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Thursday, May 18, 2017

One Belt, One Road: A plan for Chinese dominance and authoritarianism


By James M. Dorsey

A leaked long-term plan for China’s massive $56 billion investment in Pakistan projects the goals of the Beijing’s One Belt, One Road initiative as a ploy for economic domination, the creation of surveillance states, and allowing China to shape media landscapes.

It also suggests that China’s concept of economic-win-win diplomacy amounts to what one China analyst described as a “China wins twice strategy” that potentially raises the spectre of popular opposition to the scheme. China has already encountered popular resistance and setbacks in various Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and the Pakistani province of Balochistan, a crown jewel of One Belt, One Road.

Many countries eager to attract Chinese investment, often at whatever cost, praised One Belt, One Road at this week’s summit in Beijing attended by 28 heads of state. Nonetheless, critics are questioning China’s motives.

"China needs to nurture better understanding of its intentions and visions" for the initiative "to prevent unnecessary suspicions about its geopolitical ambition," The Jakarta Post said in an editorial that acknowledged that “we badly need the huge infrastructure spending that China is bringing.”

Similarly, Singapore’s Straits Times noted that China had recently used its economic clout to unsuccessfully pressure South Korea to back away from deployment of a an advanced US anti-missile system by reducing Chinese tourism and blocking Korean music videos on streaming services.

Nationalists in Balochistan have vowed to thwart the Pakistani leg of One Belt, One Road, dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). "This conspiratorial plan (CPEC) is not acceptable to the Baloch people under any circumstances. Baloch independence movements have made it clear several times that they will not abandon their people's future in the name of development projects or even democracy,” said Baloch Liberation Army spokesman Jeander Baloch.

Mr. Baloch spoke after two attacks by different groups in the last 96 hours, one targeting workers toiling on CPEC-related projects, the other Senator Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, the deputy chairman of the upper house of parliament, and a member of Jamiat e Ulema Islam, a right-wing Sunni Islamist political party that is part of Prime Minister Sharif's coalition government.

The attack on the workers exploited widespread discontent among Baloch that they are not benefitting from massive Chinese investment in their province that provides employment primarily for workers from elsewhere in Pakistan. The victims of the attack were from the Pakistani province of Sindh.

While widely condemned, the attack went to the core of problems with China’s execution of its One Belt, One Road initiative detailed in the leaked plan for Pakistan. The leaking of the plan, including its surveillance aspects, coincided with China’s release of the first public draft of a new intelligence law that gives authorities wide-ranging powers to monitor suspects, raid premises, and seize vehicles and devices while investigating domestic and foreign individuals and groups.

Pakistan’s Ministry for Planning, Development, and Reform did not deny the authenticity of the leaked plan. Instead it insisted that the released document “delineates the aspirations of both parties” and asserted that parts of it were “factually incorrect.” The ministry said that the plan was “a live document” and that the published version did not reflect what had since been agreed by China and Pakistan.

Controversy over the leaked document nonetheless highlights problems that repeatedly arise from China’s lack of transparency when it comes to One Belt, One Road as well as a desire by governments that hope to benefit from the initiative to keep secret details that potentially could spark popular opposition.

The leaked document, even if it is not the most current version of plans for CPEC, nonetheless reflects China’s thinking that has been evident not only in Pakistan but also in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Tajikistan.

The draft plan detailed not only benefits China would derive from its investment in Pakistan, but the way Pakistan would be turned even more than it already is into a surveillance state in which freedoms of expression and media are manipulated. It also suggested the degree to which One Belt, One Road is designed to establish China as Eurasia’s dominant power based on economics as well as adoption of measures that undermine democracy or inhibit political transition in autocracies.

As part of the deal, Chinese state-owned companies would lease thousands of hectares of agricultural land to set up “demonstration projects” in areas ranging from seed varieties to irrigation technology. Chinese agricultural companies would be offered “free capital and loans” from various Chinese ministries as well as the China Development Bank.

As part of China’s bid to quell ethnic unrest in Xinjiang through economic development, the plan envisages the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps introducing mechanization as well as new technologies in Pakistani livestock breeding, development of hybrid varieties, and precision irrigation. Pakistan effectively would become a raw materials supplier rather than an added-value producer, a prerequisite for a sustainable textiles industry.

The plan envisages the Pakistani textile sector as a supplier of materials such as yarn and coarse cloth to textile manufacturers in Xinjiang. “China can make the most of the Pakistani market in cheap raw materials to develop the textiles & garments industry and help soak up surplus labour forces in (Xinjiang’s) Kashgar,” the plan said. Chinese companies would be offered preferential treatment with regard to “land, tax, logistics and services” as well as “enterprise income tax, tariff reduction and exemption and sales tax rate” incentives.

In other economic sectors such as household appliances, telecommunications and mining, Chinese companies would exploit their presence to expand market share. In areas like cement, building materials, fertiliser and agricultural technologies, the plan called for building infrastructure and developing a policy environment to facilitate the entry of Chinese companies.

A full system of monitoring and surveillance would be built in Pakistani cities to ensure law and order. The system would involve 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 that 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 plan identifies as risks to CPEC “Pakistani politics, such as competing parties, religion, tribes, terrorists, and Western intervention” as well as security. “The security situation is the worst in recent years,” the plan said. Its solution is stepped up surveillance rather than policies targeting root causes and appears to question the vibrancy of a system in which competition between parties and interest groups is the name of the game.

