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

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"Your expertise is clearly superior when it comes to Middle Eastern soccer."
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James Corbett, Inside World Football

Monday, January 16, 2017

Qatari backtracking on labour rights and cooperation with Russia reflects new world order

Vladimir Putin gives Sheikh Tamim a falcon

By James M. Dorsey

A Qatari decision to backtrack on minimal improvements of the terms of employment of migrant workers, who account for a majority of the Gulf state’s population, and a Qatari investment in Russian oil company Rosneft PJSC, symbolize the emergence of a new global power structure with the rise of populists in the United States and Europe, and Russia projecting itself as a key player on the world stage.

The message is that countries like Qatar that has been under pressure to clean up its human rights act in the wake of winning hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup no longer feel the need to at least pay lip service to human rights and trade union activists clamouring for an end to kafala, the labour sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

Similarly, the Qatar Investment Authority’s decision to invest $5 billion in Rosneft as part of a $10.6 billion deal that also involved Glencore Plc had as much to do with geopolitics as with economics. Qatar saw the investment as a way to strengthen political links with Russia as well as develop new business opportunities.

The deal was remarkable for a country that uses investment as a tool to forge relations. Russia and Qatar have not been the closest of friends. Russia suspects Qatar of supporting militant Islamist and jihadist groups in Syria and of having done so earlier in Chechnya when Russia was battling Chechen Islamists there. Russian agents in 2004 assassinated Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in the Qatari capital of Doha.

A statement after a recent phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani as Russian warplanes bombarded Aleppo said the two leaders had discussed ways to “further promote political, trade, economic and humanitarian cooperation.” The statement made no mention of Syria.

All of this is not to say that Qatar is switching allegiances. Dealing with Russia is hedging its bets in recognition of the bear’s rise and the rise of populists in the West willing to deal with Russia. At the same time, Qatar has said it is committed to investing more than $35 billion in the US over the next five years, including $10 billion in infrastructure. “A significant part of Qatar’s economic portfolio is its robust relationship with the United States,” said Qatari businessman Muhammad Al Misned in a Forbes magazine op-ed.

Qatar’s hedging of its bets comes as it together with other backers of Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad suffered severe setbacks because of Russian backing for the Syrian leader and the fall of Aleppo, the rebels’ last urban stronghold. The Russian-backed Syrian advances have left Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia with few good options to shape the battlefield by funding and arming the rebels.

The rise of Russia and the populists appears to have emboldened Qatar to backtrack on pledges it made to reform, if not eliminate the kafala system in response to pressure from human rights and trade union activists using the Guf state’s World Cup hosting rights as leverage. In a move that has undermined whatever confidence existed in Qatar’s sincerity and willingness to work with its critics, Tamim backtracked on the easing of exit visa restrictions for migrant workers two weeks after a long-heralded law was enacted making changes to the controversial system.

The law introduced an automated system operated by the interior ministry to streamline exit visas and remove the power of employers by taking away from them the right to decide whether a worker could leave the country or not. Tamim overruled the law in early January by stipulating that workers would have to inform their recruiter.

In response, Human Rights Watch charged that “changes to the labour law that took effect in 2016 will not protect migrant workers from the serious abuses that characterize Qatar’s construction industry and other low-paid sectors of its economy… Migrant workers will not be able to switch employers, even if the workers experience abuse, and will still need their employer’s permission to leave the country.”

Qatar’s backtracking followed a victory in a Swiss court by world soccer body FIFA that has direct impact on the debate over the Gulf state’s labour regime. The court rejected a request by the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation (FNV) and two Bangladeshi unions that it rule against FIFA’s awarding of the World Cup to Qatar without first demanding assurances about “fundamental human and labour rights of migrant construction workers, including the abolition of the kafala system.”

The court decision coupled with the rise of populists who have less concern for human rights is likely to diminish FIFA’s already weak resolve to pressure Qatar to fundamentally reform if not abolish kafala. FIFA president Gianni Infantino nonetheless insisted last month that "we will put pressure, we will continue to do that."

The turning tide could prompt activists to attempt to step up pressure on Qatar with calls for boycotts. The Washington-based Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere (AWARE) said last month that it was stepping up efforts to persuade travellers from Boston and other US cities to avoid flying on Qatar's state-owned airline because of what it alleges are human rights violations by Qatar as well as Qatar Airways. AWARE has used billboard ads in US cities serviced by Qatar Airways, op-ed pieces and social media to urge travellers to boycott the airline.

