We want to do the same. We want to have a strong team by the time we have a country. We do our job, politicians do theirs. Inshallah (if God wills), we will have a country and a flag” adds Kurdistan national coach Abdullah Mahmoud Muhieddin.

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



Monday, May 27, 2013

Syrian Civil War: Russia Forges Risky Ties with Islamists




RSIS presents the following commentary Syrian Civil War: Russia Forges Risky
Ties with Islamists by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link.
(To print it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the
Editor RSIS Commentaries, at  RSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg


No. 100/2013 dated 27 May 2013

Syrian Civil War: Russia Forges
Risky Ties with Islamists

By James M. Dorsey

Synopsis

In a strategy fraught with risk, Russian President Vladimir Putin is exploiting deep-
seated domestic anger at the United States and fundamentalist Russian Orthodoxy
to justify his support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and forge an
alliance with Islamist forces.

Commentary
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin is countering foreign criticism of his pro-Assad
policy and Russia’s declining credibility in sections of Arab public opinion by forging
ties with Islamist detractors.

In a move that serves both Putin’s domestic and Russia’s foreign interests, a cross
section of Islamist and secular political opinion in the Middle East and North Africa
recently attended a Vaidal Discussion Club conference organised by the Institute of
Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the RIA Novosti news agency
and Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, Moscow, with the backing of the Russian
Foreign Ministry.

Forging commonalities

Officially intended as a brainstorming on rising Islamist political forces in the region
stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf  that is  wracked by popular
protest and discontent, the conference offered Russian officials, academics and
journalists an opportunity to drive home the notion that conservative Russian
Orthodox Christians and Islamists share a common value system.

Reduced international credibility for backing Al-Assad is a small price to pay,
particularly at a time when Putin has been travelling inside the country to regain
some of his lost popularity. If all foreign policy is domestic, President Putin should be
a popular man. He is standing up to the United States and the West, which in the
eyes of many Russians were the reasons for their country’s decline as a super power
and economic hardship. A significant slice of Russian public opinion believes that
Russia’s current problems stem from the US imposing neo-liberal policies on it in the
1990s.

Catching several flies in one swoop

In reaching out to the Islamists, Russia hopes to catch several flies in one fell swoop.
It aligns itself, despite differences over Syria, with a political force that is on the rise
and demonstrates that it can still wield influence in the Middle East and North Africa.
Islamists have won post-revolt elections in Egypt and Tunisia and are a major force in
Libya and Yemen – the four countries that witnessed the toppling of their autocratic
leaders in the last two years – and are an important segment in the armed resistance
to the Al-Assad regime in Syria. It also serves Russia in its confrontation with Islamist
insurgents in the Caucasus.

To achieve its goal, Russia deliberately included arch conservative Russian Orthodox
officials and journalists among the participants in Marrakech who represent an
important segment of Russian society. According to a prominent Russian analyst: “The
Soviet era is over. The post-Soviet era is over. There is nothing to fill the vacuum.
Logically something pre-Soviet will fill the vacuum. It is likely to fail, but for now that is
an ultra-conservative streak of Russian Orthodoxy”.

In exchanges with Islamists from Egypt, Iran, Lebanese group Hezbollah and Palestine’s 
Hamas, among others, Russian Orthodox conservatives left more liberal Arabs and
Westerners aghast at the length to which they were willing to go in their wooing of the
Islamists. Conservative Russian Orthodox journalists and officials asserted that Western
culture was in decline while Oriental culture was on the rise, that gays and gender
equality threaten a woman’s right to remain at home and serve her family and that Iran
should be the model for women’s rights.

A senior Russian official told the conference that people understood the manipulation
employed by Western democracies. However, he said, religious values offered a moral and 
ethical guideline that guarded against speculation and economic bubbles while traditional 
Islamic concepts coincided with their guidelines.

A strategy that could backfire

Russia’s deployment of conservative Russian Orthodoxy could well help Putin and Moscow
further their interests, but it is also a strategy that could backfire. It could associate Russia
with a force that ultimately proves incapable of leading reform. Egyptian President
Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood are under fire for failing to make good on
the goals of the popular revolt that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, including greater
freedom, dismantling of the Mubarak-era repressive machinery, corruption and economic
reform. Similarly, Tunisia’s Islamist-led government has yet to demonstrate that it can
manage the country’s post-revolt transition.