Pakistan’s Planning Commission tasked with overseeing CPEC had sought to dampen expectations that Chinese projects would foster employment and investment even before the leaking of the document. The overseers told the Pakistani Senate that only Chinese investors would be allowed to invest in the nine proposed special economic zones across Pakistan and that it was uncertain whether Pakistan labour would be engaged. The zones would be open exclusively to Chinese companies. The overseers said Pakistan may not see a revenue windfall from the massive Chinese engagement.

China’s approach to One Belt, One Road as reflected in the leaked CPEC plan, is likely to prove to be the Achilles heel of its ambitious project. The leak demonstrates that the terms of Chinese investment cannot be kept from the public. The failure to be transparent upfront fuels suspicions and charges opposition.

More fundamentally, China’s setbacks to date serve as evidence that One Belt, One Road’s success will depend on popular buy-in in countries involved. Reinforcing authoritarian governance, including stepped-up surveillance and Chinese influence in national media, is ultimately likely to backfire. Stability is a pre-condition for the success of One Belt, One Road. It is likely to be best achieved by transparency and ensuring that everyone has a stake in the project rather than secrecy and increased authoritarianism.


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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Palestinians lament FIFA's delayed decision on settlement teams (JMD quoted in Al-Monitor)

Palestinians lament FIFA's delayed decision on settlement teams

When Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestinian Football Association, took the stand May 11 at the 67th Congress of the international soccer governing body FIFA, leaders were embarrassed. FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s body language spoke volumes. “This is the fifth time that I address this Congress, and you are saying it is premature to take a decision,” Rajoub said in response to FIFA's postponing a decision on Palestinian demands that six Israeli settlement clubs stop playing in the occupied West Bank. The five-hour general assembly meeting of the soccer federation was broadcast live and has been archived on YouTube.
SUMMARY⎙ PRINTFIFA’s failure to make a decision about its own members' not honoring its statutes reflects the tremendous political pressure that is constantly exerted by Israel on various world bodies.
AUTHOR
Rajoub continued his onslaught. “You have punished countries like Nigeria and Kuwait because governments interfered in the operation of the local federations.”
The head of the Palestinian federation rejected the intimidation tactics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on May 8 demanded that Infantino remove the Palestinian proposal to ban settlement clubs from the agenda. “Here we have a situation in which the Israeli prime minister is interfering in the decision of this body.”
Infantino, unable on late notice to remove the Palestinian resolution that had been submitted two months earlier, made an end run. Having secured on May 9 a unanimous vote in the executive council to delay the issue for a year, Infantino submitted to the delegates a proposal to make a decision within one year. Palestinian protests that FIFA statutes forbid such last-minute entries did not dissuade the FIFA president, who railroaded his decision through and asked for an immediate vote.
To explain the council decision, Infantino said that they have not yet received the final written report of the FIFA Monitoring Committee on Israel and Palestine, which is headed by Tokyo Sexwale, a former South African government minister. The committee was appointed during the 65th FIFA Congress to avoid a vote on the same issue. The Palestinians withdrew their motion with the hope that Sexwale, a former anti-apartheid leader, would stand up for justice and fairness.
In a May 8 article published on LinkedIn, soccer expert James Dorsey said the FIFA Monitoring Committee’s draft report concludes with what he called imperfect recommendations: “Allow the status quo to continue, give Israel six months to rectify the situation, or continue talks between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer federations.” In his short speech to the 67th Congress, Rajoub seized on the second of Sexwale’s recommendations and told the 199 delegates assembled in Manama that Palestine is willing to give the Israelis a short period of time to end their incursion. “We recommend giving the Israel Football Association until the end of the current season or a maximum of six months to end playing games on Palestinian lands or face the consequences.”
Rajoub said that his proposal was not a political solution. “This is not a political solution but a football one. Politicization would be if this Congress doesn’t accept this idea but allows Israel to continue flagrantly violating Article 14.1.i of the FIFA statutes.”
Despite Rajoub’s passionate pleas and attempts to block the vote on the last-minute motion, the council request to postpone any decision until March 2018 passed with 73% support, which is far less than all other decisions, such as the FIFA budget and the lifting of the ban of Iraqi friendly games, which were approved by votes with more than 90% support.
Susan Shalabi, the vice president of the Palestinian Football Association, told Al-Monitor that the Palestinian delegation was happy to see 50 delegates go against the FIFA leadership. “This means a lot to us and encourages us to keep fighting.” Noteworthy is that voting is confidential, so it is impossible to know who voted which way.
Shalabi insisted that what the FIFA president did at the congress was a violation of its own statues. “The last-minute resolution is totally against what is allowed by the FIFA statutes, which require all delegates enough time to study a resolution before having to vote on it,” Shalabi said, adding that the Palestinian Football Association will be challenging the decision in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
A press release issued by the Palestinian Football Association shortly after the conclusion of the 67th Congress and obtained by Al-Monitor criticized what it called a legally “ambiguous” decision. “We fear Mr. Infantino's action of today has set a precedent where governments decide the agenda for a FIFA Congress, and violations of the statutes and misuse of its legal devices.”
After the Congress, Infantino spoke again on the issue at a May 11 post-Congress press conference in Manama. He explained that the executive council hasn’t received a written report yet. “I am not happy we didn’t take a decision. We are not the only ones not making a decision.” Infantino said he is optimistic about recent media reports about movements in the peace process. “Hopefully, President [Donald] Trump can find a solution. If he has a good idea, I can take it on board as well for FIFA.”
The failure of an international sports entity to make a decision about its own members' not honoring FIFA statutes once again reflects the tremendous political pressure that is constantly exerted by Israel on various world bodies to accept the Israeli narrative. The fact that Israeli settlements are illegal, which has been stated as such by the UN, the Security Council and the International Criminal Court, doesn’t seem to have much effect. The Israelis are able to use their close relations with Washington to intimidate politicians and organizations to avoid making decisions. The question remains how long FIFA will allow such political intimidation in the sport, which it has repeatedly said should be left to the players and fans to enjoy without political interference.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Conflict in the Middle East threatens Pakistan and lynchpin of China’s One Belt, One Road