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 recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Qatar and the 'Voiceless Victims' mystery (Reposted by

By Brian Whitaker

The 2022 World Cup has turned into a mixed blessing for Qatar. What at first seemed like a brilliant opportunity to showcase the small Gulf state has instead brought a torrent of bad publicity – some because of the way Qatar was chosen by football's corrupt governing body, Fifa, to host the contest and some because of the harsh conditions faced by migrant workers, thousands of whom are employed in the construction of Qatar's new stadiums.
Over the last few years numerous rights organisations have focused attention on the migrant workers' plight and those efforts, along with critical media reporting, have stirred the Qatari government into making some reforms – though not as many as campaigners would like.
In the midst of that activity a new "human rights" group emerged. Known as "Voiceless Victims" and ostensibly located in France, it had a website and a network of social media accounts ... but a false office address.
The identity of its five named staff was also puzzling. Biographical information about them was scanty and contradictory, and it seemed they had also chosen to become invisible. The organisations that Voiceless Victims approached with a view to cooperating had contact by email and on a few rare occasions by phone but never saw or met any of its workers.
Last month, following investigations by Amnesty International (one of the organisations that received emails), Voiceless Victims was exposed as a fake

Previous posts on this topic:

But who was behind this fakery, and what was its purpose? As yet, there are theories but no clear answers. In the hope of shedding more light on this mystery I have pieced together an account of Voiceless Victims' known activities. In compiling it, I am grateful to Amnesty for providing help with chronology and copies of material that has been deleted from the internet.
Constructing a network
The first recorded social media activity by Voiceless Victims came on 3 September 2015, with a crudely Islamophobic post on the Playbuzz website. It posed a question in Spanish – "What will life be like in Seville in five years?" – and invited viewers to click on a series of pictures contrasting life today with life in the future. The pictures suggested that within five years pork would be banned in Seville, that Spaniards would be forced to convert to Islam and "romance" would be stifled. 
The Voiceless Victims account on Playbuzz had been registered two days earlier using the name "Luz Bardem" – who was later described on the organisation's website as its "social media manager" and "campaigns coordinator".
Like everyone else allegedly working for Voiceless Victims, Luz Bardem is surrounded in mystery. This is her profile picture as it appeared on the website:

Luz Bardem, as seen on Voiceless Victims' website
According to the now-deleted website, she previously "worked in public affairs for a Spanish PR agency" but it didn't name the agency. Aside from her work for Voiceless Victims, Google searches reveal no further trace of Luz Bardem. She did once have a Facebook page where the profile picture showed two people in dark glasses, but that too is now deleted:

Luz Bardem, as seen on her deleted Facebook page
September and October 2015 brought a flurry of other activity from Voiceless Victims on social media. In September it set up a Twitter account (@vlvictims) and another called "I Support Qatar Workers" (@ISQW2022) which was also given a Facebook page. 
Other accounts created around the same time were @HR_AreNotOption ("HR" meaning "human rights"), "Free MigrantWorkers" (@wilsonjane4911) and @AndrewSven69 on Twitter, plus Bloody Football 2022 (@bloody_football) on both Twitter and Facebook. It's unclear whether these other accounts were set up by Voiceless Victims but subsequent online activity strongly suggests a connection.
Meanwhile, a Facebook page in the name of Daniel Faulkner – another member of Voiceless Victims' enigmatic workforce – was suddenly updated after apparently being dormant for more than two years. 
On 13 October, Faulkner announced: "Started studying at UAL: University of the Arts London" and added a generic male face as his profile picture. 
But Faulkner's university course seems to have lasted only a week because on 21 October he posted again: "Started working at London, United Kingdom". He has not posted on Facebook since.
Although there are dozens of Facebook accounts with the name "Daniel Faulkner", there's no doubt that this was the one connected with Voiceless Victims. His "likes" included Voiceless Victims itself, as well as "I Support Qatar Workers" and Bloody Football 2022.
Bizarrely, though, the Voiceless Victims website gave a completely different account of Faulkner's background, describing him as an "expert in international development research":
"Daniel joined Voiceless Victims in 2015 after completing a MPA [Master of Public Administration degree] in International Development at UCL [University College London]. Prior to this, Daniel spent two years in Angola where he worked as a field project manager for a humanitarian organisation."
As with Luz Bardem and the anonymous PR agency, Voiceless Victims didn't name Faulkner's previous "humanitarian" employer.