The difficulties Egyptian and Tunisian Islamists are experiencing in  making the move from
clandestine groups to inclusive administrations has prompted Islamists elsewhere to rethink
a too early acceptance of responsibility and power. Jordanian Muslim Brothers boycotted
elections earlier this year officially in protest against gerrymandering, but also with an eye
on what was happening elsewhere in the region.

Similarly, Russia’s position on Syria is likely to become ever more unpalatable as the
violence in Syria on both sides of the divide becomes ever more brutal. If and when
Al-Assad is forced out of office, Russia’s alliance with the Islamists could identify it with
one faction rather than as an independent player in what is likely to be a prolonged, ugly
and bloody struggle for power.

Finally, Islamists are likely to maintain their support for their brethren in the Caucasus
irrespective of their relations with Moscow. That would render Russian foreign policy in
the perceptions of many as purely opportunistic and undermine Moscow’s claim that
its policies, including its support of Al-Assad, are based on principles such as non-
interference in the domestic affairs of others.

Said a prominent Russian analyst: “It’s a brilliant strategy if it works. The problem is
that if we end up with egg in our face, we will be further from home than we are now”.

 James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is the author of the
 blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Quartz: US intelligence sees soccer as indicator of discontent


To locate the next Arab Spring revolution, look to the soccer stands

It’s been said that soccer tells us all we need to know about

Now a Singapore-based blogger says soccer can tell us which
Middle East or North African government will be the next to
blow. At the top of the list: Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

James M. Dorsey looks at soccer as a lens through which to
view the fault lines carving up the Middle East and North Africa.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other countries, he says, soccer
played a key role in allowing pent-up anger and frustration to
percolate into organized protest that forced transitions from
autocratic rule to more open societies.

In these countries, those engaging in public forms of dissent are
often tortured and “disappeared.” Soccer fans, in contrast, are
allowed to vent as much as they want, and in large numbers.
Stadiums become incubators of protest and insurrection. One only
has to watch the action off the pitch to accurately gauge the mood
of the people and see how close they are to erupting into mass protest,
Dorsey tells Quartz.

Dorsey, a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, has
been writing his blog for three years. In February 2011, 
he focused on the role of the militant, highly politicized, and well
organized soccer fans, known as Ultras, in Egypt’s uprising.
Here’s a taste:

One catch: Often, especially in family-run monarchies, the
countries’ leaders own soccer clubs as a status symbol, so 
fans might just be mad at the government for the latest losing 
streak. That might have been the case recently in Saudi Arabia, 
where fans booed Prince Faisal bin Turki, the owner of Riyadh 
soccer club Al Nassr FC.

Saudi soccer fans booing and pelting a prince.http://www.Alhilal.com/The Turbulent World of
Middle East Soccer blog
Dorsey doesn’t think so, and contends the Saudis are in trouble.
Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad agrees, based on the
increasingly militant behavior of young male soccer fans in the stands
as well as on Facebook and YouTube.

“It has reached a breaking point. They are calling for overthrow, and
using very similar chants to fans in Tunisia and elsewhere,’’ said
al-Ahmad, of the Institute for Gulf Affairs. “When they are all together,
they are not afraid anymore.”

Dorsey predicts the next revolt will be in Algeria. Soccer fans there are
increasingly voicing opposition to 76-year old president Abdelaziz
Bouteflika, who is recovering from a stroke in Paris. Recently, they
interrupted a moment of silence during a match to commemorate the
death of a former leader, chanting “Bouteflika is next.”

Dorsey says some very influential security types, as well as soccer officials,
follow his blog for hints as to what is to come. One US intelligence official
agrees with Dorsey’s premise. The official, who has spent decades in the
Middle East and North Africa, said CIA officers routinely attend matches
to glean clues as to where a country is headed.

Often, the official said, an autocratic regime would cover up burgeoning
dissent by blaming it on hooliganism. The CIA person on the ground would
mention that, too, in the cable back to headquarters: “They would take note
of it all, and put it in context. As soon as the prince shows up, everyone
starts booing. That sort of thing.’’