By James M. Dorsey

Increasingly caught up in the Middle East’s multiple conflicts, Pakistan is struggling to balance relations with rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran amid concern in Islamabad that potential US-Saudi efforts to destabilize the Islamic republic could turn its crucial province of Balochistan, a lynchpin in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, into a battleground.

Concern about Balochistan is buffeted by a sense in Islamabad of problems along its multiple borders. Pakistani officials fear that China may be seeking closer ties with India at Pakistan’s expense, despite its massive $56 billion investment in Pakistani infrastructure that centres on linking the troubled Baloch port of Gwadar, a gateway to the Gulf, with China’s restive, north-western province of Xinjiang.

Pakistani officials see a statement by China’s ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui, that China had no interest in being dragged into the Pakistani-Indian dispute over Kashmir, as an indication that Beijing is cosying up to New Delhi at Islamabad’s expense.

Mr. Zhaohui was trying to persuade India to engage with One Belt, One Road on the eve of a summit in Beijing to promote China’s geopolitical ploy in Eurasia. Twenty-eight heads of state, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawal Sharif, were expected to attend the summit that starts this weekend.

Adding to Pakistani fears are increased tensions with Afghanistan following a clash in early May between Pakistani and Afghan forces in which 15 people were killed and dozens wounded. The clash occurred days after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected an invitation to visit Pakistan conveyed by Pakistani intelligence chief Lt. General Naveed Mukhtar.

Sources close to Mr. Ghani quoted the president as telling General Mukhtar that none of the 48 agreements signed with Pakistan during his 2014 visit to Islamabad had been implemented. The agreements included an understanding that Pakistan would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. “I spent political capital on that. That was the deal,” the sources quoted Mr. Ghani as saying.

Sources close to the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence said Mr. Ghani’s rejection of the invitation followed two meetings in Norway on January 8 and 18 in the waning days of the Obama administration between an unidentified member of the US Congress, a CIA official, and representatives of the Taliban.

The officials said the meetings focussed on the possible of release of an American-Canadian couple who have been held by the Taliban since 2012. The sources said the talks also explored unsuccessfully ways of negotiating an end to the fighting in Afghanistan. A spokesperson for the US embassy in Islamabad declined comment.

Meanwhile, two attacks in the last 48 hours highlighted mounting tension in Balochistan against the backdrop of thinly veiled Saudi threats to stir ethnic unrest across the Baloch border in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan and among the Islamic republic’s minority Iranian Arab, Kurdish and Azerbaijani minorities.

Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) gunmen on motorbikes opened fire on construction workers in Gwadar, killing ten. The attack exploited widespread discontent among Baloch that they were not benefitting from massive Chinese investment in their province that was providing employment primarily for workers from elsewhere in Pakistan. The victims of the attack were from the Pakistani province of Sindh.

"This conspiratorial plan (CPEC) is not acceptable to the Baloch people under any circumstances. Baloch independence movements have made it clear several times that they will not abandon their people's future in the name of development projects or even democracy,” said BLA spokesman Jeander Baloch. Mr. Baloch was referring to Chinese investment in what has been dubbed the China Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The Islamic State’s South Asian wing claimed responsibility a day earlier for a bombing near the Baloch capital of Quetta that targeted Senator Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, the deputy chairman of the upper house of parliament, and a member of Jamiat e Ulema Islam, a right-wing Sunni Islamist political party that is part of Prime Minister Sharif's coalition government. Twenty-five people were killed in the blast that wounded Mr. Haideri.

The two attacks as well as Friday’s US Treasury designation of Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab as a specially designated terrorist highlighted the murky world of Pakistani militancy in which the lines between various groups are fluid, links to government are evident, and battles in Pakistan and Afghanistan and potentially Iran are inter-linked.

Mr. Abu Turab is a prominent Pakistani Islamic scholar of Afghan descent who serves on a government-appointed religious board, maintains close ties to Saudi Arabia, runs a string of madrassas attended by thousands of students along Balochistan’s with Afghanistan and is a major fund raiser for militant groups.

