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Monday, February 19, 2018

Valentine’s Day pinpoints limits of Saudi prince’s Islamic reform effort

Credit: AsiaTown.net

By James M. Dorsey

Valentine’s Day in Riyadh and Islamabad as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia puts into sharp relief Saudi Arabia’s ability to curtail the global rise of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism the kingdom helped fuel at the very moment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing some of its sharpest edges in his own country.

To be fair, controversy over Valentine’s Day is not exclusively a Muslim ultra-conservative preserve. Russian and Hindu nationalists have condemned the celebration as either contradictory to their country’s cultural heritage or a ‘foreign festival.’

Yet, the Muslim controversy takes on greater global significance because of its political, security and geopolitical implications. Its importance lies also in the fact that it demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, after funding the global promotion of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for four decades to the tune of $100 billion, has helped unleash a genie it no longer can put back into the bottle.

The contrast between, yes, a socially liberalizing Riyadh, and increasingly more conservative Islamabad; Indonesia’s Makassar, Surabaya and arch-conservative Bandar Aceh; and Indonesia and Malaysia’s highest Islamic councils could not be starker.

Banned for years from celebrating Valentine’s Day with shops barred from hawking anything that was red or mushy cards that hinted at the love feast, Saudis this year encountered a very different picture in markets and stores. This year they were filled with items in all shades of red.

One Saudi flower vendor reported that he had sold 2,000 red roses in one day with no interference from the kingdom’s once dreaded religious police.

Sheikh Ahmed Qasim Al-Ghamdi, the outspoken former religious police chief, in a reversal of the conservative religious establishment’s attitude, put Valentine’s Day on par with Saudi Arabia’s National Day as well as Mothers’ Day.

“All these are common social matters shared by humanity and are not religious issues that require the existence of a religious proof to permit it,” Sheikh Ahmed said in remarks that were echoed by religious authorities in Egypt and Tunisia.

While Saudis were enjoying their newly granted social freedoms that include the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, Pakistanis were groping with a second year of a Saudi-inspired ban, in part the result of the kingdom’s pernicious support of ultra-conservatism in the country for more than six decades.

The Islamabad High Court last year banned public celebration of Valentine’s Day on the basis of a private citizen’s petition that asserted that “in cover of spreading love, in fact, immorality, nudity and indecency is being promoted –which is against our rich culture.’

The ban followed a call on Pakistanis by President Mamnoon Hussain to ignore Valentine’s, Day because it “has no connection with our culture and it should be avoided.’

This year, Pakistan’s electronic media regulator ordered broadcasters not to air anything that could be interpreted as a celebration of Valentine’s Day.

Official opposition highlighted the fact that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative attitudes have become entrenched within the Pakistani state and would take years, if not a decade, to dislodge without creating even greater havoc in the country.

While ultra-conservatism dominated attitudes in all of Pakistan, countries like Indonesia and Malaysia were engaged in culture wars with proponents of Saudi-influenced worldviews agitating against Valentine Day’s or imposing their will in parts of the country where they were in control or exerted significant influence.

In Indonesia, at least 10 cities banned or curtailed love feast celebrations. Authorities in Surabaya, the country’s second largest city, last week briefly detained some two dozen couples suspected of enjoying their Valentine’s Day.

Banda Ace in Ace province and Makassar on the island of Sulawesi upheld their several years-old bans. Last year, Makassar’s municipal police raided convenience shops on February 14 and seized condoms, claiming that they were being sold ‘in an unregulated way’ to encourage people to be sexually promiscuous on Valentine’s Day.

The actions were legitimized by a ruling in 2012 by Indonesia’s highest Islamic council that stipulated that Valentine’s Day violated Islam’s teachings.

The attitude of Malaysia’s state-run Islamic Development Department (JAKIM) based on a fatwa or religious opinion that it issued in 2005 is in line with that of their Indonesian counterparts. JAKIM annually blames Valentine’s Day, that it describes as a Christian holiday, for every sin in the book ranging from abortion and child abandonment to alcoholism and fraudulent behaviour.

Authorities have over the years repeatedly detained youths on Valentine’s Day on charges of being near someone of the opposite sex who is not a spouse or close relative.

Valentine’s Day is often but one battleground in culture wars that involve gay and transgender rights as well as the existence and application of blasphemy laws and the role of Islam in society. The vast majority of ultra-conservative protagonists have no link to Saudi Arabia but have been emboldened by the kingdom’s contribution to the emergence of conducive environments and opportunistic government’s that kowtow to their demands.

The culture wars, including the Valentine’s Day battlefield, suggest that Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce a degree of greater social freedom and plan to halt Saudi funding of ultra-conservatism elsewhere is likely to have limited effect beyond the kingdom’s borders even though the kingdom with its traditionally harsh moral codes is/was in the Muslim world in a class of its own.