Daniel Faulkner, as seen on Voiceless Victims' website
A non-viral video
Activation of these various accounts paved the way for the release of a short video and its promotion through social media. Entitled "Qatar World Cup 2022 – First Official Footage", the 73-second video was presented in the style of an imaginary report from a football commentator at the end of the 2022 final. It included subtitles which said: "By the time the World Cup is actually held in 2022 more than 4,000 workers will die in Qatar" and "More than 62 workers will die for each game played during the 2022 World Cup". 
(These claims, extrapolated from figures about mortality rates which had been circulating for a couple of years, were somewhat misleading. There was little doubt that mortality rates among migrant workers were high but the Qatari government didn't keep records. Figures quoted by some of the media reports and 2022-related campaigns had thus relied on other sources, such as foreign embassies. However, these were estimates which included deaths from all causes – not just work-related – and included migrants who were working in Qatar but not building football stadiums. For workers of some nationalities no figures were available.)
The World Cup video looked slick and professionally made but there was no indication of who had produced it or paid for it. It first surfaced on 19 October, in three locations on the internet. "Bloody Football 2022" posted it to YouTube, as did someone using the name Kelly Brennan. It also appeared on Vimeo, posted in the name of Alisha Owen. All three postings acompanied the video with identical text. The "Kelly Brennan" and "Alisha Owen" accounts seem to have been created specifically for this purpose and have not been used since.
On 20 October, a copy of the video was uploaded to YouTube by an account called "Lisa Loza" whose other postings are mainly videos advertising products and services.
Also on 20 October, the video appeared on Bloody Football's Facebook page, where it was "liked" by Voiceless Victims' "expert in international development research", Daniel Faulkner. On the same day @HR_AreNotOption, @ISQW2022, @AndrewSven69 and @wilsonjane4911 began promoting the video on Twitter – as did @bloody_football and @vlvictims a day later.
Meanwhile, a dormant Twitter account registered the previous July in the name of "Zak Williamson" suddenly woke up. Over the next week it posted more than 120 tweets promoting the video. With one exception, all the tweets posted by this account before it fell silent again in December 2015 were about Qatar, Fifa and the World Cup.
On October 22, the video was uploaded to CNN iReport by a newly-registered account called "VlessVictims" and to Vimeo by Voiceless Victims.
Voiceless Victims later claimed in a press release that its campaign promoting the video "was a viral success and spread like wildfire on social media". It said the video itself had "reached millions of people all over Europe and the Middle East". This was an overstatement, to say the least. More than a year after the video appeared, viewing figures recorded at the various locations where it is known to have been posted are as follows:
YouTube: Lisa Loza7,901
YouTube: Voiceless Victims1,406
YouTube: Bloody Football 2022681
Vimeo: Voiceless Victims602
YouTube: Qatar World Cup 2022151
CNN: VlessVictims34
Vimeo: Alisha Owen27
YouTube: Kelly Brennan21
Although Voiceless Victims and those associated with it tried to attract attention by tagging popular accounts in their tweets, they were basically tweeting into a vacuum: they had very few followers of their own, sometimes not even reaching double figures.
Making contact
The video may have been a flop but Voiceless Victims had achieved something else. It had created the appearance – or rather, the illusion – of an active campaigning group which, with a bit of luck, could gain recognition and trust from the human rights community ... so long as nobody looked at it too closely.
On 20 October, as the social media campaign got under way, Voiceless Victims' alleged founder and director, "Luke Hann", sent an email to Anti-Slavery International, introducing himself, sharing a link to the "provocative viral video", and requesting them to help "spread the word". 
The email address used for this message was "". The ".in" part of the address is interesting because Voiceless Victims' website was ".org". There is no trace of a website at "", and the domain name is currently registered in Moscow.
Enter Amélie
Early in 2016 Voiceless Victims' spokesperson, "Amélie Lefebvre", entered the picture. On 11 January she posted for the first time on Twitter and Facebook, simultaneously announcing that she had become a "PR professional" and "started school" at the European Communication School in Paris.