Putting Saudi Arabia on the spot, the Treasury announced the designation of Mr. Abu Turab, a leader of Ahl-i-Hadith, a Saudi-supported Pakistani Wahhabi group and board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV, who serves on Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, a government-appointed advisory body of scholars and laymen established to assist in bringing laws in line with the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Mohammed, as he was visiting the kingdom and Qatar on the latest of numerous fund raising trips to the Gulf. 

Mr. Abu Turab also heads the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities (Tehrike Tahafaz Haramain Sharifain) whose secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil has also been designated by the Treasury.

After years of flying low, Mr. Abu Turab appeared to have attracted US attention with his increasingly public support for Saudi Arabia as well as Pakistani militants. Mr. Abu Turab regularly shows pictures of his frequent public appearances to Saudi diplomats in Islamabad to ensure continued Saudi funding, according to sources close to him. Mr. Abu Turab called on the Pakistani government in April to support Saudi Arabia and endorse Pakistani General Raheel Sharif’s appointment as head of the Saudi-led military coalition.

The Treasury described Mr. Abu Turab as a “facilitator…(who) helped…raise money in the Gulf and supported the movement of tens of thousands of dollars from the Gulf to Pakistan.”  The Treasury said funds raised by Mr. Abu Turab, an Afghan who was granted Pakistani citizenship, financed operations of various groups, including Pakistan’s Jama'at ul Dawa al-Qu'ran (JDQ); Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LT), a Pakistani intelligence-backed group that at times has enjoyed support from Saudi Arabia; the Taliban; and the Islamic State’s South Asian wing.

The Treasury announcement came less than two weeks before Donald J. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia on his first trip abroad as US president to discuss cooperation with the kingdom and a Saudi-led, 41-nation Sunni Muslim military alliance led by General Sharif in combatting terrorism and isolating Iran.

Any discussion of efforts to destabilize Iran between US officials and the Saudi-led alliance during Mr. Trump’s visit to the kingdom would likely heighten Pakistan’s difficulty in balancing its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran and cast a cloud over Chinese hopes that economic development would pacify nationalist and religious militants in both Balochistan and Xinjiang.

Sources close to Pakistani intelligence and Shiite leaders fear that increased conflict in Balochistan and Saudi and Iranian operations in Pakistan could not only suck it into proxy wars between the two Middle Eastern powers but also rekindle sectarian violence in Pakistan itself.

The intelligence sources said they had noticed that Shiite military officers were becoming more assertive in their empathy for Iran in discussions about regional security.  Pakistan’s Shiite minority is the world’s second largest Shiite community after pre-dominantly Shiite Iran.

The sources asserted further that Iran had recently recruited at least 3,000 Pakistani Shiites into its Xenobia brigade that is fighting in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The sources said that Pakistan had detained in early May a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who was on a recruiting mission in Balochistan.

They said the arrest marked a shift in Iran’s recruitment strategy that in the past had relied on Pakistani religious scholars and travel agents. “The Iranians have been clandestinely coming to Balochistan since the fall of the Shah (in 1979),” said a retired Pakistani intelligence chief. 

“Tenuous relations have rekindled a latent Iranian interest in furthering its territorial ambitions. Iran has tried hard to mask this latency but Pakistan remains wary of such intent,” added former vice commander of the Pakistani air force, Shahzad Chaudhry.

Pakistani Shiite leaders fear that sectarianism could be fuelled by Saudi funding of militant anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba, a virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian group that since being banned has rebranded itself as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, as well as its various offshoots that target Iran. Like Mr. Abu Turab, both groups operate large networks of religious seminaries in Balochistan.

Sources close to the militants said Saudi and UAE nationals of Baloch heritage were funnelling Saudi funds to Islamic scholars like Sipah’s Balochistan leader, Maulana Ramzan Mengal, and Mr. Abu Turab. They said the money was being transferred through hawala agents operating in the Middle East and South Asia.

Iran’s Tabnak News Agency charged that Mr. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was designed to strengthen an anti-Iranian US-Arab alliance against Iran. “The Iranophobic project began a couple of months ago… It appears that the Arab NATO project – which has been under discussion for some time – is entering its implementation stage with American President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia and the invitation to 17 Arab countries to Riyadh,” the agency said. The agency is believed to be controlled by former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei.

Pakistan’s foreign policy woes appear to have sent its intelligence services into a paranoid tailspin. The services have stepped up in one’s face surveillance, harassment and intimidation of foreigners, prompting some diplomats in Islamabad to lodge complaints with the foreign ministry. Similarly, representatives of Western non-governmental organizations have had extensions of their visas rejected. In some cases, Pakistanis have been interrogated by intelligence agents within the hour of having met with foreigners.


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

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Rising Iranian-Pakistani tensions render Pakistani policy unsustainable


By James M. Dorsey

An Iranian warning that it may attack militant bases in the troubled province of Balochistan threatens to bring Pakistan’s house of cards crashing down.

Pakistan’s tenuous house is built on a torturous effort to balance relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran amid rising tension between the two regional rivals, prevent Pakistan from becoming an operational base for possible Saudi and US efforts to destabilize the Islamic republic, and employ militant groups as proxies in achieving its geopolitical objectives.

The Iranian warning was the latest indication that Pakistani policies may be unsustainable. It targeted Pakistan’s long-standing policy of turning a blind eye to the operations of Saudi-backed militants, including Sipah-e-Sahaba, a virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian group that since being banned has rebranded itself as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, as well as its various offshoots that target Iran.

The warning followed last month’s killing of ten Iranian border guards by Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), one of Sipah’s offshoots.

The attack further exacerbated Iranian-Pakistani relations that have become increasingly strained after Pakistan allowed recently retired chief of staff of its military, General Raheel Sharif, to become commander of a Saudi-led, 41-nation military alliance that Iran sees as a Sunni Muslim force established to confront the Islamic republic.

General Shareef had barely taken command when Iran also issued a stark warning to Saudi Arabia. Iran was responding to a statement by the kingdom’s powerful deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, that Saudis would not sit and wait for war but would “work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”

Speaking to Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV, Iranian Defense Minister General Hossein Dehghan said that if Saudi Arabia engaged in “such a stupidity” nothing would be “left in Saudi Arabia except Mecca and Medina,” Islam’s two holiest cities.

The war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be enough to make it all but impossible for Pakistan to remain neutral. It would also be sufficient to make it impossible for General Sharif to walk a tightrope between the two regional powers.

The problem for Pakistan and General Sharif is that the escalating conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is unlikely to stop there.

Circumstantial evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia and the United States may seek to pressure Iran by supporting potential unrest among Iranian ethnic minorities, including Balochis who straddle both sides of the Iranian-Pakistan border.

Militants in Pakistan and sources close to them assert that Saudi funds are pouring into religious seminaries in Balochistan that are operated by Sipah and its affiliates.

Saudi Arabia’s Okaz newspaper reported moreover that US President Donald J. Trump would focus in talks with the kingdom’s leaders as well as those of the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman – on further isolating Iran.

Iranian attacks on militant targets in Balochistan would leave Pakistan with one of two choices: crack down on anti-Iranian militants operating from its territory, a move it has long resisted and that would put it at odds with Saudi Arabia, or get dragged into a tit-for-tat with Iran that would push it even closer to the kingdom.

A stepped-up US-Saudi campaign against Iran raises the stakes for Pakistan far beyond its balancing act in the Gulf. Balochistan is the lynchpin of China’s $56 billion One Belt, One Road investment in Pakistani infrastructure and energy. Chinese projects in the province, including the crucial deep sea port of Gwadar, are already troubled as a result of low-level ethnic violence.

A Saudi-Iranian proxy war fought among others in Balochistan would not only drag Pakistan into the conflict but would also put it add odds with China, which privately has expressed concern about Pakistani support of militant groups.

To be fair, China has not been consistent in its criticism. Earlier this year, China, at the behest of Pakistan, prevented the United Nations from listing Masood Azhar, a prominent Pakistani militant who is believed to have close ties to Pakistani intelligence and the military, as a globally designated terrorist.

US backing of activist ethnic minority groups in Iran would likely prove to be a doubled-edged sword for Pakistan. On the one hand, it could help legitimize Pakistani support for militants in Washington’s books. On the other hand, that would risk putting Pakistan at odds with China that like Pakistan is trying to walk a thin line between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but would see its interests in Balochistan threatened.

Pakistan may have tighten its noose a notch with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s acceptance of a Saudi invitation to attend the summit in Riyadh with Mr. Trump.

The question for Pakistan is: how long can it play both ends against the middle? The risk is that Pakistan will find it increasingly difficult to claim neutrality in the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran given the position of General Sharif and the recent dispatch of Pakistani troops to the kingdom. Pakistan’s fate would be sealed if Balochistan becomes one of the dispute’s battlegrounds.

Pakistan could see a silver lining in playing along with a potential US-Saudi playbook that seeks to capitalize on possible ethnic unrest in Iran. Cooperation with the United States could possibly ensure that US policy in South Asia does not exclusively focus on India. That however would likely expose it to severe pressure from China, which Pakistan sees as the salvation for its multiple geopolitical, domestic and economic problems.

At the bottom line, the odds are that Pakistan rather than balancing on a tightrope may see its house of cards collapsing.


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

Monday, May 8, 2017

Palestine puts FIFA in a bind


By James M. Dorsey

The perennial dispute between Israel and Palestine has put world soccer body FIFA in a bind. With FIFA groping on how to deal with Israeli West Bank settlement teams playing in Israeli leagues in violation of the soccer body’s rules, FIFA seems doomed if it does and doomed if it doesn’t.

A draft report by a FIFA committee headed by veteran anti-apartheid activist and former FIFA presidential candidate Tokyo Sexwale offers the soccer body’s governing council and congress that meet in Bahrain this week three imperfect options: allow the status quo to continue, give Israel six months to rectify the situation, or continue talks between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer federations.

The report, an effort to head off yet another attempt by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) to persuade the FIFA congress to suspend six West Bank teams, if not Israeli membership, is itself a reflection of the Israeli-Palestinian battle. Israel successfully lobbied to ensure that the committee’s recommendations would not include suspending Israeli membership.

Caught in a Catch-22, FIFA has yet to formally put the issue on either the agenda of its May 9 governing council meeting or May 11 congress in Bahrain. Mr. Sexwale’s committee meets hours before the council convenes after which FIFA may as yet put Palestine formally on the agenda.
The dispute over the settlement teams constitutes a litmus test of FIFA’s newly found commitment to human rights at a time it is trying to project itself as a reformed organization that is putting behind it the massive corruption scandals that have enveloped it for the past six years.