A Saudi decision earlier this month to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels in the face of Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators appears at best to be an effort to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and underline Prince Mohammed’s seriousness rather than the start sign of a wave of moderation.

Brussels was one of a minority of Saudi institutions that was Saudi-managed. The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s largesse operated independently.

As a result, the Valentine’s Day controversy raise the spectre of some ultra-conservatives becoming critical of a kingdom they would see as turning its back on religious orthodoxy.


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

Saturday, February 17, 2018

China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East (JMD in EAF)


China’s step into the maelstrom of the Middle East

Author: James M Dorsey, RSIS
The Middle East has a knack for sucking external powers into its conflicts. China’s ventures into the region have shown how difficult it is to maintain its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.
China’s abandonment of non-interference is manifested by its (largely ineffective) efforts to mediate conflicts in South Sudan, Syria and Afghanistan as well as between Israel and Palestine and even between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is even more evident in China’s trashing of its vow not to establish foreign military bases, which became apparent when it established a naval base in Djibouti and when reports surfaced that it intends to use Pakistan’s deep sea port of Gwadar as a military facility.
This contradiction between China’s policy on the ground and its long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy principles means that Beijing often struggles to meet the expectations of Middle Eastern states. It also means that China risks tying itself up in political knots in countries such as Pakistan, which is home to the crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative — the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Middle Eastern autocrats have tried to embrace the Chinese model of economic liberalism coupled with tight political control. They see China’s declared principle of non-interference in the affairs of others for what it is: support for authoritarian rule. The principle of this policy is in effect the same as the decades-old US policy of opting for stability over democracy in the Middle East.
It is now a risky policy for the United States and China to engage in given the region’s post-Arab Spring history with brutal and often violent transitions. If anything, instead of having been ‘stabilised’ by US and Chinese policies, the region is still at the beginning of a transition process that could take up to a quarter of a century to resolve. There is no guarantee that autocrats will emerge as the winners.
China currently appears to have the upper hand against the United States for influence across the greater Middle East, but Chinese policies threaten to make that advantage short-term at best.
Belt and Road Initiative-related projects funded by China have proven to be a double-edged sword. Concerns are mounting in countries like Pakistan that massive Chinese investment could prove to be a debt trap similar to Sri Lanka’s experience.
Chinese back-peddling on several Pakistani infrastructure projects suggests that China is tweaking its approach to the US$50 billion China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Chinese rethink was sparked by political volatility caused by Pakistan’s self-serving politics and continued political violence — particularly in the Balochistan province, which is at the heart of CPEC.
China decided to redevelop its criteria for the funding of CPEC’s infrastructure projects in November 2017. This move seemingly amounted to an effort to enhance the Pakistani military’s stake in the country’s economy at a time when they were flexing their muscles in response to political volatility. The decision suggests that China is not averse to shaping the political environment of key countries in its own authoritarian mould.
Similarly, China has been willing to manipulate Pakistan against its adversaries for its own gain. China continues to shield Masoud Azhar (who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence agencies and military forces) from UN designation as a global terrorist. China does so while Pakistan cracks down on militants in response to a US suspension of aid and a UN Security Council monitoring visit.
Pakistan’s use of militants in its dispute with India over Kashmir serves China’s interest in keeping India off balance — a goal which Beijing sees as worthy despite the fact that Chinese personnel and assets have been the targets of a low-level insurgency in Balochistan. Saudi Arabia is also considering the use of Balochistan as a launching pad to destabilise Iran. By stirring ethnic unrest in Iran, Saudi Arabia will inevitably suck China into the Saudi–Iranian rivalry and sharpen its competition with the United States. Washington backs the Indian-supported port of Chabahar in Iran — a mere 70 kilometres from Gwadar.
China is discovering that it will prove impossible to avoid the pitfalls of the greater Middle East. This is despite the fact that US President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seem singularly focussed on countering Iran and Islamic militants.
As it navigates the region’s numerous landmines, China is likely to find itself at odds with both the United States and Saudi Arabia. It will at least have a common interest in pursuing political stability at the expense of political change — however much this may violate its stated commitment to non-interference.
Dr James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Expanding regional rivalries: Saudi Arabia and Iran battle it out in Azerbaijan


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By James M. Dorsey

It’s the pot calling the kettle black. As Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of seeking to encircle it with its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as Qatar, the kingdom and the Islamic republic are extending their bitter rivalry beyond the Middle East into the Caucasus.

The two countries’ latest battleground is oil-rich Azerbaijan, an authoritarian, majority Shia Muslim but secular former Soviet republic on Iran’s northern border with a substantial ethnic population in Iran itself. Recent Saudi overtures came amid reports that Azerbaijan’ s security services had warned the government about Iran’s growing influence in the country.

The report suggested that an informal lifting in 2013 of a ban on preaching by Islamic scholars linked to Iran that had been quietly imposed in a bid to stem the flow of Azerbaijani Sunni Muslims joining the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq had enabled the Islamic republic to make inroads.

“Iran's religious activities have become particularly successful,” said Azerbaijani journalist Kenan Rovshanoglu in a study of religious freedom in the country.

Published by Turan, an independent news agency, the study noted that 22 of Azerbaijan’s 150 madrassas or religious seminaries were controlled by Iran.

Iran and Azerbaijan have long tiptoed around each other with both countries concerned that the other could use its religious and/or ethnic affinities to stir trouble. Azeri speakers account for at least a quarter of Iran’s population.

Azerbaijan is, for its part, worried about Iran’s close ties with Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are locked into a decades-long conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Iranian concerns about Azeri nationalism were fuelled when supporters of Tractor Sazi FC, a top club in Tabriz, the capital of the Iranian province of East Azerbaijan, that is a symbol of Iranian Azeri identity, chanted Azeri nationalist slogans three years ago during protests against the government’s environmental policy and alleged anti-Azeri corruption in soccer . 

Araz News, leaked in 2015 a letter allegedly written by Brigadier-General Gholam-Asgar  Karimian, the club’s former chairman, detailing how Traktor Sazi could be used to unite Azeris against what the general termed “racist and separatist groups.”

Araz is operated by the National Resistance Organization of Azerbaijan (NROA), a coalition of opposition forces dominated by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a group that enjoys Saudi support but was tainted when it moved its operations in 1986 to Iraq at a time that Iraq was at war with Iran. A spokesman for NROA, Babek Chelebiyali, denied that his group had any association with the Mujahedeen and asserted that they were "opposite organizations."

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

The letter appeared to advocate measures to weaken the separatists by combatting widespread racist attitudes towards Azeris and improving services in East Azerbaijan. Racial attitudes towards Azeris is something Traktor Sazi knows a lot about.

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

Discussing Azerbaijani policy towards Iran, Elkhan Sahinoglu, head of the Center for Applied Politics at Baku’s Western Caspian University, noted that Azerbaijan had no intention of interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs, but could not “disregard the future of the Azeris who reside in Iran.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corp said in November that it had “dismantled a terrorist team” in East Azerbaijan that was “affiliated with global arrogance,” a reference to the United States, and its allies, including Saudi Arabia. The announcement came weeks after Iran said that it had eliminated an armed group in a frontier area of the province of West Azerbaijan that borders on Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkey and is home to Azeris as well as Kurds.

Columnist Huda al-Husseini highlighted Saudi interest in Azerbaijan in a recent column on Al Arabiya, the television network owned by Middle East Broadcasting (MBC) in which the government reportedly obtained a majority share as a result of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent asset and power purge packaged as a campaign against corruption.

In an article entitled ‘Will Iran turn Azerbaijan into another Iraq?’, Ms. Al-Husseini, quoting an anti-Iranian Iraqi author, Raghd Abdel Rida al-Jaberi, asserted that Azerbaijan feared that it would follow in the footsteps of Iraq where Iran allegedly had destroyed the Iraqi military and turned Iraqis into slaves who had been convinced “that washing and rubbing the feet of Iranians who are heading to visit (Imam) Hussain’s tomb brings them closer to heaven no matter what they do afterwards.”

In a media environment that appears to be pre-occupied with supporting the government’s often sectarian-tinted, anti-Iran policy rather than reporting facts, Ms. Al-Husseini suggested that Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev’s recent attendance of a cultural festival in the kingdom at King Salman’s invitation was part of an effort to resist Iranian encroachment.

Military delegations from the two countries earlier this month discussed closer military cooperation including holding joint military exercises “as well as a number of other issues of mutual interest,” according to Azerbaijani media.

Azerbaijan has also over the years built close military ties to Israel, which like Saudi Arabia, is staunchly opposed to Iran. Israel and Azerbaijan discussed, prior to the 2015 international agreement that curtailed Iran’s nuclear program, using Azerbaijani airbases had it opted for taking out the Islamic republic’s nuclear facilities. The agreement put an end to talk about a military strike.

The bottom line is that if Iran is seeking to encircle Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia and Israel are trying to encircle Iran. The mirror image of Saudi Arabia’s belief that Iraq is Iran’s model for Azerbaijan is an Iranian suggestion that Lebanon is Israel’s model.

“Tel Aviv wants to Lebanonize (Azerbaijan) under a ‘new periphery doctrine.’ This means that Tel Aviv intends to create a new periphery region and encircle Iran through its presence in the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Region and Azerbaijan,” said Iranian analyst Salar Seifoddini. Mr. Seifoddini was referring to Israel’s policy of periphery that seeks to forge relations with those bordering on Israel’s enemies.

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


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Surrendering a Brussels mosque: A Saudi break with ultra-conservatism?


By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators as well as social reforms in the kingdom introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including a lifting of the ban on women’s driving, the granting of women’s access to male sporting events and introduction of modern forms of entertainment.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly strokes with a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism. With few details of the plan known, it remains unclear what the curtailing entails.

It also remains unclear what effect it would have. A report published last month by the Royal Danish Defence College and three Pakistani think tanks concluded that madrassas or religious seminaries in Pakistan, a hotbed of militant religious education, were no longer dependent on foreign funding. It said that foreign funding accounted for a mere seven percent of the income of madrassas in the country.

Like with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, its too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms mean beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished image and preparing it for a beyond-oil, 21st century economic and social existence.

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union given that the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide who benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operated independently.

By doing so, Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project itself as distancing itself from its roots in ultra-conservatism that date back to an 18th century power sharing arrangement between the Al Saud family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

The decision, Prince Mohammed’s initial social reforms, and plans to cut funding notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its confrontation with Iran where support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups is still the name of the game.

Saudi Arabia said last month that it would open a Salafi missionary centre in the Yemeni province of Al Mahrah on the border with Oman and the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military intervention in Yemen was sparked by its conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, a Zaydi Shiite Muslim sect with roots in a region bordering the kingdom, that dates to Saudi employment of Salafism to counter the group in the 1980s and early this century.

Saudi militants reported in the last year that Saudi nationals of Baloch origin were funnelling large amounts of money into militant madrassas in the Pakistani province of Balochistan on the border with Iran. Saudi-funded ultraconservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate the region’s educational landscape. 

The money flowed, although it was not clear whether the Saudi donors had tacit government approval, at a time that Saudi Arabia is toying with the idea of seeking to destabilize Iran by stirring unrest among its multiple minorities, including the Baloch.

A militant Islamic scholar, who operates militant madrassas in the triangle where the borders of Balochistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet, was last year named a globally designated terrorist by the US Treasury while he was fundraising in the kingdom.

Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that in 1969 had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95 percent of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

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

The US embassy in Brussels, in a 2007 cable leaked by Wikileaks, reported that “there is a noted absence in the life of Islam in Belgium of broader cultural traditions such as literature, humanism and science which defaults to an ambient practice of Islam pervaded by a more conservative Salafi interpretation of the faith.”

Saudi Arabia has worked hard in the last year to alter perceptions of its Islamic-inspired beliefs.

Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister and secretary general of the World Muslim League, the group that operates the Brussels mosque and has served for half a century as a key funding vehicle for ultra-conservatism insisted on a visited last year to the Belgian capital that Islam “cannot be equated and judged by the few events and attacks, carried out because of political or geo-strategic interests. As a religion, Islam teaches humanity, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Mr. Al-Issa, in a first in a country that long distributed copies of the Protocols of Zion, an early 20th century anti-Semitic tract, last month, expressed last month on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that commemorates Nazi persecution of the Jews “great sympathy with the victims of the Holocaust, an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Mr. Al-Issa’s comments no doubt also signalled ever closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, who both bitterly oppose Iran’s regional influence. Nonetheless, they constituted a radical rupture in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic scholars, often described Jews  as “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world, the violators of pacts and agreements, the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”


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

Chinese extradition request puts crackdown on Uyghurs in the spotlight


A Chinese demand for the extradition of 11 Uyghurs from Malaysia puts the spotlight on China’s roll-out of one of the world's most intrusive surveillance systems, military moves to prevent Uyghur foreign fighters from returning to Xinjiang, and initial steps to export its security approach to countries like Pakistan.

The 11 were among 25 Uyghurs who escaped from a Thai detention centre in November through a hole in the wall, using blankets to climb to the ground.

The extradition request follows similar deportations of Uyghurs from Thailand and Egypt often with no due process and no immediate evidence that they were militants.

The escapees were among more than 200 Uighurs detained in Thailand in 2014. The Uyghurs claimed they were Turkish nationals and demanded that they be returned to Turkey. Thailand, despite international condemnation, forcibly extradited to China some 100 of the group in July 2015.

Tens of Uyghurs, who were unable to flee to Turkey in time, were detained in Egypt in July and are believed to have also been returned to China. Many of the Uyghurs were students at Al Azhar, one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning.

China, increasingly concerned that Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq will seek to return to Xinjiang or establish bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the wake of the territorial demise of the Islamic State, has brutally cracked down on the ethnic minority in its strategic north-western province, extended its long arm to the Uyghur Diaspora, and is mulling the establishment of its first land rather than naval foreign military base.

The crackdown appears, at least for now, to put a lid on intermittent attacks in Xinjiang itself. Chinese nationals have instead been targeted in Pakistan, the $50 billion plus crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road initiative that seeks to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through infrastructure.

The attacks are believed to have been carried out by either Baloch nationalists or militants of the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a Uighur separatist group that has aligned itself with the Islamic State.