Amélie Lefebvre, as seen on Voiceless Victims' website
It wasn't long before Amelie showed interest in Amnesty International's activities regarding migrant workers in Qatar. Amnesty had been compiling a report, "The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Game", which was due to be published on 31 March. The day before publication Amélie began posting a series of tweets which publicised Voiceless Victims but also tagged one of Amnesty's Twitter accounts and included a hashtag that Amnesty had created – #worldcupshame. Voiceless Victims' Facebook page hailed the Amnesty report as "important" and Amelie retweeted tweets by several of Amnesty's staff.
While this may have been perfectly innocent, with hindsight it looks as if Voiceless Victims were trying to get themselves noticed – in Amnesty's words, "to insert themselves into social media conversation on the topic and to promote their profile".
Besides the tweeting, it transpired that "Amelie" had also been seeking to establish direct contact with Amnesty. Starting in late March and continuing until August, she sent a series of emails – seven in all – to various people working at Amnesty. Basically, they were all very similar, introducing herself and Voiceless Victims and expressing a desire to cooperate with Amnesty "in our next move".
Oddly, though, she seemed in no hurry to take the disussions with Amnesty further. Early in April, when Amnesty's press office offered to put her in touch by phone with the relevant staff, Amélie replied that she was on a "mission" until 1 May and contactable only be email.
On 2 May, in apparent confirmation of this, Amélie posted a tweet in French saying she had just returned from a month-long trip to India which she described as "une mission humanitaire". The purpose of this trip – if it took place at all – is a complete mystery and when invited by another Twitter user to share her experiences of India, Amelie declined. Considering that Amélie was supposed to be Voiceless Victims' spokesperson and "a PR professional" she might have been expected to be more eager to talk about it. 

The back of Amélie Lefebvre, as seen on her deleted Facebook page
Soon after that, Amélie was off on her travels again, or so she claimed. On 29 May she tweeted that she was returning from another "mission" which Voiceless Victims described as "a meaningful field trip to Africa". This time she was slightly more talkative about it, but only slightly. Her 100-word "report", posted on the organisation's Facebook page, stated a few very obvious facts in extremely general terms:
"As human rights activist, I've always wanted to visit Africa. Unfortunately, human rights abuses are occurring on a daily basis in that area and child abuse is one of the more common violations. While other kids in the world are playing with toys, African children usually have to work. These poor children have a tough life; they sometimes live in areas afflicted by violence and insecurity and they are less like to get proper education than their counterparts in Asia, America and Europe. When I saw these children in Africa, it made me even more certain that we must fight ferociously for the rights.”
Amélie also seems to have forgotten to take a camera on her mission, because the only photo accompanying her account had already appeared many times on the internet.
Lengthy periods of foreign travel seem to have been a regular feature of life at Voiceless Victims, especially when others were trying to contact its staff. Its founder and director, "Luke Hann", also claimed to be travelling – and thus unable to speak on the phone – when journalists started asking questions about the organisation and its activities. 