Yet, those scandals are FIFA’s Achilles Heel. Any decision that FIFA would take that explicitly or implicitly condemns Israeli settlement policy towards the occupied West Bank could put it at odds with the Trump administration, a stark supporter of Israel that believes that it can move the Israeli-Palestinian dispute towards a resolution where others have failed.

Provoking the ire of the Trump administration is not something FIFA would likely want to do after the US Department of Justice recently indicted Richard Lia, the latest of a host of FIFA officials to be charged in the United States on corruption-related offenses. The indictment demonstrated that the Trump administration has every intent to take forward the FIFA cases, initiated under the Obama administration, and, in fact, is expanding their scope.

The US legal proceedings forced FIFA council member, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, a member of the Kuwaiti ruling family and one of the most powerful men in international sports, to resign earlier this month. Mr. Ahmad retains his seat on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as well as his presidency of the Olympic Council of Asia and the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC).

Doing nothing could prompt the FIFA congress to move on a long-standing Palestinian demand that the soccer body suspend six Israeli settlement soccer teams at the core of the dispute. That would amount to FIFA acknowledging international law that views Israeli settlements in occupied territory as illegal and put it at odds with the Trump administration. The same is true for giving Israel six months to mend its ways.

In his report, Mr. Sexwale asserted that further talks that have dragged on for years without bringing the parties any closer to a resolution would be “futile.”

The stakes are high not just for FIFA but also for Israel and Palestine. Palestine like FIFA is walking a tightrope. Palestine will not want to upset the Trump administration less than two weeks after President Mahmoud Abbas on a visit to Washington endorsed President Donald J. Trump’s peace-making efforts and in advance of the president’s visit later this month to the Middle East.

At the same time, Mr. Abbas cannot be seen to be endorsing or closing his eyes to violations of FIFA rules against the backdrop of a hard-line Israeli government that has stepped up its campaign to portray the Palestinian Authority as supporting terrorism.

That campaign effects not only Mr. Abbas but also Palestine Football Association (PFA) president Jibril Rajoub, a former security chief who spent 17 years in prison and hopes to succeed Mr. Abbas as president.

Pro-Israeli groups, including the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, headed by Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, has launched a campaign under the motto, Kick Terrorism Out of Football.

The campaign is part of a key Israeli foreign policy goal to counter a growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to pressure Israel to withdraw from occupied territory. Israel sees the movement as a major threat to its international and moral standing.

The Israeli effort has prompted the government to redefine the concept of a homeland for the Jews as a homeland for those that stand by it uncritically. The government has barred Jewish supporters from entering Israel; persuaded Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish group critical of Israel that does not endorse BDS not to take the risk of bringing groups to Israel; and led to the expulsion on technical grounds of a Dutch foreign correspondent

Derk Walters of NRC Handelsblad was refused accreditation in part because of his reference to Palestinians with Israeli citizenship as Palestinian rather than Arab Israelis. Israel uses the phrase Arab to camouflage the Palestinian identity of approximately 20 percent of its population.

In a letter to FIFA, the Kick Terrorism Out of Football campaign accused Mr. Rajoub of having exploited “football for the promotion of terrorism” for the past 15 years. The campaign charged that Mr. Jibril by naming tournaments in honour of Palestinians who had committed acts of violence against Israel dating back to the 1972 Munich Olympic Games had violated FIFA rules and encouraged political violence. It demanded that Mr. Rajoub be barred.

The Israeli view was echoed in an recent op-ed in The Washington Post, in which novelist and New York University law fellow Thane Rosenbaum argued that the Palestine Authority continued to endorse violence by supporting the families of Palestinians who had died in violent acts against Israel.

The Israeli campaign against Mr. Rajoub as well as the Palestine Authority is designed not only to counter BDS, but to refocus debate on Palestinian violence at a time that criticism of Israeli settlement policy is mounting in the international community and Mr. Trump gears up for a renewed peace effort.

FIFA is the first international forum since the United Nations Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlement policy in December in which the Israeli campaign is playing out. With the backing of the Trump administration, Israel has greater flexibility than either Palestine or FIFA.


The significance of the Israeli-Palestinian battle being fought out on the soccer pitch goes beyond the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics. It demonstrates the knots in which international sports ties itself by continuously upholding the fiction that sports and politics are separate. The battle in FIFA is all about politics and not about soccer.

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

Friday, May 5, 2017

Pakistan caught in the middle as China’s OBOR becomes Saudi-Iranian-Indian battleground



By James M. Dorsey

Pakistani General Raheel Sharif walked into a hornet’s nest when he stepped off a private jet in Riyadh two weeks ago to take command of a Saudi-led, 41-nation military alliance. Things have gone from bad to worse since.

General Shareef had barely landed when Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman dashed the Pakistani’s hopes to include Iran in the alliance that nominally was created to fight terrorism rather than confront Iran.

The general’s hopes were designed to balance Pakistan’s close alliance with Saudia Arabia with the fact that it shares a volatile border with Iran and is home to the world’s second largest Shiite Muslim community. General Sharif’s ambition had already been rendered Mission Impossible before he landed with Saudi Arabia charging that Iran constitutes the world’s foremost terrorist threat.

In a recent interview with the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting television network, Prince Mohammed, who also serves as the kingdom’s defense minister, has toughened Saudi Arabia’s stance. Prince Mohammed appeared in line with statements by a senior US military official to hold out the possibility of exploiting aspirations of ethnic minorities in Iran to weaken its Islamic regime.

In doing so, Prince Mohammed and General Joseph L. Voltel, head of US Central Command, seemed to raise the spectre of increased violence in Balochistan, a volatile, once independent region that straddles both sides of the Iranian-Pakistani border, as well as in the Iranian province of Khuzestan, the Islamic republic’s oil-rich region that is home to Iranians of Arab descent.

Ethnic and sectarian proxy wars could embroil rivals China and India in the Saudi-Iranian dispute. The deep-sea port of Gwadar in Balochistan is a lynchpin of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, and a mere 70 kilometres from the Indian-backed port of Chabahar in Iran, viewed by Saudi Arabia as a potential threat to one of the most important sea routes facilitating the flow of oil from the Gulf to Asia.

The risk of China’s initiative as well as its regional rivalry with India becoming a Saudi-Iranian battleground appeared to increase with Prince Mohammed’s warning that the battle between the two regional powers would be fought "inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia."

In his interview, Prince Mohammed not only ruled out talks with Iran but painted the two countries’ rivalry in sectarian terms. The prince asserted that Iran, a predominantly Shiite country, believes that “the Imam Mahdi (the redeemer) will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for the arrival of the awaited Mahdi and they must control the Muslim world…. “How do you have a dialogue with this?” Prince Mohammed asked.

Saudi Arabia had already signalled its support for Iranian dissidents when last July former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States and Britain, Prince Turki al-Faisal, attended a rally in Paris organized by the exiled People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran or Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a militant left-wing group that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s Islamic regime and traces its roots to resistance against the shah who was toppled in the 1979 revolution. "Your legitimate struggle against the (Iranian) regime will achieve its goal, sooner or later. I, too, want the fall of the regime,” Prince Turki told the rally.

Since then, General Voltel, avoiding any reference to sectarianism, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee, that “in order to contain Iranian expansion, roll back its malign influence, and blunt its asymmetric advantages, we must engage them more effectively in the ‘grey zone’ through means that include a strong deterrence posture, targeted counter-messaging activities, and by building partner nations’ capacity… (We) believe that by taking proactive measures and reinforcing our resolve we can lessen Iran’s ability to negatively influence outcomes in the future.,” General Voltel said.

Prince Mohammed did not spell out how he intends to take Saudi Arabia’s fight to Iran, but a Saudi think tank, the Arabian Gulf Centre for Iranian Studies (AGCIS) argued in a recent study that Chabahar posed “a direct threat to the Arab Gulf states” that called for “immediate counter measures.”

Written by Mohammed Hassan Husseinbor, identified as an Iranian political researcher, the study, published in the first edition of AGCIS’ Journal of Iranian Studies, argued that Chabahar posed a threat because it would enable Iran to increase greater market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia, raise foreign investment in the Islamic republic and increase government revenues, and allow Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

Mr. Husseinbor suggested Saudi support for a low-level Baloch insurgency in Iran could serve as a countermeasure. “Saudis could persuade Pakistan to soften its opposition to any potential Saudi support for the Iranian Baluch... The Arab-Baluch alliance is deeply rooted in the history of the Gulf region and their opposition to Persian domination,” Mr. Husseinbor said.

Noting the vast expanses of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Mr. Husseinbor went on to say that “it would be a formidable challenge, if not impossible, for the Iranian government to protect such long distances and secure Chabahar in the face of widespread Baluch opposition, particularly if this opposition is supported by Iran’s regional adversaries and world powers.”

The conservative Washington-based Hudson Institute, which is believed to have developed close ties to the Trump administration, has also taken up the theme of ethnic minorities in Iran. The institute has scheduled a seminar for later this month that features as speakers Baloch, Iranian Arab, Iranian Kurdish and Iranian Azerbaijani nationalists.

Saudi Arabia may already have the building blocks in place for a proxy war in Balochistan. Saudi-funded ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim madrassas operated by anti-Shiite militants dominate Balochistan’s educational landscape.

“A majority of Baloch schoolchildren go to madrassas. They are in better condition than other schools in Balochistan. Most madrassas are operated by Deobandis and Ahl-i-Hadith,” said one of the founders of Sipah-i-Sabaha, a virulent anti-Shiite group that is believed to enjoy Saudi and Pakistani support.

Although officially renamed Ahle Sunnah Wa Al Jamaat after Sipah was banned in Pakistan, the group is still often referred to by its original name. The co-founder, who has since left the group but maintains close ties to it, was referring to the Deobandi sect of Islam, a Saudi backed ultra-conservative, anti-Shiite movement originally established in India in the 19th century to counter British colonial rule, and Ahl-i-Hadith, the religious-political group in Pakistan with the longest ties to the kingdom.  The co-founder said the mosques funnelled Saudi funds to the militants.

The co-founder said the leaders in Balochistan of Sipah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Sipah offshoot, Maulana Ramzan Mengal and Maulana Wali Farooqi, enjoyed government and military protection because their anti-Shiite sentiments made them targets for Iran. He said the two men, who maintained close ties to Saudi Arabia, travelled in Balochistan in convoys of up to ten vehicles that included Pakistan military guards. Policemen stand guard outside Mr. Mengal’s madrassa, the co-founder said.

“Ramzan gets whatever he needs from the Saudis,” the co-founder said. Close relations between Sipah and LeJ, on the one hand, and pro-government tribesmen in Balochistan complicate irregular government efforts to reign in the militants. So does the militant’s involvement in drugs smuggling that gives them an independent source of funding.

Iran has accused the United States, Saudi Arabia and Pakistani intelligence of supporting anti-Iranian militants in Balochistan, including Jundallah (Soldiers of God), an offshoot of Sipah. Jundallah, founded by Abdolmalek Rigi, a charismatic member of a powerful Baloch tribe, was one of several anti-Iranian groups that enjoyed US and Saudi support as part of US President George W. Bush’s effort to undermine the government in Tehran

Mr. Rigi was captured when a flight he took from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek to Dubai was diverted at Iran’s request to Sharjah in 2010.  He was executed in Iran. Pakistani forces have at times cooperated with Iran in detaining militants, including Mr. Rigi’s brother, Abdolhamid Rigi, but have often insisted that they are overwhelmed by internal security problems, and could not prioritize securing the border with the Islamic republic. “Our policy has been consistently anti-Iran,” said Khalid Ahmad, an author and journalist who focuses on militants.

Jundullah’s US contact point in the early 2000s was reported to be Thomas McHale, a 56-year-old hard-charging, brusque and opinionated Port Authority of New York and New Jersey detective and former ironworker, who had travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of his work for a Joint Terrorism Task Force in Newark. Known for his disdain for bureaucratic restrictions, Mr. McHale maintained contact with Jundallah and members of the Rigi tribe in an off-the-books operation

Mr. McHale, a survivor of the 1993 attack on New York’s World Trade Towers, had made a name for himself by rescuing survivors of the 9/11 attack on the towers. He played himself in Oliver Stone’s movie, World Trade Center, in which Nicolas Cage starred as a Port Authority police officer.
Jundallah ambushed a motorcade of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 but failed to kill him. 

Mr. Rigi’s boyish, grinning face became as a result of the ambush the defining image of Baluch jihad in Iran. A year later, the group bombed a bus carrying Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Jundallah and associated groups such as Jaish al-Adly (Army of Justice), another Sipah offshoot, have since targeted Iranian border posts, Revolutionary Guards, police officers, convoys and Shiite mosques

General Sharif and Pakistan’s position were not made easier with the recent killing by Jaish al Adl militants operating from Pakistani Balochistan of ten Iranian border guards and with Iran’s expressions of displeasure with the general’s appointment as commander of the Saudi-led military alliance.

US officials insisted in Mr. McHale’s time that government agencies had not directed or ever approved Jundallah operations. The US designated Jundallah as a terrorist organization in 2010, but that did not stop Sunni Muslim militant anti-Iranian operations. In what analysts see as an indication of Saudi influence, Jaish al-Adel issues its statements in Arabic rather than Baluchi or Farsi.

In response, Iran has attacked the militants and raided villages in Balochistan. Arif Saleem, a 42-year old villager recalls being woken in the wee hours of the morning in November 2013 when bombs dropped just outside the mud walls that surround his family compound in Kulauhi, 67 kilometres from the Pakistani border with Iran. Located in a district that is an epicentre of a low-level proxy war with Iran, Kulauhi’s residents survive on subsistence farming and smuggling. “Some buildings collapsed. Luckily, none of the kids were inside those. The blast was so strong, we thought the world was ending,” said Saleem, convinced that Iranian planes from an airbase on the Iranian side of the border carried out the bombing.

The spectre of ethnic proxy wars threatens to further destabilize the Gulf as well as Pakistan. The Baloch insurgency in Pakistani Balochistan has complicated Chinese plans to develop Gwadar and forced Pakistan to take extraordinary security precautions. A stepped-up proxy war could embroil Indian-backed Chabahar in the conflict. The wars could, moreover, spread to Iran’s Khuzestan and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.

Writing in 2012 in Asharq Al Awsat, a Saudi newspaper, Amal Al-Hazzani, an academic who has since been dropped from the paper’s roster after she wrote positively about Israel, asserted in an op-ed entitled “The oppressed Arab district of al-Ahwaz“ that “the al-Ahwaz district in Iran...is an Arab territory... Its Arab residents have been facing continual repression ever since the Persian state assumed control of the region in 1925... It is imperative that the Arabs take up the al-Ahwaz cause, at least from the humanitarian perspective.” Other Arab commentators have since opined in a similar fashion.

Fuelling ethnic tensions risks Iran responding in kind. Saudi Arabia has long accused Iran of instigating low level violence and protests in its predominantly Shiite oil-rich Eastern Province as well as being behind the brutally squashed popular revolt in majority Shiite Bahrain and intermittent violence since. Rather than resolving conflicts, a Saudi-Iranian war fought with ethnic and religious proxies threatens to escalate violence in both the Gulf and South Asia.


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