Monday, May 20, 2013

Saudi Arabia to allow women into stadiums


Protests persuade Saudi prince to leave the pitch

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia, under domestic and international pressure to grant women sporting rights, is creating separate stadium sections so that female spectators and journalists can attend soccer matches in a country that has no public physical education or sporting facilities for women.

The move announced by the recently elected head of the Saudi Football Federation, Ahmed Eid Alharbi, a storied player believed to be a reformer, also comes as soccer is emerging as a focal point of dissent in the conservative kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has been slow in granting limited enhancement of women’s rights in response to demands by activists. Women in Saudi Arabia are banned from driving, travelling without authorization from a male relative and banned from working in a host of professions. Saudi Arabia’s religious police said last month that women would be allowed to ride bikes and motorbikes in recreational areas provided that they were properly dressed and accompanied by a male relative.

Saudi Arabia recently also announced that it would allow girl’s physical education in private schools as long as they do so in line with Islamic law. Yet, a five-year national sports plan, the kingdom’s first, currently being drafted does not make provisions for women’s sports. Saudi sources say the government is also for the first time considering licensing women’s soccer clubs.

Saudi Arabia last year sent under pressure from the International Olympic Committee women athletes, albeit expatriate ones, to the 2012 London Olympics, the first time Saudi women competed in an international tournament. The kingdom is also under pressure from the West Asian Football Federation, which earlier this year, issued guidelines to ensure that women have equal rights and opportunities in soccer.

Speaking at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, according to Saudi press reports, Mr. Alharbi hinted at the economic impact of allowing women to attend matches by saying that the creation of facilities for them would increase capacity at various stadiums by 15 percent. He said the Prince Abdullah Al-Faisal Stadium in Jeddah would be the first to accommodate up to 32,000 women followed by the King Abdullah City stadium in the capital in 2014. Saudi Arabia, which enforces strict gender segregation, first announced in 2012 plans to upgrade the Jeddah stadium to enable women to enter.

Meanwhile, in the latest politically-loaded soccer incident, Al Ittihad SC of Jeddah, filed a complaint against Riyadh’s Al Hilal SC after an Al Ittihad official and fans tweeted and chanted racist remarks. Al Ittihad, which has a number of dark-skinned Saudi players, and Al Hilal are among Saudi Arabia’s top clubs.

“The last match between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad clearly revealed the indecency of Al-Ittihad players through two movements – one from ‘the monkey’ Fahd Al-Muwallad who did not stop proceeding when Muhammad Al-Qarni was injured in a jostle with him. Secondly, (they) did not fulfill the commitment to Majed Al-Murshidi, and did not greet or thank him,” Saud Al-Sahli, assistant director of public relations and announcer at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, said on Twitter. Al Hilal fans chanted Some Al-Hilal fans had shouted “Nigger, Nigger” during the match earlier this month. Messrs. Al-Muwallad and Al-Qarni are both dark-skinned.

Saudi newspapers warned that racist incidents threaten to rekindle religious sectarianism, tribalism, and regionalism in the kingdom, in part a reference to Shiite Muslim protests in the oil-rich Eastern Province. 
“The racist and sectarian utterances of sports fans should not be punished by fines alone, as some heads of the sports clubs are immensely rich and can pay the fines against their fans without feeling any burden. There should be harsher punishments, including a ban on the fans from entering the stadiums, reducing the club’s league points or even downgrading it to a lower division,” the Saudi Gazette said in an editorial.

Members of the royal family with positions in Saudi soccer or who own clubs have been repeatedly in the past year in the firing line of disgruntled fans. A Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution demands the resignation of Prince Faisal bin Turki, the owner of storied Riyadh club Al Nasser FC and a burly nephew of King Abdullah who sports a mustache and chin hair. A You Tube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly being pelted and chanted against as he rushed off the soccer pitch after rudely shoving a security official aside.

The campaign against Prince Faisal follows last year’s unprecedented resignation of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF), the first royal to be persuaded by public pressure step down in a region where monarchial control of the sport is seen as politically important.