Various other groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have threatened to attack Chinese nationals in response to the alleged repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
ETIM militants were believed to have been responsible for the bombing in August 2015 of Bangkok’s Erawan shrine that killed 20 people as retaliation for the forced repatriation of Uighurs a month earlier.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad warned in December of possible attacks targeting “Chinese-invested organizations and Chinese citizens” in Pakistan

China’s ambassador, Yao Jing, advised the Pakistani interior ministry two months earlier that Abdul Wali, an alleged ETIM assassin, had entered the country and was likely to attack Chinese targets

China has refused to recognize ethnic aspirations of Uyghurs, a Turkic group, and approached it as a problem of Islamic militancy. Thousands of Uyghurs are believed to have joined militants in Syria, while hundreds or thousands more have sought to make their way through Southeast Asia to Turkey.

To counter ethnic and religious aspirations, China has introduced what must be the world’s most intrusive surveillance system using algorithms. Streets in Xinjiang’s cities and villages are pockmarked by cameras; police stations every 500 metres dot roads in major cities; public buildings resemble fortresses; and authorities use facial recognition and body scanners at highway checkpoints.

The government, in what has the makings of a re-education program, has opened boarding schools "for local children to spend their entire week in a Chinese-speaking environment, and then only going home to parents on the weekends," according to China scholar David Brophy. Adult Uyghurs, who have stuck to their Turkic language, have been ordered to study Chinese at night schools.

Nightly television programs feature oath-swearing ceremonies," in which participants pledge to root out "two-faced people," the term used for Uyghur Communist Party members who are believed to be not fully devoted to Chinese policy.

The measures in Xinjiang go beyond an Orwellian citizen scoring system that is being introduced that scores a person’s political trustworthiness. The system would determine what benefits a citizen is entitled to, including access to credit, high speed internet service and fast-tracked visas for travel based on data garnered from social media and online shopping data as well as scanning of irises and content on mobile phones at random police checks.

Elements of the system are poised for export. A long-term Chinese plan for China’s investment in Pakistan, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), envisioned creating a system of monitoring and surveillance in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order.

The system envisions deployment of explosive detectors and scanners to “cover major roads, case-prone areas and crowded places…in urban areas to conduct real-time monitoring and 24-hour video recording.”

A national fibre optic backbone would be built for internet traffic as well as the terrestrial distribution of broadcast media. Pakistani media would cooperate with their Chinese counterparts in the “dissemination of Chinese culture.”

The plan described the backbone as a “cultural transmission carrier” that would serve to “further enhance mutual understanding between the two peoples and the traditional friendship between the two countries.”

The measures were designed to address the risks to CPEC that the plan identified as “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said.

At the same time, China, despite official denials, is building, according to Afghan security officials, a military base for the Afghan military that would give the People’s Republic a presence in Badakhshan, the remote panhandle of Afghanistan that borders China and Tajikistan.
Chinese military personnel have reportedly been in the mountainous Wakhan Corridor, a narrow strip of territory in north-eastern Afghanistan that extends to China and separates Tajikistan from Pakistan since March last year.

The importance China attributes to protecting itself against Uyghur militancy and extending its protective shield beyond its borders was reflected in the recent appointment as its ambassador to Afghanistan, Liu Jinsong, who was raised in Xinjiang and served as a director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund.


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

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Crisis in the Maldives: A geopolitical chess game

Credit: Siddhant Gupta / The Print

By James M. Dorsey

The outcome of a power struggle in the Maldives that has sparked declaration of an emergency, military control of parliament, and arrests of senior figures, is likely to shape the geopolitical designs of China, India, the United States and Saudi Arabia at a strategic interface of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

The struggle between authoritarian president Abdulla Yameen and exiled former president and onetime political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed, a staunch critic of Chinese and Saudi interests, has a direct bearing on the future of the two countries’ significant investment that has already reshaped the archipelago’s social and political life.

The struggle also involves Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the politician who served longest as the country’s leader, Mr. Gayoom’s son-in-law, Mohamed Nadheem, and senior figures in the judiciary, including Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed. All were detained last week on charges of corruption and attempting to overthrow the government.

Mr. Yameen, in what United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein dubbed an "all-out assault on democracy," declared the state of emergency after the Supreme Court ordered the release from prison of opposition politicians and their retrial. The state emergency, gives the government sweeping powers to make arrests, search and seize property, and restrict freedom of assembly.

The court ruling appeared to enhance Mr. Nasheed’s chances of challenging Mr. Yameen in elections scheduled for later this year by giving the opposition a majority in the country's legislative assembly.

Politics in the Maldives, a strategically located 820-kilometre-long chain of atolls with a population of 420,000 that is best known as a tourism hotspot threatened with demise by climate change, are convoluted. Mr. Gayoom is Mr. Yameen’s half-brother and opposed to the president together with Mr. Nasheed, who unseated Mr. Gayoom in the country's first democratic elections in 2008.

Mr. Yameen, who came to power in 2013 in a disputed election that opponents say was rigged and has since been accused of eroding democracy, allowing Islamic militancy to flourish, cracking down on dissent and jailing opposition leaders, has been amenable to Chinese and Saudi interests that analysts believe could lead to the establishment of military bases in the archipelago.

China sees the islands as a node in its “string of pearls” – a row of ports on key trade and oil routes linking the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East – while for Saudi Arabia, the atolls also have the advantage of lying a straight three-hour shot from the coast of regional rival and arch-foe, Iran.

The possible building of Chinese and/or Saudi military bases in the Maldives would complement the independent development of both nations’ military outposts in Djibouti, an East African nation on a key energy export route at the mouth of the Red Sea.

They “want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard trade routes – their oil routes – to their new markets. To have strategic installations, infrastructure,” Mr. Nasheed charged last year.

The United States. through its Sri Lanka-based ambassador, and India have primarily sought to counter China’s growing influence by pressuring on Mr. Yameen to adhere to democratic principles. Mr. Nasheed was in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo when the state of emergency was declared and like incarcerated Judge Saeed, who was appointed by Mr. Nasheed, has maintained contact with Indian authorities.

Mr. Yameen’s election in 2013 derailed negotiations with the United States for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that would have tightened military cooperation with the Maldives and given the US military greater access to the archipelago. A return to power by Mr. Nasheed, who in 2009 became the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, would have likely revived the negotiations.

Mr. Yameen, in a further turn towards China, in 2016 withdrew the Maldives from the Commonwealth of Nations after the association of former British colonies threatened to suspend it for chipping away at democratic institutions.

Saudi Arabia sees its soft power in the Maldives as a way of convincing China it is the kingdom rather than Iran that is the key link in China’s Belt and Road initiative that aims to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through Chinese-funded infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia, to lay the ground for the investment, has in recent years funded religious institutions in the Maldives and offered scholarships for students wanting to pursue religious studies at the kingdom’s ultra-conservative universities in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The funding has pushed the Maldives towards greater intolerance and public piety. Public partying, mixed dancing and Western beach garb have become acceptable only within expensive tourist resorts.

The Maldives is, moreover, believed to have contributed more Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq on a per-capita basis than any other country that was not a party to the conflicts.

The Saudis, despite being bitterly opposed to the Islamic State, have had, according to Mr. Nasheed, “a good run of propagating their world view to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to the view that they have enough sympathy to get a foothold.”

Messrs. Nasheed and Gayoom have urged India to intervene to force Mr. Yameen to release the judges and other political prisoners. Mr. Nasheed went a step further by calling on India to deploy a "physical presence" in the archipelago. India, which rarely intervenes in the affairs of foreign countries, helped put down an attempted coup in the Maldives in the 1980s.

In a statement, India advised Mr. Yameen to abide by the rule of law. "In the spirit of democracy and rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the court," the statement said.

The US State Department charged that "President Yameen has systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure, deprived elected members of parliament of their right to represent their voters in the legislature, revised laws to erode human rights... and weakened the institutions of government."

Mr. Yameen, backed by China and Saudi Arabia, and in the absence of more strident Indian and/or US action, is likely to maintain the upper hand. He appears to enjoy the support of his military and police despite the sacking of the police commission immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency. To drive the point home, state television showed pictures of military and police officers pledging to sacrifice their lives "in the defense of the lawful government."


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

Monday, February 5, 2018

Asia’s dark underbelly: Conflicts threaten long-term stability and development


By James M. Dorsey

A host of conflicts, stretching across the Asian landmass from the Middle East to Southeast Asia and northwest China, are likely to spark violence, complicate economic development, and dash hopes for sustainable stability.

The conflicts and tensions range from ethnic strife in Kurdish areas of Syria and Iran, mortally wounded Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, embattled Baloch nationalism in Pakistan, disposed Rohingya in Southeast Asia, and widespread discontent in Iran, to iron-grip repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Xinjiang. Individually and collectively, they promise to create black swans and festering wounds that threaten economic growth and social development.

Stripped to their bare essence, the conflicts and tensions have one thing in common: a quest for either cultural, ethnic or national, or political rights or a combination of those, that governments not only refuse to recognize but are willing to suppress with brutal force.

Repression and military action are designed to suppress political, ethnic and/or national, and economic and social grievances in the false belief that a combination of long-term suppression and economic development will weaken ethnic and/or national and political aspirations as well as undermine dissent.

That is true in case of the Rohingya and Uyghurs as well as for brutal repression in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and northwest China, and military actions such as the Turkish intervention in Syria’s Afrin.

Problems in the Middle East and South Asia are aggravated by a debilitating struggle for regional hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran that threaten to destabilize the Islamic republic and Pakistan, have already produced a devastating war and a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, and are dragging the Horn of Africa into its orbit.

If history teaches anything, it is that only a minority of autocrats have achieved economic and social development. General Augusto Pinochet ensured that Chile is the only South American member of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), albeit at a high human cost, while Asia gave birth to tigers like South Korea and Taiwan.

Moreover, Asia’s multiple conflicts and tensions do not distract from the fact that by and large, the continent is flourishing economically.

History, however, also teaches that ethnic and/or national aspirations explode with vehemence the moment opportunity arises. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union failed to smother nationalist sentiment in parts of the empire like Chechnya and the Caucasus or erase nationalist differences between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Forty-seven years of communism did not prevent nationalist sentiment from breaking Yugoslavia apart in a series of bloody wars in the 1990s in the wake of the demise of the Iron Curtain.

Carved out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire, modern Turkey has failed to erase demands for Kurdish cultural, if not ethnic or national aspirations, through economic development and political integration based on the principle of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the visionary who founded the republic, that “happy is he who is a Turk.”

Similarly, Palestinian nationalism is alive and kicking 51 years into Israeli occupation of lands conquered during the 1967 Middle East war.

The aftermath of the 2011 Arab popular revolts, involving a concerted counterrevolution co-engineered by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has laid bare the essence of current conflicts and disputes: a determination of regimes to impose policies on minorities or states at whatever cost.

The UAE-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar is a case in point as are Asia’s multiple ethnic conflicts. They erupt in a world in which post-colonial borders are being called into question in countries like Syria, Iraq, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The Rohingya, amid the dizzying array of ethnic and national conflicts stretching from the Middle East or West Asia to China in the East, exemplify the problem in, perhaps, its purest form. Potentially, the Rohingya could become Southeast Asia’s Palestine.

What makes the Rohingya unique is the fact that their aspiration, unlike Palestinians, Kurds, Baloch or Uyghurs, does not involve attachment to a specific piece of land despite a centuries-old history in the Myanmar state of Rakhine. That is also what potentially enables creative thinking about a solution that could open the door to innovative thinking about a multitude of other conflicts.

To many Rohingya, lingering in abysmal conditions in Bangladesh’s Cox Bazaar, after some 650,000 fled repression and terror in Myanmar, securing a sense of belonging on whatever territory that guarantees them protection from persecution as well as economic and social development, is more important than returning to an uncertain existence in Rakhine state. “All I want, is a place to which I can belong,” one refugee said.

Few Rohingya, analysts and officials believe that an agreement that in theory allows Rohingya in Bangladesh to return to Rakhine state will solve the problem. Even if the Rohingya were allowed to return in significant numbers, something that many doubt, nothing in Myanmar government policies and statements suggests that they would be anything more than a barely tolerated, despised ethnic group in a country that does not welcome them.

The makings of a Palestine-like conflict that would embroil not only Myanmar but also Bangladesh and that could spread its tentacles further abroad are evident. In a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Mohammed, a spokesman for the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) using a false name, predicted that suicide bombings constitute the next phase of their effort to secure a safe and stable existence.

The Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation, a charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s deadliest groups, claimed in December that it had established operations in Rakhine state where it had distributed blankets and cash.

"We attacked them (the Myanmar military) because they refuse to give us our basic rights as citizens. Again and again, [the] Myanmar government lies to the world. They say they treat us well and give us rights, but they don't. We are unable to travel from one place to another. We are not allowed to run a business. We are not allowed to go to university. The police and military use various way to suppress us. They beat, torture and humiliate us. That is why we decided to stand up," Mohammed said.

Preventing the Rohingya issue from spiralling out of control and becoming a problem that can no longer be contained to a specific territory, much like the multitude of similar conflicts, disputes, and repression-based regime survival strategies across Asia, requires out-of-the box thinking. Short-term repression and efforts to impose one party’s will at best buys time and sets the scene for avoidable explosions.

With out-of-the-box thinking a rare commodity, nationalism and protectionism on the rise, and regimes, emboldened by an international community unwilling to stand up for basic rights, able to go to extremes like the use of chemical weapons against rebels in the Syrian province of Idlib, long-term prospects for stable and secure development in Asia are dimmed and potentially threatened by predictable black swans.


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

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Double-edged sword: Opinion poll shows Trump’s Iran policy risks


By James M. Dorsey

US President Donald J. Trump’s inclination to withdraw from a three-year old international agreement that curbs Iran’s nuclear program is likely to strengthen the country’s hardliners even if the withdrawal would put responsibility for mounting economic and social discontent squarely on the shoulder of President Hassan Rouhani’s government.