Luke Hann, as seen on Voiceless Victims' website
Qatar renews sponsorship of Barcelona football club
In July 2016, Barcelona football club's sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways came up for renewal, prompting a further burst of activity from Voiceless Victims. Between the end of June and the beginning of August, Amelie contacted various organisations, mostly by email but occasionally by phone: Anti-Slavery International, Amnesty International, Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and the International Transport Workers Federation.
Voiceless Victims was inviting these organisations to collaborate with it in campaigning against renewal of Barcelona's Qatari sponsorship and it sent them copies of a draft petition. On 19 July, however, FC Barcelona announced a one-year extension of the sponsorship deal. Voiceless Victims was aware of this but didn't seem deterred and for a couple of weeks Amelie continued sending out emails about the petition. Oddly, though, the conversation in these emails never seemed to move very far forward. Amnesty noted that emails received by three of its staff on 3 August consisted of "template text as if Amelie had never emailed us before or called Amnesty International".
Becoming voiceless
Despite these semi-robotic emails from Amelie, Voiceless Victims was gradually losing its voice. Its Facebook page and the @vlvictims Twitter account both fell silent on 6 June. A month later the same thing happened to "I Support Qatar Workers" on both Twitter and Facebook. Since October there have been no further posts from "Bloody Football 2022" on either Facebook or Twitter.
In September, Voiceless Victims' website stopped functioning for a while but later returned – only to be deleted in December. By that stage, with Amnesty International and journalists from Le Monde and Forbes magazine pursuing Voiceless Victims with questions, it looked as if the people behind it were trying to cover their tracks, if in a rather piecemeal fashion. The "campaigns coordinator", Luz Bardem, deleted her Facebook page but not the Playbuzz account she had set up. Amelie Lefebvre deleted her Facebook page and her Twitter account while leaving her LinkedIn profile intact.
What was it all about?
There's a lot in the story of Voiceless Victims that simply doesn't add up. A key question is whether it was really trying to support Qatar's migrant workers or just pretending to do so. Either way, its online campaigning was plainly ineffective and contributed nothing very new or significant.
But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that it was what it claimed to be: "a group a volunteers – principally composed of graduate students in the field of social sciences and professionals who are devoted to humanitarian causes". 
We might also picture them as sincere but disorganised, which could help to explain their lack of response to emails and phone calls. Conceivably their dissimulation – the false office address and staff profiles that were impossible to corroborate – might have been intended to protect them from any reprisals. But if they were so concerned about security why did they invite migrant workers in Qatar (who faced a far greater risk of reprisals if identified) to send them stories about ill-treatment by insecure email?
If there are innocent explanations for all this, Voiceless Victims has so far failed to provide them despite having had plenty of opportunity to do so. Not only that; the subsequent deletion of web pages and social media accounts when people started asking questions suggests a desire to frustrate investigations.
This points to the conclusion that Voiceless Victims was just an empty shell and that the purpose of its fakery was to create the impression of an active human rights organisation without actually being one. 
The very limited amount of public campaigning that it did consisted almost entirely of postings on social media. Voiceless Victims boasted of using "unconventional and creative" methods to campaign but there was nothing very creative about its social media posts. Many were just vague exhortations such as "Have a heart", "Lend a hand", "Stand out and make a difference". The graphics accompanying some of its posts looked slightly more creative but they were not original. Google image searches on a random sample showed they had all been copied (sometimes with adaptations) from elsewhere. The graphic used here, for example, had appeared earlier on an Italian website. Another, showing a row of light bulbs, had previously been used in Britain by the National Health Service.
Apart from the draft petition against Qatari sponsorship of Barcelona football club – circulated to activists but never implemented – Voiceless Victims' only contribution of substance was the 73-second video about the 2022 World Cup which actually said nothing that hadn't been said previously by others.
The suspicion is that Voiceless Victims was some kind of covert operation to identify individual activists, to find out who was doing what in connection with Qatar's migrant workers, and perhaps discover more about their plans.
There are several reasons for that suspicion. One is that at least two organisations received emails from Voiceless Victims containing links to a website that has been associated with cyberattacks in the past. This appeared to be a first step towards gathering information about the workings of their computer system. One of the recipients was Amnesty International where the email triggered a security alert but others may have received it without being aware of the threat it posed.
Besides proposing cooperation with Amnesty and other organisations, Voiceless Victims also asked Amnesty to keep them informed about campaign plans.
The soliciting of abuse stories from workers in Qatar was another worrying aspect: though possibly innocent but ill-conceived, it could potentially be used to entrap activists inside the country.
Nor was the Voiceless Victims affair an isolated case. There is a history of mischief-making in connection with the World Cup and Qatar's construction workers and in January 2016 the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) issued the following statement:
"The ITUC has for some time been facing a disinformation campaign by unidentified persons, in connection with our campaign to defend the rights of migrant workers in Qatar including those preparing infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.
"This campaign has included the dissemination of fake videos and other materials, setting up of fake social media accounts and various other techniques aimed at the ITUC and at individual people.
"This week the ITUC received confirmation that ITUC email accounts have been hacked, and falsified material inserted into emails. We anticipate that this campaign may intensify in the coming weeks with the election of a new FIFA President due on February 26 and important discussions in UN institutions ... in the first quarter of this year."
This is not to suggest Voiceless Victims was responsible for those attacks but there was clearly someone, somewhere, seeking to disrupt the work of activists.
Voiceless Victims is of course welcome to respond to any points in this article. though it has had opportunities before and has not taken them up. In the meantime there is one person who may be able to shed some light on the affair: the man who did the voiceover for the video below. He sounds like a professional sports commentator and perhaps someone, somewhere, may recognise his voice.