Prince Nawaf’s resignation led to the election of Mr. Alharbi, a commoner, in a country that views free and fair polling as a Western concept that is inappropriate for the kingdom. Prince Nawaf retained his position as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the senior official responsible for youth welfare that effectively controls the SFF.

Nevertheless, the resignation of Prince Nawaf and the campaign against Prince Faisal gains added significance in a nation in which the results of premier league clubs associated with various members of the kingdom’s secretive royal family are seen as a barometer of their relative status, particularly at a time that its septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders prepare for a gradual generational transition.
Said a Saudi journalist, summing up the mood among fans and many other Saudis: “Everything is upside down. Revolution is possible. There is change, but it is slow. It has to be fast. Nobody knows what will happen.”

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

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Algeria: Middle East’s next revolt if soccer is a barometer


Algerian soccer fans protest in 2011

By James M. Dorsey

Algeria is competing to be the next Arab nation to witness a popular revolt. That is assuming soccer is a barometer of rising discontent in a region experiencing a wave of mass protests that have already toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen and sparked civil war in Syria.

In fact, there is increasingly  little doubt that soccer, a historic nucleus of protest in Algeria, is signaling that popular discontent could again spill into the streets of Algiers and other major cities. Two years ago, protesters inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, ultimately pulled back from the brink despite the toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Now, in circumstances similar to Saudi Arabia, protests are mounting amid uncertainty about the future as Algeria’s aging leadership struggles with a series of natural deaths and the effects of health problems among its remaining key members.

Soccer fans earlier this month demonstrated their disdain for the fate of 76-year old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika who is recovering from a stroke in a Paris hospital by cheering their team for days in the streets of Algiers in advance of an upcoming championship. Similarly, fans interrupted a moment of silence in a stadium to commemorate the death of a former leader by chanting “Bouteflika is next.”

Mr. Bouteflika’s illness follows the death in the past year of two former presidents, Ahmed Ben Bella and Chadli Benjedid and Ali Kafi, who served as a transition leader in the early 1990s while the military fought Islamist forces who had won elections in a brutal war that left some 100,000 people dead.
The memory of that war and the military-dominated regime’s liberal social spending temporarily took the wind out of the demonstrators’ sails and persuaded them in 2011 to shy away from staging a full-fledged revolt.

Mr. Bouteflika’s stroke threatens to change that.

"If there is not real democratic transition, there will be an uprising ... we will return to the violence of the 1990s," warned Chafiq Mesbah, a former member of Algeria's intelligence service and now a political analyst, earlier this month in an interview with The Associated Press.

The most recent protests are part of an upsurge in soccer-related violence in Algeria, an indicator that increased wages and government social spending is failing to compensate for frustration with the failure of the country’s gerontocracy in control since independence to share power with a younger generation, create jobs and address housing problems.

Dozens of people, including a player, were injured six months ago when supporters of Jeunesse Sportive de la Saoura (JSS) stormed the pitch during a premier league match in their home stadium in Meridja in the eastern province of Bechar against Algiers-based Union Sportive de la Médina d'El Harrach (USM). The incident followed a massive brawl between players and between fans after a Libya-Algeria Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. 

Relations between the two countries have been strained since Algeria refused to support the NATO-backed popular revolt that overthrew Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. Algeria granted until recently refuge to Colonel Qaddafi’s wife Safiya and his daughter Aisha. One of his sons, Hannibal, was also believed to be in Algeria before leaving with the other family members for Oman..Libya apologized in November after hundreds of Libyan fans surrounded the Algerian embassy in Tripoli, ripped the Algerian emblem from the building and burnt an Algerian flag.

The protesters’ retreat into the stadiums amounted to a tacit understanding between Algerian soccer fans and security forces that football supporters could express their grievances as long as they did so within the confines of the stadiums. “Bouteflika is in love with his throne, he wants another term," is a popular anti-government chant in stadiums.

Stadiums have long been an incubator of protest in soccer-crazy Algeria. A 2007 diplomatic cable sent by the US embassy in Algiers and disclosed by Wikileaks linked a soccer protest in the desert city of Boussaada to demonstrations in the western port city of Oran sparked by the publication of a highly contentious list of government housing recipients. The cable warned that “this kind of disturbance has become commonplace, and appears likely to remain so unless the government offers diversions other than soccer and improves the quality of life of its citizens.

Seven fans were killed in the last five years in soccer-related violence and more than 2,700 wounded, according to Algerian statistics.

Algeria’s domestic fragility is highlighted by almost daily smaller protests in towns across the country sparked by discontent over lack of water, housing, electricity, jobs and salaries. Protests have led to suspension of soccer matches. Soccer was also suspended during last year’s legislative elections.

A sense that the government may revert to strong arm tactics rather than reform if protests swell was reinforced when General Bachir Tartag was recalled from retirement in 2012 to head the Directorate for Internal Security (DSI). Gen. Tartag, who is believed to be in his sixties, made a name for himself during the civil war against the Islamists as one of Algeria’s most notorious hardliners and a brutal military commander.

The appointment positions him as a potential successor to aging Algerian spy chief Gen. Gen. Mohamed ‘Tewfik’ Mediene, widely viewed as the number two within the Algerian regime should he eventually take over from Mr. Bouteflika.

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reform of Middle Eastern Militaries: Lessons from Indonesia


 
No. 092/2013 dated 14 May 2013

Reform of Middle Eastern Militaries:
Lessons from Indonesia
 By James M. Dorsey

      
 Synopsis

The recent commando raid on a prison by Indonesian special forces provoked
renewed debate about the need to further reform the military and subject it to civilian
justice - 15 years after the end of autocratic rule in Jakarta. This illustrates the difficult
road post-revolt nations in the Middle East and North Africa have to travel.

Commentary

THE RECENT RAID of an Indonesian prison and summary execution of four inmates by
heavily armed Special Forces commandos has cast the spotlight on the risk involved in 
failing to fully reform the country’s military - 15 years after the end
of autocratic rule.

The raid and subsequent charging of 11 officers as well as other recent incidents involving
security forces has sparked debate about the nature and terms of the reform including the
fact that its members are accountable to military rather than civilian courts. Those courts 
have proven to be lenient in sentencing soldiers accused of murder.

Changing a culture of impunity

Critics blame the incidents on the failure to reform the internal workings and culture of the
Indonesian armed forces. At the centre of the Indonesian debate lie questions that are
certain to be raised in Middle Eastern nations like Egypt where the alleged impartiality
of the armed forces during the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak is under fire.
Recent leaks of the report of a fact-finding mission established by President Mohamed
Morsi assert that the military killed and tortured protesters during the revolt - charges
the command of the armed forces has denied.

Human rights groups however accuse the police and security forces of continuing
to arbitrarily arrest and torture suspects while militant soccer fans believe these forces,
alongside the military, were responsible for last year’s death of 74 people in a politically
charged stadium brawl in Port Said.

The experience of countries like Indonesia and Turkey that have struggled for years with
changing a culture of impunity pervasive throughout the military and security sector
however highlight issues that go beyond upholding human rights. The military’s
exemption from full civilian control in Indonesia and Turkey limited the authority of a state
seeking to establish itself as the catalyst of democratic rule.

Parallel systems of justice impinged on the rule of law. Lack of full civilian control in Egypt
fuelled  the continued existence beyond the law of a deep state - a network of vested
political, military and business interests - similar to the one in Turkey that took
decades to uproot and threatened political and economic change demanded by the
European Union. The military’s vested economic interests distorted economies because
of fiscal concessions and access to inside information.

The raid by the Indonesian special forces, known as Kopassus, put the pitfalls of military
and security sector reform back on the front burner. Kopassus members forced their way on
23 March into the prison in the city of Yogyakarta and took justice into their own hands by
shooting dead four detainees accused of stabbing to death a sergeant during a fight in a
bar. Two weeks earlier, scores of soldiers burnt a police station in South Sumatra and
injured 17 police officers in retaliation for the shooting of one of theirs. The incidents followed
the imprisonment of three soldiers in Papua in 2011 for torturing two detainees.

Fuelling discontent

The incidents sparked debate on the same issues confronting post-revolt nations like
Egypt, foremost among which  is what reform is needed to adapt the military and security
forces to a democratic society; also whether non-transparent military courts are able and
willing to maintain accepted human rights standards. Human rights groups in Indonesia
are demanding that the military be accountable to the civilian justice system. Discontent in
Egypt is fuelled by the failure so far to hold military and law enforcement officials
accountable for the death of at least 900 people since the toppling of Mubarak.

A decade-and-a-half of democracy and free media enables Indonesia to publicly debate
the effectiveness of past reforms. Restoration of a measure of political stability and economic
recovery in crisis-riddled Egypt hinges in part on reform of at least the security sector –
the most despised institution because of its role in enforcing the Mubarak-era repression.

The Indonesian military responded to the raid by relieving the military commander of Central
Java of his duty for initially denying that Special Forces had been involved. By contrast,
Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) warned against efforts to tarnish the
military’s image against a perceived background of a crackdown on the media.

To be sure, distrust of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, reinforced by the president’s reliance on
the security forces and the military despite his increasingly strained relations with
the armed forces, undermines his ability to push through necessary reforms. Like in
Indonesia where the 11 officers experienced a wave of support because their victims
were alleged drug traffickers, efforts to reform the military in Egypt are complicated by a
divided public, part of which believes that military rule is their country’s only way out of its crisis.
 
Shared characteristics

The recent incidents in Indonesia nevertheless underscore the need to address reform
of the military and security sector’s internal procedures, ethical standards,
education, training and compensation. Such reforms go far beyond replacing military
commanders as Morsi did last year and this month’s dismissal by Yemeni President Abd
Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi of senior officers related to the country’s ousted leader, Al
Abdullah Saleh. Those moves were largely motivated by Morsi and Al-Hadi’s efforts to
employ the military as tools to stabilise their grip on power.

The Indonesian and Egyptian military share a desire to retain their privileges. Admiral
Agus Suhartono, the commander in chief of the Indonesian military, has rejected calls
that the 11 soldiers be tried by a civilian rather than a military court. Similarly, Egyptian
Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki insisted in a meeting with human rights activists earlier
this year that it was the interior ministry’s internal responsibility to reform its forces.
One participant in the meeting said on Twitter that Mekki’s remarks were “far worse’
than anything he had heard from Mubarak’s justice minister.

Like in Indonesia, the question of military reform in Egypt is complicated by public
perception of the police and security forces, who are widely viewed as not only
brutal but also incompetent and corrupt. Fifteen years of democracy and a vibrant
media in Indonesia have failed to resolve issues but have made viable a healthy debate
that will likely lead to change in which the armed forces have no choice but to participate.
However the viability of that debate in post-revolt Middle Eastern nations has yet to
pass the litmus test.
 

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, director of the University of
Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle
East Soccer blog.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Soccer emerges as focal point of dissent in Saudi Arabia


Prince Faisal rushes off the pitch

By James M. Dorsey

Soccer, alongside minority Shiite Muslims and relatives of imprisoned government critics, is emerging as a focal point of dissent in Saudi Arabia, an oil-rich kingdom that despite banning demonstrations by law is struggling to fend off the waves of change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

Fan pressure is evolving as a potent tool in the absence of the right to protest. It follows intermittent demonstrations and at times deadly clashes with security forces in the kingdom’s predominantly Shiite Eastern Province that hosts its major oil fields as well protests by family members of activists imprisoned for lengthy periods of time without being charged.

In the latest assertion of fan power, a Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution demands the resignation of Prince Faisal bin Turki, the owner of storied Riyadh club Al Nasser FC and a burly nephew of King Abdullah who sports a mustache and chin hair. A You Tube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly being pelted and chanted against as he rushed off the soccer pitch after rudely shoving a security official aside.

The campaign against Prince Faisal follows last year’s unprecedented resignation of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF), the first royal to be persuaded by public pressure step down in a region where monarchial control of the sport is seen as politically important.

Prince Nawaf’s resignation led to the election of a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid Alharbi widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer, in a country that views free and fair polling as a Western concept that is inappropriate for the kingdom. Prince Nawaf retained his position as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the senior official responsible for youth welfare that effectively controls the SFF.

Nevertheless, the resignation of Prince Nawaf and the campaign against Prince Faisal gains added significance in a nation in which the results of premier league clubs associated with various members of the kingdom’s secretive royal family are seen as a barometer of their relative status, particularly at a time that its septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders prepare for a gradual generational transition.

“The Saudis are extremely worried. Soccer clubs rather than the mosque are likely to be the center of the revolution. Kids go more to stadiums than to mosques. They are not religious, they are ruled by religious dogma,” says Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad, who heads the Gulf Institute. Mr. Al-Ahmad was referring to the power of clerics preaching Wahhabism, the puritan interpretation of Islam developed by 18th century preacher Mohammed Abdul Wahhab. Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family established the kingdom with the help of the Wahhabis who in return were granted the right to ensure that their views would dominate public life.

Sport sources in the soccer-crazy kingdom say the authorities are seeking to reduce soccer’s popularity by emphasizing other sports like athletics and handball in policy and fund-raising while at the same time preparing to professionalize and further commercialize the sport using the English Premier League as a model.

“They are identifying what talent is available in the kingdom. Football is a participatory sport. They want to emphasize the social aspects of other sports. Football won only one medal in the last Asian Games. They think they can score better in other sports. There are parallel agendas with competition about who gets the visibility,” one source said.

Soccer’s popularity and competition with religion was evident during the 2010 World Cup when authorities parked trucks in front of Internet and other cafes, rolled out red carpets and urged Saudis watching matches on television screens to interrupt at prayer time.

The clergy’s puritan view of life that only allowed for the emergence of soccer in the 1950s is under pressure with clerics being forced to retreat from their refusal to permit physical education for girls and women’s sports facilities.  Saudi Arabia recently announced it would allow girl’s physical education in private schools as long as they do so in line with Islamic law. Yet, a five-year national sports plan, the kingdom’s first, currently being drafted does not make provisions for women’s sports.

In a further move, sports sources say Saudi Arabia may be on the verge of licensing women’s soccer clubs that currently operate in a legal nether land often with the help of more liberal members of the royal family. These opportunities are however largely accessible only to women from wealthier families. Deputy Minister of Education for Women's Affairs, Nora al-Fayez, was recently quoted as saying that public schools could follow suit.

With sports facilities for women almost non-existent, women are forced to for example to jog dressed so that men cannot see their bodies. Similarly, there are no opportunities to train for international tournaments. Saudi Arabia last year fielded under pressure from the International Olympic Committee for the first time women – albeit expatriate ones- at an international competition during the London Olympics. In the kingdom itself, the all-women Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University is the only institution of higher education that has sports facilities, including a swimming pool, tennis court and exercise area for females.

Columnist Abdulateef al-Mulhim in the Arab News recently credited women for Al Fateh SC’s success in winning the Saudi soccer championship. The victory broke a cycle of poor performance that had depressed a key manager of the club based in the city of Al Mubaraz, Al Mulhim wrote.

“His mother was the one who encouraged him not to give up and gave him the financial support needed for running the club. Ironically, she even advised him about many of the deals which involved the transfer of the best players to the club… As time passed, people knew of more women from the families in Al Mubaraz city.

In the official website, there are more women’s names who are honorary members of this club such as, Fathyah, Ayshah and Fatimah Al Rashid. There are other ladies from other families who also were part of the general public relations through the social media means and through their direct support…. In other words, many young men and women from the city of Al Mubaraz put their hands together and accomplished a dream for being the best in the Kingdom. Last year, this club was the most admired for its performance and for the information of the readers,” Al Mulhim said.

Al Mulhim’s highlighting of the women of Al Mubaraz as well as the introduction of sports in schools positions sports as a key platform for enhancing women’s rights in which women retain economic rights but are even more restricted than men in their political rights and personal lives.

Nevertheless, it reflects gradual change. Women are prominent in various professions, will be allowed to run for office and vote for the first time in the 2015 municipal elections, were last year admitted to the more or less toothless top advisory council to the king and permitted to be sales’ clerks in female apparel shops and ride motorcycles and bikes in parks properly dressed and accompanied by a male relative. The ban, however, on driving remains in place.

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