That is the conclusion from a public opinion poll that shows widespread support for Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, deep distrust of Mr. Trump and the United States, and rising criticism of a government that has failed to raise standards of living, get management of the economy right, and fight corruption.

Iran scholar Esfandyar Batmanghelidj suggested that, taken together, responses in the poll to the nuclear issue and the economy revealed the “economic roots of a new-anti-Americanism” in one of the few Middle Eastern countries where public perceptions of the United States until the rise of Mr. Trump had been largely positive. Tehran and Tel Aviv were the only two major Middle Eastern cities that reacted to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in New York and Washington with pro-American demonstrations.

Mr. Batmanghelidj said anti-Americanism was increasing because of perceptions that the Trump administration had failed to fulfil its obligations under the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran by the United States, the European Union, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. “The very idea of diplomacy is being defeated,” Mr. Batmanghelidj said.

More than 80 percent of those surveyed concluded that relations with the US had not improved as a result of the agreement, a stark increase from the 55.7 percent polled in June 2016. 69.2 percent described Mr. Trump as completely hostile towards Iran as compared to 49.6 percent in December 2016.

Some 60 percent asserted that the US had not lifted all the sanctions it was obliged to wave under the agreement, up from 24.5 percent in June 2016. In perhaps one of the more startling responses, the number of Iranians who had an unfavourable or somewhat unfavourable view of Americans rose from 45 percent in July 2014 to 54.5 percent in January of this year.

Three quarters of those surveyed by IranPoll have soured on the nuclear accord. Despite approval of the agreement dropping only 12 points from 87 percent in 2009 to 75.3 percent in January, the poll suggested that a significant majority favoured a hard line on nuclear issues although support for military applications at a mere 1.9 percent was miniscule.

Support for the nuclear accord dropped from 76.5 percent in 2015 to 55.1 percent in January, indicating mounting disillusionment because of the agreement’s failure to produce tangible economic benefits for a majority of the population. That perception was evident in the fact that the sense of lack of economic benefit remained static with 73.8 percent saying in 2016 that they had seen no upside and 74.8 percent expressing a similar sentiment in January.

The 103-question poll raises the question of how the jellying of Iranian foreign, defense, and economic policies will play out. The poll suggests that the public is likely to rally around the Iranian government in support of its refusal to bow to Mr. Trump’s demand for a renegotiation of the nuclear accord.

The question whether the government can address economic and social grievances that recently erupted in widespread anti-government protest is likely to influence attitudes towards the United States as well as the EU that has yet to put flesh on its skeleton of opposition to US tinkering with the nuclear accord.

The EU has so far refrained from putting legal protections in place to protect European companies that invest in Iran against US secondary sanctions should Washington decide to withdraw from the nuclear accord.

Iranian government officials insist that they have heard the complaints expressed in the recent protests. “Growth has not been inclusive,” admits Ali Taiebnia, Mr. Rouhani’s senior economic advisor. Mr. Taiebnia added that “those in charge have heard the message.”

Discussing the Iranian economy, Mr. Taiebnia projected signals of potential change as routine rather than as a response to the protests. He described efforts to reduce the role of the military and the Revolutionary Guards in the economy except for construction as a policy that was being developed for the past three years. Businesses associated with the Guards are believed to account for 15 percent of Iran’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appeared last month in the wake of the protests to put his weight for the first time publicly behind the initiative.

Mr. Taiebnia said an initial study had concluded that “the role of the military in the economy has been exaggerated,” but conceded that a commission had decided that it (the armed forces and the Guards) should withdraw from the services, finance and manufacturing” sectors.

Mr. Taiebnia appeared to downplay this week’s rejection by parliament of the government budget that Mr. Rouhani presented in December on the eve of the protests in a speech in which he focused on corruption. “It’s not important. It will be re-discussed and most probably approved,” Mr. Taiebnia said.

Parliamentarians insisted that the budget needed to address issues such as employment and poverty. The budget’s proposed slashing of cash payments to tens of millions of Iranians was one reason parliament rejected it.

The long and short of the poll’s results is that Iranians are increasingly pessimistic about their economic prospects and that Mr. Trump’s belief that he can force Iran to make concessions on its missile program and support of groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and possibly incite Iranians to revolt against their government could backfire by altering public perceptions of the United States and possibly Europe.

A European move to ensure that it can abide by the nuclear agreement even if the Mr. Trump withdraws could focus Iranian anger exclusively on the US. Some 60 percent of those surveyed expressed confidence that Europe would live up to its obligations.

Perhaps the most troubling poll result is the fact that 67.4 percent of those surveyed concluded from the experience of the agreement that “it is not worthwhile for Iran to make concessions, because Iran cannot have confidence that if it makes a concession world powers will honour their side of an agreement.”

In a further warning sign, 67.3 percent favoured Iran seeking to achieve economic self-sufficiency – a policy pursued by former hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That promises to complicate any future negotiation with Iran.


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