Friday, January 6, 2017

Islamic State Violence fuels culture wars and widens generation gaps

By James M. Dorsey

The Islamic State’s New Year’s Eve bombing of an upscale nightclub in Istanbul has fuelled culture wars in Turkey and Israel and laid bare aspirations among youth in socially restrictive Muslim societies for more liberal lifestyles.

In doing so, the bombing of Istanbul’s Reina restaurant cum nightclub that killed 39 people, mostly tourists, spotlighted wider societal tensions that underlie the wave of jihadist attacks that have hit Turkey and other Muslim societies in recent years. They spotlight a struggle that more often than not is fought by youth who opt for individual ways of carving out spaces in which they can circumvent restrictive social mores rather than organizing politically.

To be sure, the Islamic State’s multiple attacks in Turkey intend to primarily raise the cost of Turkish intervention in neighbouring Syria’s civil war. They are nevertheless also a violent effort to strengthen those societal forces in Turkey and elsewhere that favour a society based on a puritan interpretation of Islam’s social mores. Praising the attack, the Islamic State (IS) noted that its “heroic Caliphate soldier tore down one of the most famous nightclubs where Christians celebrated their polytheistic feast.”

The funeral of Lian Zaher Nasser, a 19-year-old from the town of Tira in the Galilee gunned down in the Reina attack, provided an anti-dote to IS’s assertion. In doing so, it spotlighted the struggle for Islam’s soul in Israeli Palestinian society. Thousands, including Palestinian members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and representatives of the Palestine Authority attended the funeral.

So, did many young women, bent on defending Ms. Nasser’s and their right to enjoy life in the face of criticism that she had violated Islamic mores by visiting a nightclub and celebrating New Year, a secular feast of the infidels. Their struggle often marks a rejection of the more traditional social mores of their elders.

It is fought not only by defying traditional codes but also by young women seeking higher education in much the same way that soccer has emerged for young Palestinian men in Israel as what football scholar Tamer Sorek calls an “integrative enclave” that allows them to escape Israeli discrimination and Palestinian societal inhibitions. Their ambitions are fuelled by the fact that unlike youth in predominantly Muslim societies elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, they are exposed to Israel’s more open society.

“This attempted slander is another murder of Lian,” Ala’a Abdulahi, a native of Tira who survived the attack on Reina, told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, referring to conservative criticism of their visit to the nightclub. “We arrived in Istanbul as independent young women and it is our right to celebrate the New Year’s in a well-known and exclusive club, and whoever this does not fit can go and break their head,”

Her words were echoed by municipal leaders of Tira. "We are proud of Lian and her friends. We take pride in a young generation that is steadfast against the symbols of darkness and obscurity. We strive for life and young people among us who decide what is good and what is not. No one will force them to do anything. Those who try to impose their views, tell them: your position is unacceptable. These dark forces will not deter the young lovers of life. We represent true Islam. There is no place for those who adopt a false jihad," Mayor Mamoun Abd El Hai said in a eulogy at Ms. Nasser’s funeral.

The defense of Ms. Nasser’s right to shape her own life reflects the divide aggravated by the Reina attack between secular and religious segments of society in Turkey that like Israel is far more open than most societies in the region. The impact of creeping ultra-conservatism in Turkey was evident in a statement in December by the Turkish government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs or Diyanet declaring the celebration of New Year “alien” to Turkish values.

The statement followed an Islamist campaign seeking to persuade Turkish Muslims not to celebrate Christmas. In one incident, posters pictured Santa Claus being publicly punched by faithful Muslims. In another, ultra-nationalists organized a protest in which they pointed guns at the head of Santa Claus.

To be fair, Islamist groups in Turkey have a long history of opposition to celebrations of Christmas and New Year without resorting to violence. There is moreover no love lost between IS and the Diyanet, which the jihadists view as apostate.

The bombing has nonetheless sharpened the battle lines in Turkey where many secularists feel that the government’s promotion of conservative values and sweeping crackdown on critics in the wake of last July’s failed coup attempt has divided rather than united the country and deepened the social divide.

While Israeli Palestinians and Turks openly challenge conservative mores, Saudis need to be more circumspect even if they embrace the same values. Seven Saudis were among the victims of the attack on Reina.

Speaking to Al Arabiya, Saudi journalist Mona al-Nasser stressed that Reina’s nightclub was in a separate section from the restaurant and criticised those who had condemned Saudis who frequented the establishment. “I had personally dined at Reina before and like any other restaurant in Europe or in other Western cities, there are alcoholic beverages and music being played. Reina is one of the most elitist restaurants in Istanbul that is visited by many Arabs over the years,” Al-Nasser said.

All in all, IS’s strategy may have backfired by attacking Reina. If anything, it has emboldened Muslim youth, particularly in countries whose nationals were among the victims, to stand up for their right to craft lives that reflect a more liberal, less restrictive interpretation of Islam. They more often than not take a stand individually in the quiet choices they make rather than in efforts to effect change collectively.

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 recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Think that 2016 was a tough year for Saudi Arabia? Wait till you see 2017

By James M. Dorsey

2016 was not a good year for Saudi Arabia. Sharply lower oil prices sparked a domestic financial crisis that is forcing the country to restructure its economy. Saud Arabia’s bitter struggle with Iran for regional hegemony has embroiled it in wars and political conflicts it has been unable to win, leaving it no alternative but to admit failure or compromise. If 2016 was bad, 2017 threatens to be worse.

Saudi Arabia closed out 2016 with a ceasefire in Syria and prospects for peace talks orchestrated by Russia and Turkey that significantly weakened Saudi-backed rebel groups and strengthened Iran’s key Middle East ally, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia’s only hope of influencing events in Syria is if either the rebels, jihadists who are not part of the ceasefire, or Mr. Al-Assad sabotage it for their own reasons. But even then, the fall of Aleppo, the rebel’s last major urban holdout, threatens to reduce the anti-Assad resistance to a largely rural insurgency.

Adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia, unable to block a candidate from becoming president of Lebanon who was supported by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that helped Mr. Al-Assad regain the upper hand in the Syrian civil war, was forced to strike a deal. It tacitly agreed to the appointment of Michel Aoun, a close Hezbollah ally, and quickly invited him to visit the kingdom early in the new year.

Mr. Aoun, as part of the deal, appointed Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri, the prime minister and Lebanese-Saudi businessman who was murdered in 2005 allegedly by Hezbollah operatives, as his head of government. Mr. Hariri, whose family conglomerate in the kingdom was hit badly by the financial crisis and needed to be bailed out, is beholden to the Saudi government. The deal ended a more than two-year long standoff between Iranian and Saudi-backed forces that left the presidency vacant.

Sensitive to any challenge to its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia’s role is in the spotlight as it negotiates modalities with some 80 countries for the 2017 haj. Saudi Arabia and Iran failed to reach an agreement for the 2016 pilgrimage, leaving the Islamic republic without a quote for pilgrims and the kingdom’s management of the haj challenged.

An almost two-year long military campaign in Yemen, that was supposed to be cakewalk has turned into a quagmire for the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is looking for a face-saving exit strategy from a neighbour that its military has devastated without removing its enemies, the Iranian-backed Houthis and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, from power in much of the country, including the capital Sana’a. The campaign has sparked widespread anti-Saudi sentiment among significant numbers of Yemenis.

The campaign has moreover cast a shadow over the capabilities of a country that ranks as the world’s second largest importer of military equipment. The United States late last year halted the sale of air-dropped and precision-guided munitions until it has better trained Saudi forces in their targeting and use of the weapons. The Saudi air force’s repeated targeting by design or default of civilian targets in Yemen in which large numbers of innocent people were killed has opened the kingdom to assertions of war crimes.

Saudi Arabia’s inability to claim either political or military benefit from the Yemen war threatens to put on the line the credibility of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan, the powerful son of King Salman, who is also in charge of turning the kingdom’s economy around. Many believe that King Salman is grooming Prince Mohammed as his successor despite objections from factions within the Al Saud family.

Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s use of its political and financial muscle to bring Egyptian-general-turned president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to power in a military coup in 2013 and stabilize Egypt’s deteriorating economy has failed to achieve a return. Instead, Saudi Arabia and the Arab world’s most populous nation are at loggerheads over Iran, Syria and various other issues.

Saudi Arabia suspended in October a $23 billion agreement to supply Egypt with 700,000 tons of petroleum products every month after Egypt supported a Russian resolution on Syria in the United Nations Security Council. The sanctions and cooling of relations have done little to make Mr. Al-Sisi more empathetic to Saudi concerns.

Finally, on the foreign police and defence front, this month’s inauguration of Donald J. Trump could prove to be a mixed bag that may aggravate Saudi Arabia’s problems. Mr. Trump has suggested that he may back away from US support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria and focus in cooperation with Moscow on defeating the Islamic State. That effectively would strengthen the free hand Iran, Russia and Mr. Al-Assad already have in Syria.

The President-elect has also hinted that he may scrap the international community’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Saudi Arabia has called on Mr. Trump not to cancel the agreement but to hold Iran to the fire over its support for proxies in Arab countries. A cancellation of the agreement could force Saudi Arabia into a nuclear arms race with Iran.

Mr. Trump’s suggestions that he may be more sympathetic to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank threatens to put the kingdom on the spot at a time that it has found common ground with Israel in seeking to halt Iranian regional advances. Mr. Trump’s pledge to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his nominee as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who describes Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of the Jewish state” could further strain already trouble relations with the United States. Possible widespread protests against relocation of the embassy could move Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, to break off diplomatic relations with the United States and/or take other retaliatory steps.

Saudi Arabia is betting that Mr. Trump, the president, will rely on the experience of Mr. Trump, the businessman, to cut deals. The president-elect, however, has suggested that he could stop oil imports from the kingdom in his bid to make the United Sates energy independent. At one point, during the election campaign, he also blamed Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks.

Uncertainty in its relationship with the US could not come at a worse moment for the kingdom. The Saudi government, beyond its foreign policy and military setbacks, has begun to unilaterally rewrite the social contract that underwrites it. The rewriting constitutes the end of a bargain involving a cradle-to-grave welfare system in exchange for surrender of political rights and adherence to Wahhabi social mores.

Cutbacks on subsidies, increased utility prices, reduced spending on education and social services, and streamlining of the bureaucracy in a country in which the state employs two thirds of the citizenry is a tricky business. It’s even trickier in an environment in which the country’s basic power structure, a power sharing agreement between the ruling Al Saud family and the country’s religious establishment, is being challenged by the demands of economic and social change and increasing international association of Wahhabism with Islamic militancy.

King Salman and Prince Mohammed have a full plate for 2017. For them and the Al Sauds the core issue is survival. With no credible alternative to the Al Sauds and the Middle East and North Africa’s recent experience of popular protest producing civil wars, jihadism and increased repression, Saudis are unlikely to revolt. They will however demand a greater say and greater accountability, concepts the government has so far countered with increased suppression and 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 recently published book with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Globalist’s Top 10 Books of 2016

10.The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer By James M Dorsey (Oxford University Press)

The “Boytrap”: When the Islamic State Goes to Play Soccer | With mosques under surveillance, IS turns to soccer for recruitment.

December 28, 2016

The Globalist's Top 10 Books of 2016

The ten best books on key global issues we presented on The Globalist Bookshelf this year. Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization

By Branko Milanovic | Excerpt: Can Inequality Be Reduced?

By Pallavi Aiyar | Excerpt: Choked — Delhi’s Pollution Crisis Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World

By Peter Navarro | Excerpt: Vietnam Dangles at the Tip of the Chinese Spear Mapping the Future of Global Civilization

By Parag Khanna. Reviewed by Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia. | Review: Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy

By Edward Alden | Excerpt: America’s Home-Made Raw Deal for Workers Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister

By Sreeram Chaulia | Excerpt: How Modi Mobilizes the Indian Diaspora “Conspiracy” of Free Trade

By Marc-William Palen | Excerpt: Trump and the Return of American Economic Nationalism of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance

By Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna | Excerpt: Future of Globalization: Why the Renaissance Mindset Matters So Much Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos

By Hardeep Singh Puri | Excerpt: Yemen as a Saudi Target Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer