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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

2022 World Cup sparks labour reform, just not in Qatar

By James M. Dorsey

The 2022 Qatar World Cup may be sparking social change in the Gulf, just not (yet) in Qatar.

Qatar’s winning of the hosting rights for the World Cup gave human rights and trade union activists the leverage they needed to more effectively pressure the Gulf state for reform, if not abolition, of its controversial kafala or labour sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.

While focused on Qatar, the campaign also targeted other Gulf states and prompted other activists to focus on high-profile construction projects like sites for Western museums and universities in the UAE. It also motivated countries across the region to tinker with their labour systems. While Qatar made lofty promises of reform and engaged with its critics, the UAE and other Gulf states rejected criticism and barred activists entry to their countries.

Now however, as Qatar continues to dither, the UAE has decreed the very reforms, Qatar has yet to implement nationwide, and a prominent Saudi intellectual has called for abolition of kafala in the kingdom. Kuwait recently became the first Gulf state to pass legislation granting domestic workers greater rights. By contrast, students last month denounced conditions for workers at Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha.

The UAE move and public debate in other Gulf states deprives Qatar, a supporter of change across the Middle East and North Africa with the exception of the Gulf, of its claim to be on the cutting edge of transition in the region. It also casts further doubt on the sincerity of Qatar’s promises.

Qatar has promised to pass legislation by the end of this year that would ease procedures for exit visas and improve recruitment, housing and working conditions for migrant workers who constitute a majority of the Gulf state’s population.

Several major Qatari institutions, including the 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy and Qatar Foundation, have adopted standards that go a far way to meet activists’ demands but these have yet to be enshrined in national law. Qatar has suggested that its emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, would approve legislation by the end of this year.

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) secretary general Sharon Burrow noted after a visit to Oman last month that the Gulf state had just about as many migrant workers as Qatar does but that its laws did not discriminate between Omani and foreign workers even though Omanis, migrant workers and western expatriates have different contract terms. Ms. Burrow further noted that in contrast to Qatar workers were allowed to unionize and elect their leaders and were accorded “humane accommodation.”

“In Oman you feel optimism and the hope of a shared future. In Qatar you feel discrimination, denial and a master-servant relationship. Common region, shared cultures, neighbours - why the difference?” Ms. Burrow asked.

Leaving Qatar looking like a straggler, the UAE last month decreed labour reforms that aim to tighten oversight of employment agreements for migrant workers with the exception of domestic labour. The decrees focus on improving transparency of job terms and employment contracts, spell out how contracts can be broken, and could make it easier for workers to switch employers.

Under the new policies, prospective workers would be asked to sign a standard employment offer in their home country that would in turn be filed with the labour ministry before a work permit is issued. That agreement would then be registered as a legal contract once the worker arrives in the country, and no changes would be allowed unless they extend additional benefits that the worker agrees to. Contracts can be broken by either side under certain circumstances, and workers would be free to switch to a new employer after obtaining labour ministry authorization.

In Saudi Arabia, Khaled Almaeena, a prominent Saudi journalist, called recently for the abolition of the kafala system in the kingdom. Noting that his repeated efforts to get ministers to focus on labour reform had gone unheeded, Mr. Almaeena wrote last month that “a media campaign should be conducted and people, both the workers and the employees, should be made aware of their rights and obligations. Contracts should be lodged with the Ministry of Labour rather than with employers. And the Kafala system must go.”

The push for reform in the Gulf is about more than ensuring adherence in the region to international labour standards. In the smaller Gulf states it raises the spectre of giving rights to a majority of the population against the backdrop of a minority citizenry that fears losing control of its culture and way of life.

Concern is heightened by the fact that the social contract in Gulf states that involves surrender of political rights in exchange for a cradle-to-grave welfare system is fraying at the edges. Faced with population growth and reduced oil revenues, Gulf states have begun to roll back subsidies, sparking sharp rises of food prices in Bahrain and bringing fuel prices in the UAE to world market levels. Oman is mulling also raising fuel prices while Kuwait is looking at the introduction of a value added tax and road tolls.

Labour reform is to many in the Gulf a Pandora’s Box, not only in terms of potentially laying the groundwork for foreigners demanding ever more rights but also with regard to badly needed sweeping economic reforms in preparation of a post-oil age. Newly born in all Gulf states with the exception of Qatar and Kuwait are expected to witness their countries running out of fossil energy resources within their lifetimes.

Reforms would have to rebalance the relationship between the state and a private sector that remains dependent on government. They would also have to restructure labour markets in which citizens who largely enjoy comfortable government jobs would have to compete with expatriates likely to sell their services at a lower price. As a result, Kuwait has moved to subsidize salaries of Kuwaitis employed in the private sector.

Inevitably, the reforms will be building blocks for a move from a rentier to a productive economy in which citizens become productive rather than entitled members of society. That could spark greater interest in political change. That change is inevitable and is likely with or without the 2022 World Cup. The tournament however is proving to be a catalyst.

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 and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Israel, Iran and Beijing’s delicate balance (JMD quoted in The Arab Weekly)

Israel, Iran and Beijing’s delicate balance

While White House grapples with pro-Israel lobby or evan­gelical Christian organisations, which affect domestic political calculations, Chinese politburo has no such concerns.

 Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif after a meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing, on September 15th.

 2015/09/25  Issue: 24  Page: 13
London - No wonder Chinese Pre­mier Li Keqiang has been urging “concerted efforts” to ensure the deal over Iran’s nuclear programme does not get derailed: He wants the green light for China to enhance its ties with the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, Israel is striving to block the deal, which Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called a “historic mistake”.
China’s ties with both Iran and Israel are burgeoning but will their antagonism towards each other im­peril Beijing’s ability to get what it wants from these relationships?
“If you’re a major player like China, over time your partners ex­pect more than a purely utilitarian relationship,” says James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “That’s where the rub is. All the principles of non-inter­ference and harmony are unsus­tainable. There’s the beginning of a realisation of that in China.”
China is Iran’s largest trading partner and Iran is China’s third biggest supplier of oil, contributing about 12% of its imports. A success­ful nuclear deal will boost trade, investment and energy opportuni­ties.
Nothing unusual there — Western business types have also been beat­ing a path to Tehran — but Iran also occupies a key position in China’s larger One Belt, One Road policy, which could see it invest trillions of dollars to create an overland trade route and integrated economic area from western China to the Middle East and Europe through Central Asia. The Iran nuclear deal affords China wider security and political opportunities. Military cooperation ticked up in 2013 and 2014, with high-profile leadership visits and port calls involving the two countries’ navies. Many of Iran’s missiles are Chinese-made or based on Chinese designs, some­thing that Dorsey says will irk Is­rael and other rivals such as Saudi Arabia.
Both Iran and China border Af­ghanistan, from where US and oth­er coalition forces are due to with­draw in 2016, and could cooperate for stability there. China in particu­lar is worried about militancy that could feed into unrest among the Muslim Uighur population in its Xinjiang province.
Iran’s rehabilitation will enable Beijing to bring it closer into its po­litical embrace, giving it full mem­bership of China-led multilateral organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Iran is a founding member of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Some analysts argue such moves are explicitly designed to dilute US influence.
Israel, too, is a founding mem­ber of the AIIB — much to Wash­ington’s displeasure. Indeed, some argue that the chilly relationship between the Obama White House and the Netanyahu government is causing Israel to carry out its own pivot to Asia. A stream of high-ranking Chinese officials have been to Israel since Netanyahu’s Beijing visit in 2013.
That suits China just fine. Its main interest is in Israeli technol­ogy. In the 1980s and 1990s, that mostly meant military technology — but it didn’t get all that it wanted. In 2000, the United States threat­ened to cut military aid to Israel if it went ahead with sales of sensitive equipment to China.
Now China is looking to Israel for agritech, biotech, information technology and clean tech, includ­ing water-saving and irrigation so­lutions. Asia’s richest man, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, has made high-profile investments in Israeli firms and has donated mon­ey to an institute of technology in Haifa. Chinese firms are involved in Israeli infrastructure projects and the countries are discussing the creation of a free trade zone.
In the past China might have concealed its growing partnership with Israel to avoid undermining relationships with other Middle Eastern countries but no longer, says Yoram Evron of Haifa Univer­sity’s Asian Studies department.
“The main reason for the change stems from China’s growing self-confidence and understanding that the battle against Israel is no long­er a uniting factor in the Muslim world,” he wrote in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
China has recognised the state of Palestine and does not consider Hamas or Hezbollah to be terrorist groups. But Evron argues that Isra­el’s relative stability amid growing chaos in the region, its strategic im­portance and status as a US ally all motivate China to cultivate good relations. However, while Iran may look to China as an alternative pow­er to the United States, Israel is un­likely to follow suit, no matter how strained things might be between their current leaders. And China is more likely to be concerned by the US reaction to its changing re­lationships in the Middle East than by the rivalry between individual regional states. Dorsey predicts that within a decade or so, Chinese military bases could appear in the region.
“You’ll see bases and assertive policies affecting Saudi Arabia and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians and political stability generally,” he said. “To a degree this will be welcomed by the West. Over time there will be a dilution of the US se­curity umbrella in the Persian Gulf.
China will push the envelope but be careful not to overthrow the cart.”
Such moves will be defined by national interest, aided, Dorsey says, by the fact that its govern­ment does not have to deal with lobbies or ethno-religious pressure groups at home.
While the White House grapples with the pro-Israel lobby or evan­gelical Christian organisations, which affect domestic political calculations, the Chinese politburo has no such concerns. There are an estimated 70 million Christians and about 23 million Muslims including about 11 million ethnic Uighurs in China, but, as Dorsey notes, they do not vote.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Staunch Sisi supporter calls for opening of stadia and dialogue with ultras

By James M. Dorsey

A staunch supporter of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, has called on the government to allow soccer fans, a pillar of anti-government protest, back into stadia that have largely been closed to the public for nearly five years.

Mr. Sawiri’s request on the eve of two African Confederation Cup semi-finals in Cairo in which Egypt’s storied clubs Al Ahli SC will square off with South Africa’s Orlando Pirates while Zamalek SC plays its return game against Tunisia’s Etoile du Sahel, followed several recent incidents in which fans either forced their way into an Egyptian stadium or used away matches of Egyptian clubs to stage anti-government protests.

It also came after Mr. Sawiris acquired the Egyptian Premier League’s broadcast rights which he has since sold to two of Egypt’s television channels, TEN and Al-Hayat.

"The absence of football fans is a failure for Egypt and the interior and youth ministries. People are bored with politics now, but they never bore of football. Fans must attend matches again, but without new incidents. Matches are boring without fans. We will have a meeting with interior ministry officials and groups of ultras,” Mr. Sawiris told a news conference.

Mr. Sawiris was referring to militant soccer fan groups that played a key role in the 2011 toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and have been the backbone of student and neighbourhood protests against Mr. Al-Sisi in the two years since he staged his 2013 military coup against Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Egyptian stadia have largely been closed since the mass protests against Mr. Mubarak erupted in January 2011 in a bid to ensure that they would not serve as platforms and gathering points for opposition forces.

Stadia were reopened months after the revolt but closed in February 2012 following a politically-loaded brawl in Port Said in which 74 Ahli supporters died. Another effort to open stadia was stymied when in February of this year 20 fans were killed in clashes with security forces as they sought to force their way into a Cairo stadium to which a limited number of spectators had been granted entry.

The Egyptian interior ministry, in a potential signal that the country’s military-backed regime recognized that its choking off of all public space could backfire, initially agreed last month to allow fans to attend international matches played by the national team and Egyptian clubs. The move was also intended to shield the government from being blamed for potentially bad performances – a politically sensitive issue in soccer-crazy Egypt.

The interior ministry however this week reversed its decision, saying that fans would not be allowed to attend the Al Ahli match against the Orlando Pirates. The decision followed the flashing by fans last week in Johannesburg during a first match between the two clubs of the four-fingered Raba’a sign by Ahli fans. Raba’a is a square in Cairo where hundreds of protesters, primarily members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, were killed by security forces weeks after Mr. Al-Sisi’s toppling of Mr. Morsi, a leader of the Brotherhood.

It also followed the firing of flares during a match in Tunisia by fans of Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek SC and after Ahli fans forced their way into an Egyptian stadium where their club was playing an African game against a Malian team. 

In a letter to the interior ministry, Al Ahli asked the ministry earlier this week to reverse its ban on spectator attendance of the match against the South Africans. “We have proposed to security authorities all solutions possible to allow the fans to attend, especially considering the game is critical for the team to defend its African title. We left it up to the Interior Ministry to decide on the suitable number of fans,” Al Ahli general director, Mahmoud Allam, was quoted by Al-Masry Al-You as saying.

Repeated talks between the interior ministry that administers Egypt’s security forces with whom ultras have regularly clashed during the past eight years, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), and clubs on a re-opening of stadia have faltered on disagreement on how security should be organized and who should shoulder the bill. Clubs have sustained substantial financial losses as a result of the stadium closure.

Mr. Sawiris implicitly criticized the government for its hard line towards the ultras by noting that the ultras lacked leaders and urging the interior ministry to meet with the militant fans. Many of the ultras’ leaders are either in prison on charges or convictions for violating Egypt’s draconic anti-protest law or have gone into hiding to evade detention or because they were convicted in absentia to sentences ranging from short term prison terms to life in prison or death.

Mr. Sawiris with his call for a dialogue with the ultras can point to the fact that militant Ahli fans voluntarily left a stadium in November of last year that they had occupied hours before their club was scheduled to play an African championship. The incident was a rare example in which Egyptian security forces agreed to a negotiated, peaceful resolution rather than a hard-handed crackdown.

In the deal, negotiated by Al Ahli’s management the fans agreed to leave the stadium in exchange for being allowed to attend the match, being treated with respect rather than humiliated at security checks, and promising not to disrupt the match. Al Ahli won the championship in a match that proceeded without incident.

Al Ahli’s approach towards its militant fans has contrasted sharply with that of Zamalek whose president, Mortada Mansour, has relished the death of his club’s supporters in February, accused them of trying to assassinate him, and sought to persuade the courts to outlaw ultras as terrorists.

Militant fans have long been demanding a lifting of the spectator ban. Thousands of hard-core supporters of Al Ahli and Al Zamalek have attended their clubs’ training sessions in recent months to demonstrate that it was not them but the security forces that were responsible for repeated violent incidents.

Efforts to repress the ultras and several failed legal attempts to ban them as terrorist organizations have left fans and youth frustrated at a lack of social and economic prospects with few options to either resign themselves to apathy or risk radicalization. “There is nowhere to go and no breathing space left. You either turn apathetic or you decide that you’ve got nothing to lose,” said an ultra.

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 and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fighting Islamic State: Getting Down To Root Causes

RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced electronically or in print with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email: for feedback to the Editor RSIS Commentary, Yang Razali Kassim. 

No. 205/2015 dated 30 September 2015
Fighting Islamic State:
Getting Down To Root Causes
By James M. Dorsey


The international community’s countering of Islamic State should not just focus on neutralising violent jihadism but also addressing its root causes and translating that notion into policy.


THE RISE of Islamic State (IS) beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq over the past one year has drawn comparison with the spread of communism more than a century ago. It has also pitted proponents of kinetic realpolitik seeking military defeat of the extremist against supporters of the notion that jihadism poses primarily an ideational threat.
However both schools of the debate focus on the violent nature of the threat and ways to neutralise it rather than on what has sparked the current menace that has been germinating and mushrooming over decades. Root causes figure in the competing visions of how the IS can best be confronted.

Debating the root causes

It has become common-place to speak of the need to tackle the root causes that make IS one of the most brutal insurgent groups in recent history, attractive to disaffected youth across the globe. Translating that notion into policy, however, is proving difficult, primarily because it is based on a truth that has far-reaching impact on the international community irrespective of how close or far its members are from the IS’ current borders.

It involves changing long-standing, ingrained policies at home that marginalise, exclude and stigmatise significant segments of society; emphasise security at the expense of freedoms and debate; and in more autocratic states that are abetted by the West, reduce citizens to obedient subjects through harsh repression and attenuation of religious belief to suit the interests of rulers.

Ultimately, IS has to be defeated not in its Syrian capital of Raqqa but in the dismal banlieues of French cities that furnish it with the largest contingent of European foreign fighters; the populous neighbourhoods in Tunisia that account for the single largest group of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq; in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, whose citizens account for the second largest number of foreign fighters and whose decades-ong effort to propagate a puritan, intolerant, interpretation of Islam has been a far more important breeding ground for jihadist thinking than the writings of militant Islamist thinkers like Sayyid Qutb; and in Western capitals led by Washington who view retrograde, repressive regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Egypt as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Focussing on root causes means broadening scholarly and policy debate to concentrate not only on what amounts to applying Band-Aid that fail to heal the festering  open wounds but also to question assumptions made by the various schools of thought on how to solve the problem.

Jihadism: a symptom, not a root cause

The facts on the ground have already convincingly contradicted the notion that IS will be defeated militarily. A year into military efforts, air strikes have failed to put a serious dent in IS’s appeal or the amount of territory it controls; Iraqi regular and irregular forces have been unable to shift the balance of power on the battlefield; and no other member of the 60-nation coalition assembled by the US has been willing to deploy a ground force that potentially could defeat the jihadist group.

Yet, even such a hypothetical defeat would not solve the problem. Al Qaeda was degraded, to use the language of the Obama administration. Instead of reducing the threat of political violence, it produced ever more virulent forms of it, embodied by IS. It may be hard to imagine anything more brutal than IS, but it is a fair assumption that defeat of the group without tackling root causes would only lead to something that is even more violent and vicious.

There is much to be said for the notion of containment rather than defeat of IS in the belief that over time it would be forced to adapt its expansionist ambitions and brutal tactics as reality kicks in and the responsibility of government forces it to come to some kind of accommodation with the international community. Containment addresses the immediate problem but ignores factors that fuel radicalisation far from the warring state’s borders and make jihadism attractive to disaffected across the globe.

Similarly, the notion that the very existence of IS poses a greater threat to regional stability and security in the Middle East and North Africa than conventional or unconventional military power elevates jihadism – the violent establishment of pan-Islamic rule -- to the status of a root cause rather than a symptom and expression of a greater and more complex problem.

Moreover, the ideological challenge posed by IS despite its discriminatory, exclusionary, narrow-minded interpretation of Islam, is primarily its equally problematic readings of the faith. IS shares some puritan concepts with Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism but rejects notions of monarchic rule and a clergy that uses puritanism to bolster the power of an autocratic family. IS’s caliphate contradicts Iran’s concept of the velayat-e-faqih, the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists. Its model of governance opposes the Muslim Brotherhood’s precepts, and ideas propagated by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates of an Islam that first and foremost prescribes absolute obedience to a ruler.

Putting one’s money where one’s mouth is

In other words, the ideological debate waged in the Muslim world is to a large extent dominated by schools of thought that do not advocate more open, liberal and pluralistic interpretations of Islam. That is where the real challenge lies. The international community would give more liberal Muslim voices significant credibility if it put its money where its mouth is. It should offer a pallet of policy options that take a stab at rooting out the problem and its underlying causes rather than confine it to self-serving regimes and their religious supporters.

Some of those who emphasise IS’ ideational challenge warn that jihadism, like concepts of Arabism and Arab nationalism that were popular in the past, could provoke conflict in and between Arab states. Reality on the ground has put that notion to rest. IS with its territorial base, coupled with multiple other factors, has demonstrated the fragility of existing Arab nation states and likely condemned to dustbins of history notions of Syria and Iraq as the nation states the world has known since the end of colonial rule.

By the same token, reducing the significance of recent attacks on mosques and tourist sites by IS fellow travellers in Tunisia, Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to challenges to the political legitimacy and authority of those states, is to fail to recognise that IS fundamentally feeds on the failures of those regimes. These include the failure to provide their youth social and economic opportunity, and to adopt policies that are inclusionary not exclusionary, pluralistic not discriminatory, and encourage participation in political debates and processes rather cutting off all avenues for expression of discontent. Therein lie the root causes of the jihadism threatening the international community.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg, Germany.
Click HERE to read this commentary online.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

FIFA to rescue of troubled Saudi King Salman

By James M. Dorsey

Palestine is a headache Saudi King Salman doesn’t need as he confronts rare demands from members of his ruling family that he and his son be removed from power, growing unease about a seven-month old devastating military campaign in Yemen that has caused devastation and mounting civilian casualties, widespread criticism of the kingdom’s handling of the Haj in the wake of a deadly stampede, and concern about the financial and economic management of the kingdom against the backdrop of dropping oil prices.

Palestine emerged as a problem that threatened to escalate already high emotions in the kingdom with Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team scheduled to play a 2018 World Cup qualifier against Palestine in the Faisal al-Husseini International Stadium in Al-Ram, a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Travelling to Al-Ram would have meant that the Saudi squad would pass through Israeli security, passport and customs controls when it entered the West Bank from Jordan.

Doing so would have without doubt fuelled criticism of Mr. Salman’s nine-month old reign; infuriated a deeply conservative, anti-Israeli clergy as well as public opinion that sees the Jewish state as an enemy; and raised further questions about his management that has produced few tangible successes, exposed the kingdom to increased international criticism, and positioned his young, untested son whom many have nicknamed “Reckless” as a powerful defence and economic policy overlord as well as the king’s potential successor.

A Saudi soccer team crossing the King Hussein Bridge from Jordan to the West Bank would have been one step to many despite greater Saudi willingness to acknowledge that Israel and the kingdom despite having no diplomatic relations share common interests, particularly with regard to the rise of Iran with international sanctions likely to be lifted as a result of the resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. The agreement with Iran has further cemented concern about the reliability of the United States as the kingdom’s foremost ally.

The Saudi reluctance to allow its national soccer team to cross an Israeli-controlled border was further complicated by the fact that the United Arab Emirates had no such qualms to allow its team earlier this month to play a World Cup qualifier in Al-Ram, the first such match on Palestinian territory involving a squad from a country with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. The Saudi hesitancy further threatened to undermine Palestinian efforts to use soccer as a way to raise Palestine’s status internationally and project itself as an independent state.

World soccer body FIFA, a long-standing pillar of autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa, had no misgivings about resolving Mr. Salman’s dilemma. In a letter to the Saudi and Palestinian soccer associations dated September 28, FIFA ordered the Saudi-Palestinian match because of “force majeure” to be moved from Al Ram to a neutral venue.

FIFA offered no explanation of what force majeure Saudi Arabia was facing that the UAE did not confront in allowing its soccer team to play in Palestine. In doing so, it appeared to be attempting to spare King Salman, already fighting battles on multiple fronts, a further potentially explosive headache. The FIFA decision was one more marker of the global soccer body’s mockery of its assertion that politics and sports are unrelated. That mockery is evident with just a glimpse of the issues Mr. Salman is dealing with.

In an unprecedented move, a senior Saudi prince, a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, this month, called in two letters that have gone viral on the Web for the replacement of Mr. Salman, and his son, deputy crown prince, defence minister and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud.

“The king is not in a stable condition and in reality the son of the king [Mohammed bin Salman] is ruling the kingdom. So four or possibly five of my uncles will meet soon to discuss the letters. They are making a plan with a lot of nephews and that will open the door. A lot of the second generation is very anxious. The public are also pushing this very hard, all kinds of people, tribal leaders. They say you have to do this or the country will go to disaster,” the prince who has not been named publicly told The Guardian.

The threat to Messrs. Salman and Mohammed was heightened by the king’s refusal to hold anyone accountable for this month’s stampede during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in which more than 700 people were killed. Angry Saudis have asserted on social media that the incident was the result of rampant corruption in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family derive their legitimacy from being the custodians of Islam’s two most holy cities, Mecca and Medina. A Saudi soccer squad playing on the edge of Jerusalem at a time of Israeli-Palestinian clashes around the Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third most holy site, would have further put that legitimacy in doubt.

Saudis, including many of those in regions bordering Yemen who have tribal and family ties to the war-torn country, are increasingly disgusted at the pictures of the Middle East’s wealthiest country armed to the teeth with sophisticated weaponry reducing the Arab world’s poorest nation to a heap of ruins in a military campaign that has made progress in retaking southern Yemen from Houthi rebels but shows no sign of securing outright victory and producing a viable, unifying Yemeni government. Saudis also criticize what they see as a lack of a military or exit strategy.

“This is a war against the Yemeni nation and against Yemen becoming independent. It has no legitimate political foundation and it is not what the people want. Ninety per cent of people in Saudi Arabia don’t want this to happen, exactly the opposite of what the media shows,” said Sgt Maj Dakheel bin Naser Al Qahtani, a former head of air force operations at King Abdulaziz airbase, Dhahran, who defected from the Saudi armed forces last year.

With oil trading below $50 a barrel, Saudi Arabia is being forced to borrow and according to the Financial Times has withdrawn some $70 billion from overseas investments. Saudi Arabia’s stock market index has dropped 30 percent in the last year. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted Saudi Arabia would next year have a budget deficit of at least $107 billion.

Saudi Arabia’s budget is based on a $90 a barrel oil price. The kingdom is believed to need a $110 a barrel price to balance its budget given the costs of the wars in Yemen, Syria and against the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq.

Pictures of Saudi soccer players subjecting themselves to Israeli controls potentially could have been the cinder that put the House of Saud on fire where it not for the willingness of Sepp Blatter’s FIFA fire brigade to come to Mr. Salman’s rescue on what can only be opportunistic political grounds.

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 and a forthcoming book with the same title.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Middle Eastern conflicts spill onto Spanish soccer pitch

By James M. Dorsey

Inevitably, the mass exodus of refugees from conflict areas was going to provoke the spilling into Europe of multiple disputes in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Spanish soccer is the first to feel the weight of the baggage that has turned vast numbers into destitute refugees. Kurdish rebels have accused a Syrian coach who was hired earlier this month by Real Madrid after having been tripped on camera by a Hungarian camera woman as he was running towards the border a child in his arms of being an Al Qaeda fighter and the instigator of a deadly anti-Kurdish soccer brawl.

The allegations raised by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), believed to be associated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that is locked into escalating hostilities with Turkey, are serious. PDY media asserted that Osama Abdul Mohsen, the coach who landed in Spain, had been a fighter for Jabhat al Nusra, a major Syrian jihadist militia aligned with Al Qaeda.

The PYD and a Syrian Christian Facebook page charged further that Mr. Abdul Rahman had recently revived his Facebook page but had deleted the Nusra flag which in the past had been his cover photo. Also allegedly removed from the page were references to Mr. Abdul Rahman having fought against Kurdish forces in Amudeh, Serekaniye and Afrin. “Osama Abdul joined the rebel groups in 2011 and committed crimes against civilian minorities, including Kurds,” the PYD said in a statement.

The PYD suggested further that Mr. Abdul Rahman had left Syria on a journey that put him in the spotlight in Hungary and propelled him to Spain after Kurdish forces captured in July the Syrian town of Tel Abyad where he and his family lived.

Kurdish resentment of Mr. Abdul Mohsen, who was the coach of al-Fotuwa SC in Deir Ez Zor from 2004-2010, appears heightened by allegations that he was one of the instigators of a soccer brawl in 2004 in the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli during which Syrian security forces killed at least 50 Kurdish protesters.

The allegations raise serious policy questions for European governments. An unknown number of refugees may well have been fighters at some point in the past 4.5 years of groups that are proscribed in the West. Some sources suggest that Mr. Abdul Rahman had been arrested and tortured by forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad early on in the war.

Many may have felt they had no choice in a brutal civil war rather than having opted to join groups like Nusra for ideological reasons. That is all the more true in a situation in which Western efforts to create more moderate rebel forces have failed miserably. The failure has prompted efforts by Qatar to bring Nusra in from the cold and sparked creeping suggestions in the West that Nusra in the fight against the Islamic State may be the lesser of two evils.

To be sure, determining who is who in the human mass that has swept on to the shores of Europe is no easy feat, Nonetheless, the PDY allegations are likely to be grist on the mill of East European opposition to accommodation of the refugees that is often laced with racism and conservative and right-wing West European politicians and groups with long-standing reservations about immigration.

Intelligence agencies have further warned that some jihadists may slip into Europe with the refugees. German intelligence said this week that the number of Islamic extremists in the country had increased sharply in recent months and expressed concern that they were recruiting among refugees.

There is no immediate way of checking the PYD’s allegations, but both Syrian and Kurdish rebel groups as well as the Assad regime have a vested interest in trying to stymie the exodus from areas that they control. They both fear that their regions could be depopulated and that their ability to recruit fighters would diminish.

The PYD is reported to have barred Kurds in at least one area under its control, Efrin, from travelling to Turkey, a gateway to Europe. A PDY rival, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) earlier this month organised protests against migration in Hasakah province. KNC officials said they feared Kurdish demands for autonomy, if not independence, could be undermined by demographic changes as a result of an exodus of Kurds. Similarly, the Assad regime opposes migration because it further undermines its legitimacy.

Real Madrid and Mr. Abdul Rahman have yet to comment on the allegations levied by the PYD. Irrespective of their accuracy, the allegations raise multiple issues that go beyond security considerations. Mr. Abdul Rahman hails from an environment that was tough even before civil war erupted in Syria.

The more damning PYD assertion is his alleged involvement in the soccer brawl that occurred long before the civil war and was designed to suppress Kurdish demands for legitimate rights rather than his association with Nusra in a situation in which people often have to make difficult choices. Nonetheless, Mr. Abdul Rahman should also respond in chapter and verse to his alleged association with Nusra.

The question, however, what if, remains. Sending Mr. Abdul Rahman and his family back to Syria and retaliation by either the rebels or the regime is not an option. The real lesson is that refugees’ baggage is a mixed bag of the disputes that persuaded them to leave their home countries as well as choices they made in conflict situations. It’s easy to judge them from an armchair, but doesn’t solve the issue of what consequences that judgement should have.

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Gulf: Not All That’s Gold Glitters (JMD in Middle East Perspectives)

The Gulf: Not All That’s Gold Glitters

By James M. Dorsey
Gleaming glass skyscrapers, state-of-the-art technology, and wealthy merchant families have replaced the Gulf’s muddy towns and villages populated by traders and pearl fishers that once lacked electricity, running water or modern communications. The region’s modern day projection of a visionary cutting- edge, 21st  century urban environment masks however the fact that some things have not changed.
Gulf states continue to be ruled by the same families, generation after generation. The families have become what an Emirati regime critic, Yousif Khalifa al-Yousif, termed “an institution of entitlement.”1 Alongside autocrats, the region also remains home to holy warriors and modern-day pirates. The principle of governance that what is good for business is good for the village-turned-nation still guides rulers who rank among the region’s foremost businessmen.
If, however, the region’s physical transformation speaks to an almost unitary vision of modernity, its politics tell a very different story, one of deep-seated social conservatism despite concessions in some states to cultural attributes of expatriate communities, resistance to political change, and a clinging to the status quo at whatever price.
Close tribal ties, intermarriage between ruling families and an intertwining of tribal economic relations compensate for weak institutionalization. Concepts of conflict of interest are moreover blurred with little distinction between the economic and commercial interests of the state and those of ruling families. Dubai’s foremost governing institutions, ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Executive Office, his private staff, and his Executive Council or Cabinet operate in obscurity with no clear legal anchor.
“The problem in discussing concepts like leadership and vision is that the Gulf and its Western partners use the same terms but understand them very differently. There is no institutionalized decision-making in the Gulf. Leadership in the Gulf amounts to a few members of a family taking decisions in private. The need for greater efficiency and demands for more transparency are balanced with the region’s traditional method of consensus,” said a Western diplomat.2
Demands for institutionalization and transparency reflect far more fundamental changes that Gulf leaders have to come to grips with. Those changes are driven by populations that in majority are under the age of 30, oil and gas revenues that in the medium term will be unable to sustain rulers’ cradle-to- grave social contract with their populations, and communication technologies that render censorship and non-transparency increasingly meaningless. They guide former US ambassador Gary A. Grappo’s description of the environment that ailing Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s successor will encounter, but are equally true for all Gulf leaders.
“Qaboos’ successor will confront challenges nearly as great as those Qaboos faced in the first years of his reign in the early 1970s. Omanis today are much better educated and more engaged, and will want to see change. They will want to play a role in determining the direction of their country. They will also want and need to see a transformation in the country’s economy away from dependence on comparatively sparse hydrocarbon reserves to other areas that will ensure the country’s continued prosperity and standard of living and, most important, produce jobs for a rapidly growing population… Vision will be the defining challenge of Qaboos’ successor,” Grappo said.3
That vision, Grappo argued, would have to involve gradual liberalization including a greater devolution of decision-making authority to a consultative council, allowing it to prepare and approve budgets; greater press freedom and transparency; lifting of restrictions on civil society organizations; economic diversification; and inclusion of minority cultures in the preservation of Omani culture. Grappo’s prescriptions are applicable across the Gulf. His list is easily expandable to include notions of a gradual transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, decriminalization of non-violent opposition activity, and social and economic policies that are inclusionary.
Grappo’s vision entails the kind of boldness and risk taking that has become the trademark of Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoum family in the last two centuries but has yet to be applied to the challenges facing today’s rulers in the region. For now, Gulf rulers have sought to fine tune the status quo by casting themselves in the role of protectors of national and tribal identity, traditions and heritage; projecting themselves as agents of the transition from energy-driven to post-oil and knowledge-based economies and of greater independence by asserting themselves politically and militarily; and seeking to enhance their countries’ international status by hosting mega events like the 2020 Expo in Dubai and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
To be sure, the need to prepare for a post-oil era in the Gulf is immediate. Newly born in all Gulf states with the exception of Qatar and Kuwait are expected to witness their countries running out of fossil energy resources within their lifetimes.4 That gives rulers at best several decades to diversify their economies a transition that involves more than simply developing new economic sectors. It will require revamping education systems to match labour supply and demand; motivating citizenry to depend less on government jobs, handouts and subsidies; streamlining bureaucracies; and rewriting social contracts already threatened by fiscal tightening.
Looming in the back of the minds of Gulf leaders is the memory of Algeria where a collapse in oil prices in the 1980s put an end to the social contract. Protests erupted as incomes dropped and inflation and unemployment increased. The country slipped into civil war that ultimately ended with a revival of the social contract on the back of rising oil prices.
Unlike Algeria, Gulf leaders have the financial muscle to weather a storm for some time. But more fundamentally as The Economist recently noted, Gulf states "may have learned many lessons from the past but there is one that remains largely undigested. Despite innumerable warning and innumerable failed attempts to diversify their economies away from oil, nearly all of them still rely on the sticky stuff to get by. With relentlessly growing populations and public expectations, it is still only a matter of time before the crunch comes."5

The Singapore model

Gulf leaders look to Singapore, a city state that has developed within a matter of decades from an impoverished island with no resources into a first world state and global hub with a highly diversified economy, as their model. It is a model that combines authoritarianism with empowerment. Delegations from the Gulf travel to Singapore to discover the secret of its success and enlist Singaporean institutions to assist them in developing for example education systems.
“Singapore is an authoritarian success story. It is everything the Gulf wants to be and never will be,” said a long-standing observer of both Singapore and the Gulf states. “It has the three key attributes the Gulf lacks: a high degree of institutionalization; transparent rule of law; and a population that despite restricted freedoms is empowered,” the observer said.6
The UAE, home to 200 nationalities, unlike countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain has adopted one aspect of Singapore, traumatized by its expulsion from Malaysia in the 1960s and race riots at the time that few analysts have focused on: the building of a society that sees diversity as an asset and respects different cultures and faiths. Like Qatar, the UAE recognized that tight political control did not preclude the building of a society whose cultural and racial tolerance is steeped in Islam in an effort to ensure domestic stability and counter extremism. Up to a third of the UAE’s population is non-Muslim.
Amid mounting international criticism that Gulf states have failed to pull their weight in welcoming refugees from the mayhem in Syria, Gulf News reported that some 100,000 Syrians had been allowed into the UAE since 2011. In an official statement, the UAE declared in mid-September the Syrian refugee crisis a foreign policy priority that it was tackling “in a sustainable and humane fashion together with its regional and international partners.”7
Emirati writer Maria Hanif recently compared the UAE to Al Andalus, the Islamic empire in Iberia established in the 8th century that has become a reference point for Muslim tolerance, pluralism and the productive and harmonious interaction of Arabs, Jews and Christians.
“The UAE, just like Al Andalus…is home to hundreds of nationalities and various religions and sects, each free to practise their religious beliefs so long as they do not attack or undermine the other. It has also become a target for constant criticism by extremists for that very reason. Most recently the UAE came under attack after having announced allocation of a plot in the capital Abu Dhabi for the construction of a Hindu temple to serve the Hindu population of the country (which makes up 25 per cent of the population)… The UAE stands strong against the preachers of discrimination and intolerance, with an unwavering conviction that pluralism is the very foundation that built this country,” Hanif argued in Gulf News.8
Politics on the other hand weaves a tale of regional rivalries and leaders’ different visions of how to balance modernity with social and political conservatism and how to ensure regime survival and maintain a regional security environment which is dependent on a US defence umbrella that is increasingly perceived by Gulf states as unreliable.
Compounding the region’s leadership challenge is the progressive breakdown of a social contract based on a cradle-to-grave welfare state that assists citizens even in the cost of getting married in exchange for surrender of political rights. For more than a decade Gulf leaders starting with the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia have been nibbling away at the welfare state in a bid to rationalize government finances and foster national identity.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has urged Gulf states to rationalize spending that has ballooned with increased military budgets and billions of dollars in handouts designed to pacify potentially restless populations. 9
“Cuts in social spending and subsidies are a difficult proposition given populations who expect to receive rather than give,” said a Gulf analyst.10
Cloaked in elegant traditional flowing robes and head dresses, Gulf leaders project an image of conservatism and adversity to risk. Yet, risk is at the core of their varied leaps towards modernity fuelled by phenomenal oil and gas revenues and a bid to fend off pressure for change that informs Saudi, Emirati and Qatari visions of the future rooted in late 18th and early 19th century tribal leadership.
Some risks and threats are inevitable in the drive for modernity such as the influx of expatriates and migrant labour that has turned the region’s demographics upside down and raised questions of societies’ sustainability and viability for which there are no good answers.
Others are the immutable result of restrictive and discriminatory policies that have transformed popular revolts into battles ranging from inflexible attitudes towards naturalization, low-intensity conflict in Bahrain to civil war in Syria; given holy warriors like the Islamic State a new lease on life; driven sectarian tensions that have sparked wars in Iraq and Yemen; and fuelled discontent among majority and minority populations alike.
Gulf leaders’ hopes that violence and brutality that followed most of the 2011 revolts coupled with their determined counterrevolutionary strategies at home and abroad would cow restless populations were dashed this summer. Mass anti-government demonstrations erupted in Lebanon and Iraq demanding an end to corruption and improved services and lowly paid policemen and tax authority officials protested in Egypt, a mainstay of the Saudi and UAE-backed regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.
Similarly, there is little reason to assume that Gulf states despite successful co-optation and repressive policies are immune to anti-government protest. Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia witnessed mass demonstrations in recent years. Gulf youth have said in surveys that democracy was a top priority for them even though recent developments have dampened their hopes.11 Financial muscle has allowed several Gulf states to buy precious time with generous handouts but reduced oil revenues forcing economic rationalization spotlight the fragility of such safety valves.
Nothing highlights the need to broaden the focus of vision and leadership in the Gulf like the region’s lack of inclusiveness, incapability and unwillingness to address what some analysts describe as a ticking time bomb: the Bidoun or Without, hundreds of thousands of predominantly Gulf Arabs who are denied citizenship despite having often populated the rank of file of national armies. Most are Bedouin from the region with a sprinkling of migrants from Iran, Iraq and Pakistan who destroyed their documents in a failed bid to ensure that they would be granted citizenship as Gulf states achieved independence.
In the UAE, Bidoun are denied benefits enjoyed by Emiratis such as free education, health care, and housing allowances. Finding employment is difficult because they lack passports needed to obtain work permits. Demanding their rights puts them at risk of arrest or deportation as writer and activist Ahmed Abdul Khaleq found out in 2012 when he was deported to Thailand for campaign online for Bidoun rights.12
The worst fears of Kuwaiti politicians who have called on the Kuwaiti government for the past 30 years to solve the Bidoun problem became reality in June when the driver of a car that took a Saudi to a Shiite mosque where his suicide bomb killed 26 worshippers and wounded 200 others turned out to be a Bidoun.13
Kuwaiti media reported that 13 of the 29 people arrested in the wake of the attacks were Bidoun. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.14 Afraid to single out the Bidoun, Kuwaiti officials and analysts were quick to identify Bidoun involvement as part of a broader process of radicalization among Sunni Muslims.

Vision with pitfalls

Gulf leaders face identical problems and share similar visions of their place in the international community. Yet, their strategies to get from A to B, approaches to notions of national and regional security, perceptions of development, and responses to domestic and international criticism vary widely. The differences in vision range from the economic and commercial brashness of Dubai, to Qatar’s well thought through but poorly executed soft power strategy, to Saudi Arabia’s high-risk use of financial and military muscle supported by the UAE’s increasing projection of itself as a regional military power. In projecting itself militarily, the UAE benefitted from having participated in virtually every U.S.-led coalition campaign since 1991.
Beyond demographics, other limitations of the varying visions are also becoming increasingly obvious. Abu Dhabi had to bail out Dubai’s real estate driven model when the emirate in 2008 suffered the world’s steepest property slump with home prices dropping 50 percent and had to reschedule some $120 billion in debt.
The bail out together with the collapse in 2013 of low budget airline Bahrain Air also raised long-term questions about the Gulf’s fundamental business model in which the state is the primary economic driver. Gulf airlines have emerged as major players in aviation benefitting from the region’s geography as well as its ability to profit from changing patterns in international trade and politics.
“In a part of the world where almost every other airline is subsidized…it was always going to be difficult to be truly profitable. There is not enough point-to-point traffic, and regional connecting traffic yields are too low to sustain an airline. So it was always going to struggle by traditional measures,” Bahrain Air CEO Richard Nutall told The Aviation Writer.15
The Dubai bail out highlighted the different visions of the emirate and Abu Dhabi visions and the dynamics of the power relationship between the two key states in the UAE. Rather than opting for Dubai’s brashness, relative autonomy and commercial drive, Abu Dhabi relies on the creation of a military-industrial complex, nuclear and renewable energy programs, and its wealth to cement its dominant position in the federation, and ensure its ability to project regional and international power.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s successful effort to host the 2022 World Cup has with US and Swiss legal investigations into the integrity of its bid and widespread criticism of the Gulf-wide migrant labour kafala or sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers turned into a public relations nightmare.
Saudi Arabia’s harsh justice system with its public beheadings, its war in Yemen that is bombing the Gulf’s poorest nation into even greater abject poverty, and its puritan interpretation of Islam that deprives women of basic rights has made it all but a pariah state tolerated because of its financial largess and geo-strategic importance.
Compounding the downside of the varying visions are the budgetary consequences of expensive hard and soft power strategies at a time of dropping oil prices that raise the spectre of budget deficits and are forcing Gulf states to nibble at the edges of the cradle-to-grave welfare state that underwrites relative social peace. The IMF estimates that falling global oil prices will cost the Gulf an estimated $380 billion in export earnings this year.
Dubai’s vision is in your face. Superlatives are its trademark. Its skyline boasts its rulers’ long-standing knack for bold decisions and an insatiable and unashamedly ambitious drive to implant itself in the mind of every one of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants developed by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the current ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid’s father.
“Rashid wanted the name of his town, Dubai, on the lips of every person on earth. When a family sat down to dinner in America, Rashid wanted them to discuss the happenings of Dubai. And when two Englishmen paused for a glass of beer, it was Dubai he wished them to talk about. Farmers in   China, bankers in Switzerland, and generals in Russia: all of them must know about Dubai,” wrote Jim Krane, author of City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism.16
The list of Dubai’s biggest, best, the richest, newest, most luxurious, most over the top, and most expensive projects is long. It includes the world’s biggest mall, indoor ski slope, artificial islands, the world’s tallest building and largest man-made port, the largest ever New Year’s fireworks and LED screen, the world’s only seven-star hotel, the Middle East’s top financial centre and plans for the world’s largest amusement park and even larger indoor ski facility.
Nothing seems to bold or outrageous as long as it fulfils Sheikh Rashid’s vision of keeping Dubai Inc. in the global public eye. Catchy slogans and slick advertising and public relations put Dubai on the world map.
“Dubai and the Gulf states are very good at projecting. On paper, they look like they are responding to modernity and the obsessions of the international community. It’s all the product of having hired good communication companies,” said a Western official with long-standing experience in the Gulf.17
Sultan Sood Al Qassimi, a UAE businessman, author and art collector who is a critical member of Sharjah’s ruling family, quipped last month when Qatar announced for the umpteenth time in response to international criticism of its labour regime that it was introducing major reforms: “Every few months a Gulf state issues a similar statement.”18

Bold gambles

Much of Dubai's contemporary model is rooted in history. Sheikh Rashid's bold notion of 'build and the will come' anticipated British tycoon Richard Branson's principle of 'screw it, let’s do it.' In doing so, Rashid set a template for development that has been to a large degree adopted by the Gulf flush with oil money after the 1973 oil crisis.
For Sheikh Mohammed, the metaphor was trees. Answering a question about the source of his vision by someone close to him, Sheikh Mohammed replied Bedouin style by recounting a story. He described how he planted trees when he was building a house in Armoun in the desert. Sheikh Mohammed noticed that birds interrupted their migration to spend a few days in his trees. So he planted more trees and more birds came. Eventually they settled instead of continuing their migration.19
“In Sheikh Mohammed’s mind, the way to do things is by nature and by natural law. Things take their natural order. If he planted trees in Dubai, if he offered opportunity, people would stop in Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed came from a large family. He had to find his own place and did that with natural opportunity,” the person close to Sheikh Mohammed said.
Comparing differing approaches between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, people close to the rulers of both emirates noted that Abu Dhabi’s geography of islands meant that they ensured that their forts were looking inwards. Sitting on the Creek, Dubai was forced to look outwards so that it could attract the attention of passing merchant vessels and fend off pirates. “The difference in attitude of the two families is reflected in how they approach everything,” one person said.20
The very presence in Dubai of the Maktoums signalled their knack for bold gambles that more often than not have paid off over the past two centuries. Unhappy with internecine tribal infighting initiated by their cousins and later rulers of Abu Dhabi, the Al Nahayans, the Maktoums decamped in the first half of the 19th century from their ancestral oasis of Liwa and headed for an forlorn fishing village on the coast.21 There was then little reason to assume that Dubai would serve as a useful base, let alone become a 21st century, hyper-modern global hub.

The Maktoums took their bold gamble a step further when in the late 1890s and early 1900s they laid the foundations for Dubai as a free port by abolishing customs, tariffs and vessel licensing in a move that was also designed to ensure that Dubai would serve as the anchor for Britain's colonial presence in the Gulf. The moves gave Dubai an edge over Iranian-controlled ports on the Arab side of the Gulf that had imposed taxes to provide revenue for a cash-strapped Iranian administration.
Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher similarly embraced the need to import people to bolster Dubai’s sparse population. They first targeted disgruntled Gulf merchants hit by Iranian tax increases. Next was the Iranian business community that was offered free land and easy access to the ruler and promised that the government would not intervene in their affairs. Merchants were later enticed and co-opted with government contracts and monopolistic trade licenses.22
In contrast to today, the Maktoums like other Gulf Arabs at the time embraced the Bedouin ritual of hospitality for strangers irrespective who they were. Migrants, unlike modern day expatriates and migrant labour, were encouraged to make Dubai their permanent home rather than accept an arrangement that ended with their departure once they had fulfilled their contractual obligations. 
At the time, the Maktoums recognized the multiple benefits of migration. It was a lesson they had learnt from their own migration from Liwa. Migrants were the stuff that would make Sheikh Rashid's dream a reality. They were an asset, one that Dubai was eager to hold on to, not the necessary evil utility that the Gulf tolerates today because it has no choice but sees as a threat to the region's identity and ultimately to rulers' hold on power.
Dubai and with it the Gulf, however, owes a debt to the Iranians whose outward looking worldview, African and Asian networks, and modern technology, helped set the remote fishing village on an unparalleled path to modernity. Later waves of migration were welcomed but offered less benefits, foremost among which the option of legally secured, permanent integration into society.
Dubai benefitted from both pre- and post-revolution IranIan policies. Its economy thrived on its competitive free-wheeling, free market policies as opposed to the red tape and financial burdens imposed by Iran. Since the Iranian revolution, Dubai has become home to more liberal Iranians seeking to escape the strictures of the Islamic republic.
Iranians today rank among Dubai's foremost merchant families, largest developers and major investors while Iran is one of the emirate's foremost trading partners. Much like today’s migrant workers, the Iranians and the next wave of migrants, the Indians, fulfilled economic roles that Dubai's local population was too proud to embrace.

Walking the walk

The Gulf’s different styles of leadership are reflected in the way states project themselves. Saudi Arabia wears secrecy and conservatism on its sleeve. Brash and aggressive, Dubai trumpets its status of being a modern, forward looking global city. It boasts being a multicultural metropole. Qatar basks in controversy over its idiosyncratic, counter intuitive foreign policy that forges relations with friend and foe alike, yet squirms when it is cast under the spotlight.
For much of their recent history as independent states, Gulf nations expressed leadership in employing vast amounts of oil and gas revenues to build relations anchored on their alliance with the United States with countries across the globe; turn their backwaters into architectural landmarks and business hubs through investment in infrastructure and exploitation of their geostrategic location; high profile investments in Western real estate and global brands; and the creation of a limited number of world class global businesses that include Saudi Arabia’s national oil company Aramco and Sabic, its petrochemical industry; Qatar Gas and Qatar Airways; Dubai’s global port manger DP World, Emirates Airlines and Etisilat telecommunications company; and Abu Dhabi’s Ettihad airline.
Increasingly however, concepts of leadership particularly in the smaller Gulf states have been challenged by regional threats such as the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the fallout of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the more recent wave of popular revolts that in 2011 toppled four Arab leaders and sparked a civil and proxy war in Syria, the rise of political Islam, and the emergence of the Islamic State that with its eradication of the borders between Iraq and Syria and pan-Islamist ideology that threatens the notion of the nation state as the basis for regional order in the Middle East.

Leadership concepts have also been challenged by a wearing thin of the strategy of talking the talk but not walking the walk. Restless populations have for now been cowed by the crushing or reversal of most of the successful revolts and intimidated by violence engulfing the region and harsh crackdowns on domestic dissent. Yet, discontent simmers at the surface while minorities chafe at continued discrimination and disenfranchisement.

The rise of Islamic State and the wave of violence and brutality has moreover focused international attention on root causes that include sectarian and intolerant ideologies as well as a lack of inclusiveness and public space for dissenting political expression. The downside of autocratic visions of leadership that have yet to come to grips with the shadow side of break speed development have further been brought into sharp relief with the Gulf’s restrictive labour regime moving centre stage with Qatar’s successful bid for the 2022 World Cup hosting rights.

The World Cup represented Qatari vision that differed fundamentally from that of Dubai but was no less bold and audacious. If Dubai’s approach was commercially-driven, Qatar’s was politics per se. If Dubai’s was creating a commercial and economic hub that would rank among the world’s top global cities while preserving the regional status quo, Qatar’s was embracing political change everywhere but at home.

Qatar signalled its intentions with the launch in 1996 of the Al Jazeera television network, the freewheeling airing of news and opinions that were banned from a regional landscape dominated by staid state-run television stations that never veered away from government directives. Within a matter of years Al Jazeera had become the Middle East’s most popular Arabic-language television station, forcing an irreversible rewriting of the region’s media landscape.

It matched the success of Al Jazeera with its strategic alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, fending off severe Gulf pressure to change its policy; several high profile not always successful efforts to mediate regional conflict in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Darfur; and a strategic attempt to make sports a pillar of national identity and Doha a global sports hub with the World Cup as its crowning success.

Offence is the best defence

The vast difference in Emirati and Qatari responses to multiple challenges was evident in their responses to international pressure to reform their restrictive labour regimes. The responses also defined the degree to which human rights and labour activists have been able to leverage an environment in which pressure on Gulf leaders is mounting to match words with deeds.
The activists got nowhere with the UAE that opted for traditional retrenchment by barring entry to the country of critics, closing down even mildly critical policy think tanks, unfounded portrayals of labour conditions that defy reality, and clumsy attempts at influencing public opinion with the help of highly paid communication consultants and a string of Emirati-funded non-governmental organizations that lack credibility. Its response has failed to counter campaigns denouncing labour conditions on high- profile projects like a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and a New York University campus.23

That is not to say that Sheikh Mohammed is insensitive to the criticism. On the contrary. He finds it embarrassing and a stain on Dubai’s reputation, according to people close to him. “Dubai seeks to project integrity. It’s not like Qatar that feels that any news including bad news is good news. Qatar doesn’t mind being vilified,” one person said.24 Yet, at the same time Dubai like Abu Dhabi does not want to be seen to be caving in to external pressure.
In contrast to the UAE, Qatar decided that offence was its best defence. In a break with Gulf’s long- standing refusal to engage and policy of stonewalling, Qatar welcomed its critics in constructive dialogue. It also promised greater transparency.
Representatives of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were granted entry, access to officials and labour camps, allowed to hold news conferences and launch damning reports in Doha, and major Qatari institutions worked with them to develop internationally condoned labour standards.
The Qatari effort demonstrates nonetheless the degree to which Gulf states no longer can get away with going through the motions and statements designed to mollify critics that are not backed up by the fulfilment of their promise. Four years of Qatari engagement that have produced little more than lofty promises of labour reform enshrined in glossy documents are starting to turn counterproductive as even minimal change prove difficult to implement.
In the latest round of missed opportunity, Qatar announced with fanfare in August the introduction of a Wage Protection System (WPS) that would ensure that workers are paid in full on time by forcing companies to make fortnightly or monthly payments by direct bank transfer, only to say days later that the reform had been indefinitely delayed.25
Transparency is nowhere to be found. Rather than providing chapter and verse on its controversial World Cup bid in an effort to counter mounting evidence of bribery and wrongdoing, Qatar has limited itself to issuing a string of denials, plain vanilla assertions that it upholds the highest standards of integrity, and promises to cooperate with any and every investigation.
Enquiries into details of the awarding of World Cup-related contracts, including who submitted competing bids, and the grounds on which winning consortia were chosen are stonewalled with statements consisting of platitudes and unrelated detail on the provision of comfortable housing for workers involved in the construction of stadia.
Qatar’s failure to live up to its promises is exasperating the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) as well as human rights and labour activists and undermining whatever goodwill the Gulf state had achieved.
Frustrations were reflected in an Amnesty report in May on Qatar’s lack of follow-up entitled, ‘Promising Little, Delivering Less.’ The report noted that “none of the proposed reforms have been implemented.26
Responding to a pledge by Qatari Labour and Social Affairs Minister Abdullah Saleh Al Khulaifi to implement reforms before the end of the year, Amnesty said: “This is not the first time such promises have been made. Senior Qatari officials have reiterated their commitment to labour rights over the past year, usually in response to international criticism.”27
Despite growing doubts about Qatar’s sincerity, its hosting of the World Cup still holds out the promise of being a rare sporting mega event that leaves a legacy of social and economic, if not political change rather than a mountain of debt and a slew of white elephants. If so, it would demonstrate the kind of bold, risk taking leadership and vision that matches that of the Al Maktoums.

A Pandora’s Box

Granting workers’ rights risks opening a Pandora’s Box in smaller Gulf states where foreigners constitute a majority of the population and citizens fear that their identity, culture and control of society and state is increasingly becoming tenuous. “Today, they don’t ask for political rights, but what about in a decade or two?” said Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.28
Khashoggi’s articulation of Gulf fears notwithstanding, Qatar’s response to pressure has also dented the taboo on public discussion of demography in terms other than support of the status quo. Expressing an alternative view Sharjah intellectual Al Qassemi argued in an article in the Gulf News that “UAE national identity has proven to be more resilient and adaptive to the changing environment and times than some may believe.”29
Al Qassemi noted that the UAE had taken a first step towards a more liberal nationality policy by granting the offspring of mixed Emirati-non-Emirati nationals the right to citizenship rather than restricting it to children whose parents were both UAE citizens. He went on to point out that the success of the United States was in no small part due to the contribution of immigrants. “Perhaps it is time to consider a path to citizenship for them that will open the door to entrepreneurs, scientists, academics and other hardworking individuals who have come to support and care for the country as though it was their own,” Al Qassemi said.30
Pressure on Qatar to move forward with implementation of its promised reforms has further persuaded all the region’s states to tinker in one way or another with their labour regimes. Kuwait’s parliament has gone the furthest with the passing of a bill that grants rights to domestic servants. Kuwait also became the first Gulf state to open a refuge for female migrants.
At the bottom line, Gulf states are discovering what Europe realized in the wake of the wave of Gastarbeiter or foreign workers they invited in the 1960s to accommodate an expanding labour market in the belief the workers would eventually return to their home countries. They didn’t and eventually were joined by their families. In the Gulf, it is middle class expatriates rather than unskilled and semi- skilled labour who are striking social roots.
Asked recently whether he was bothered by the fact that he had no rights, the Dubai-born, third generation son of a prosperous Indian family answered: “No, why should I? Life is good.” The young man’s tone changed abruptly when queried whether it troubled him that his children would have no rights in their country of birth. “Absolutely,” he said slamming his fist on the table.31
The young man is unlikely to risk family and fortune to stand up for his rights. Yet, his is a widespread, largely unspoken sentiment that cannot simply be ignored or allowed to fester until a time when circumstance makes turning it into a public demand either opportune or inevitable.

Buying time

Gulf leaders are also discovering that gleaming high rises, eight-lane freeways, and glittering shopping malls hosting luxury brands; paying lip service to modernization; and buying foreign talent allows them to project their conservative, autocratic societies on the cutting edge of creativity and inn ovation for at best a limited period of time.
“Innovation today is not an option but a necessity, not a general culture but business style. Governments and companies that do not renew or innovate lose competitiveness and control. They are bound to regress. We have doubled our investments in innovation and in the equipment, training and education of expert national cadres, because keeping pace with the world around us requires innovative resources and an environment that is supportive of innovation,” Sheikh Mohammed said last month.32
Much of Sheikh Mohammed’s requirements can be acquired. The environment is where he and other Gulf leaders feel the squeeze. Dubai’s Media City is home to the global and regional headquarters of the world’s major media houses. Efforts to add creativity and innovation to the concept of a real estate- driven media hub faltered however on legal restrictions, physical environs and lack of a creative, intellectual environment.
As a result, Media City’s neighbouring cluster, Dubai Internet City, hosts big brand services and marketing hubs who keep their regional research and development in Israel and India that boast educational institutions who produce top flight engineers/
Consultants hired to help Dubai make the transition advised the government that to achieve its goal it would have to broaden freedoms of expression, allow foreigners greater professional mobility, and create a physical environment that encourages the kind of creativity not found in modern office blocks.
“Creativity is an organic process. A part of town that is at the outset of gentrification is the perfect physical environment. A kind of Soho with the freedom to experiment, and aspiring opera singers who earn their keep as waiters. Sterile office blocks and visas that make having different occupations simultaneously impossible stymie creativity. Dubai has yet to put those building blocks in place,” one of the consultants said.33

Back to the Stone Age

Rather than liberalizing, institutionalizing and seriously rationalizing, Gulf states have in recent years tightened the reigns as they seek to insulate themselves from regional volatility, maintain market share in rapidly changing energy markets, fend off jihadist threats, fight proxy wars and with limited success assert themselves militarily in a bid to shape the Middle East in their mould, and all of that as budgets shrink and oil prices tumble.
The jury is out on whether the strategy will work. 2015 has turned out to be a difficult year for Gulf leaders. The US-fostered agreement with Iran to resolve the nuclear crisis promises to be a mixed bag. Countries like the UAE expect an initial economic boon but the agreement returns to the international fold one of the Middle East’s most powerful nations whose system of governance is rooted in political Islam and whose policies are diametrically opposed to those of many of the Gulf states.
The wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq and to a lesser degree Libya constitute powerful threats that have highlighted the limitations of military forces flush with some of the world’s most advanced hardware but hampered by reluctance to commit ground troops in large numbers, a longstanding rulers’ distrust of armed forces capable of staging a military coup, and a tradition of wielding financial rather than military muscle.
Saudi and UAE support for Al Sisi’s military coup in 2013 that toppled Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president has produced one of the region’s most repressive dictatorships. Al Sisi’s brutal crackdown on all dissent has fuelled an insurgency that is spilling out of the Sinai desert into Cairo and other major Egyptian cities.
Emirati special forces, widely viewed as the region’s best after Israel as a result of a decade of UN peacekeeping experience, have earned praise for their performance in Yemen in support of Saudi-led efforts to defeat the rebel Houthis in Yemen and return exiled president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi to power.
The inclusion of a woman fighter pilot in the first UAE raid on Islamic State targets as part of the US- led coalition offered the Emirates a picture perfect opportunity to project itself as a nation on the cutting edge of modernity. The Emirati air force demonstrated its potential reach in attacks in cooperation with Egypt on Islamist targets in Libya that did little to change the balance of power between rival forces in the North African nation.

Yet, undeterred by the military campaign against it, the Islamic State is entrenching its alternative, harsh governance structures that not only challenge Gulf rulers’ vision of leadership but also their notions of the nation-state as opposed to an irredentist, expansionary pan-Islamist entity and is able to threaten domestic stability with attacks that target security forces and Shiite Muslim minorities. 
Yemen despite major military advances in southern Yemen threatens to become the conservative Gulf’s Vietnam. Retaking northern Yemen and the capital Sana’a where the Houthis enjoy greater support than in the south is likely to prove more difficult. And military victory may prove difficult to translate into sustainable political achievement. Saudi-led Gulf interference in Yemeni politics lies at the core of problems in a nation in which many blame the Gulf states for having bombed them back to the Stone Age in a six-month long air campaign that has wreaked humanitarian havoc.
Yemen could affect efforts by the UAE and Qatar, the most recent Gulf states to dispatch ground troops to the war-torn country, to strengthen national identity with the recent introduction of conscription. UAE conscripts barely a year later suffered their first casualties in Yemen, leaving their grieving families in shock and angry. More than 50 Emiratis and five Bahrainis were killed in Yemen in the last six weeks. “These young men are forced to do military service and should not be taken to hot conflict areas. They are civilians who are supposed to go back to their lives and work after finishing their service," Middle East Eye quoted an Emirati as saying.34

Differences in vision

Despite attempts to project a united front to the region’s multiple crises, responses by Gulf leaders have laid bare differences in vision. Qatar and Oman with soft power strategies that emphasize being politically and diplomatically proactive in contrast to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s increased reliance on military might and repression have largely opted for engagement and efforts at dialogue. The UAE remains alone among Gulf states in seeing political Islam as the greatest threat to Gulf rulers’ longevity after King Salman of Saudi Arabia cautiously began to reverse his predecessor’s war on the Muslim Brotherhood in a bid to form a pan-Sunni alliance against Iran. The UAE’s position is ironic given that Sheikh Rashid in 1974 provided the Brotherhood with the start-up funding it needed to establish a branch in the Emirates and the fact several Brothers rose to prominent including ministerial end educational positions.35
Political differences are compounded by a fundamental tension inherent in the region’s security architecture: several of the smaller Gulf states have resisted militarization of the six member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, fearing Saudi dominance.
Gulf leaders’ divergent views of regional security echo far beyond the Gulf, home to a vast US military infrastructure designed to ensure security that includes the Bahrain base of the Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Gulf and accesses facilities in various littoral states; Camp Arifjan in Kuwait that serves as a logistics base for US operations against the Islamic States; the Al-Udeid air base in Qatar, the largest U.S. air base in the region; and access to air base facilities in Oman and the UAE as well as Saudi airspace.
In a rare public outburst, Omani minister of state for foreign affairs Yousef bin Alawi Al Ibrahim, a onetime representative of a separatist movement and key mediator in bringing the United States and Iran to the negotiating table, rejected in 2013 US and Saudi attempts to militarize the Gulf alliance through integration of missile defence. “We absolutely don’t support Gulf union. There is no agreement in the region on this …. If this union materialises, we will deal with it but we will not be a member. Oman’s position is very clear. If there are new arrangements for the Gulf to confront existing or future conflicts, Oman will not be part of it,” he said.36
Alawi’s comments and repeated reluctance by various smaller Gulf states to join past GCC military operations bodes ill for the creation of a Gulf military command announced late last year. The command would involve a force of several hundred thousand soldiers capable of responding to regional threats that include militant Islamists and rival Iran.
“Every effort at military unity among the Arab states has ended in failure, to a greater or lesser degree. There are plenty of reasons for this. For one, smaller states fear diluting their sovereignty and autonomy in a larger bloc. In the 1960s, they feared being overpowered by Egypt; now, they worry about Saudi Arabia, a wariness that has also played a large role in preventing the formation of a political and financial union in the Gulf,” noted military affairs scholar Shashank Joshi in a Foreign Affairs commentary.37

A fraying social contract

Dropping oil prices and revolutionizing new technologies such as fracking pose no less a challenge to Gulf leaders. Saudi-led efforts to allow prices to drop in a bid to undermine the US shale industry have failed. Lower revenues and higher expenditure have forced Saudi Arabia to draw on its reserves and turn to the domestic bond market while Qatar predicts for 2016 its first budget deficit in 15 years. Qatar in September issued 15 billion riyals ($4.1 billion) of bonds to take advantage of low borrowing costs and replenish funds eroded by the decline in oil prices.38 
“New political challenges will emerge in the coming years as fiscal policy becomes unsustainable and as the Gulf confronts its critical long-term challenge, the beginning of the post-oil age. Fiscal spending in the GCC states has soared to such an extent in recent years that they are now chronically dependent on high oil prices – a long-term structural risk,” noted a Chatham House report on future trends in the region.39
More threatening than the economics is the fact that the social contract on which autocratic Gulf rule is based is fraying at the edges and has been for more than a decade. The last time that happened was at the turn of the century when Saudi gross national product (GNP) per capita was at $7,700 less than half of what it had been 20 years earlier and the kingdom encouraged frustrated young men to join the anti- Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
Young Saudis forced to do two or three jobs to make ends meet joined Al Qaeda as then Crown Prince Abdullah’s cost cutting measures, including the introduction of rents in student dormitories. Real GDP growth in the kingdom is, according to the IMF, likely to drop 2.8 percent this year and another 2.4 percent in 2016. The IMF predicts that a Saudi fiscal deficit of 19.5% of GDP this year.40
Things never got that bad in the UAE where male Emiratis receive some $55,000 a year in subsidies that include free land, healthcare, water, and education that can include degrees at Western universities; cheap electricity, and subsidized food and gasoline. In addition, Emiratis pay no income or property tax.
Yet, even the UAE sees itself forced to rationalize in line with IMF advice. The UAE in July tied petrol prices to world market prices leading to a 30 percent hike at the pump and prices that were only 13 cents below the American retail price. The hike tackling cheap petrol, which many Emiratis see as a birth right, did nothing to rock the boat but like Abdullah’s measures more than a decade ago constituted writing on the wall. Oman and Kuwait, which backed away from raising diesel and kerosene prices in January following a public outcry, were quick to announce that they had no intention of following in the Emirates’ footsteps.
The UAE is also looking at expanding its corporate tax, which currently applies only to foreign banks and the oil industry, to the corporate sector as such and introducing a sales tax on the back of an expected GCC agreement to levy a value added tax (VAT) across the Gulf states.41 Similarly, Saudi Arabia is studying whether to cut state subsidies that keep domestic gasoline prices at some of the lowest levels in the world while Kuwait is mulling taxes on luxury items and tolls on highways and is reviewing the pricing of goods and fees charged for public services and land rental. The IMF warned in September that Saudi Arabia's growing budget deficit could rapidly erode its reserves unless drastic action is taken. The IMF urged Riyadh to implement urgent reforms, including bolstering energy efficiency, reducing energy subsidies, cutting government spending particularly on wages and diversifying the economy.42 
“None of these states can afford to keep increasing public spending in the way to which their economies and societies have become accustomed in the last decade of high oil prices. All have long-term plans envisaging a transition to a post-oil economy, developing a mix of energy-intensive and knowledge- based industries, employing more nationals in the private sector, and considering the introduction of taxation, all of which will have implications for their social contracts... Citizens who will in future need to make a greater contribution to their economies, and receive fewer economic benefits from the state, are likely to have very different expectations about government transparency and accountability,” the Chatham House report said.43
“Leaner times provide the opportunity for governments to revisit inefficiencies in their systems and to develop a more sophisticated and effective political relationship with their citizens. Given the increasingly young and informed public, building and maintaining a strong national identity must be encouraged to create active citizens who produce more than they consume,” added Zaid M. Belbagi, a member of Young Arab Leaders (YAL), in the inaugural addition of a new academic journal, Gulf Affairs.44
Ironically, tax regimes of various sorts do not simply challenge leaders’ concepts of absolute power. They also make regimes dependent on their expatriate populations not only for their labour but also their contributions to the coffers of the state and they grant leverage to a business community that historically was reliant on government.

Grabbing the bull by the horns

The fraying of the Gulf’s traditional social contract poses not only a threat but also an opportunity to ensure regime survival. While it inevitably will provoke a restructuring of the relationship between rulers and ruled, it offers leaders with vision an opportunity to grab the bull by its horns. That would have to involve the kind of bold and gutsy moves that Dubai’s Al Maktoum’s and Qatar’s Al Thanis have made their trademarks.
“Social and political changes in the Gulf are certain. The questions are rather what form they will take and how they will be managed. One scenario could be a consensus-based process of adaptation, building on some of the existing institutions, and making parliaments and courts more independent. But this would entail bringing in new checks on the power of the rulers, which, in turn, would require those in authority to judge that voluntary reform today would ultimately cost them less than having change thrust upon them in the future,” Chatham House concluded.45
For now, with crackdowns on freedom of expression and dissent Gulf leaders’ vision appears one of salvaging the status quo rather than managing political transition. Amid the growing doubts about US reliability, China looms large as a model of achieving extraordinary economic performance while maintaining tight political control. 
It’s a model that seeks to suppress inevitable demands for greater sharing of power and resources and risks exacerbating fault lines that include divides along sectarian lines, between urban and tribal communities and between regions within the borders of various Gulf states.

Yet, the jury is still out. It’s not what Qatari leaders had in mind when they submitted their bid for the 2022 World Cup but the tournament despite feet dragging on promised reforms could prove to be a Trojan horse that drives change. As could the overall strategy of countries like the UAE and Bahrain to project themselves internationally through the hosting of major sporting events and the acquisition of big name clubs and other assets.
“We need to rethink this and give human rights a much higher status,” said Theo Zwanziger before he stepped down as a member of the FIFA executive committee.46 His words are echoed in the International Olympic Committee’s Agenda 2020 that emphasizes rights in the awarding of the games.47
Initial signs of change, the product of pressure not only by FIFA and human rights and labour activists but also Western governments and corporations, go beyond Qatar’s engagement with critics. They remain tentative and have yet to be bolstered by robust legislation and implementation but are sparking a process that is likely to be irreversible, take on dynamics of its own that Gulf regimes may find hard to control, and is part of a growing realization in the region that it cannot escape global demands for greater transparency and accountability. They also keep open the promise that enlightened leadership can manage the process.
Leaders of Dubai and UAE have in as yet small ways signalled that they are not oblivious to the winds of change that are sweeping the Middle East and North Africa even if they have yet to wholeheartedly get in front of the cart. One indication are reports that Qatar has approved the creation of an independent soccer players union, the country’s first trade union and a move that could open the door to a more radical restructuring of its labour system.
Another is the decision by traditionally secretive, major state-owned companies such as Qatar Airways and the Investment Corporation of Dubai ICD) that owns Emirates airlines among other of the emirate’s crown jewels, to publish their results for the first time to counter criticism by Western governments and airlines of unfair competition and restore investor confidence.
A third indication was Qatar Airways’ recent lifting of restrictions on pregnancy and marriage for its female personnel in response to criticism by the ILO, the UN labour organization.48 The airline said it was also reviewing rules that impose curfews on women and do not allow women to be brought or picked up from work by men who are not family of theirs. Similarly, women in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s most restrictive nation, were in August allowed to register for the first time for municipal elections scheduled for December.
Labour reform presents leaders an opportunity to project themselves as agents of inevitable change and foresighted adaptation to new realities. It is low hanging fruit because it does not involve the granting of political rights and would take the sting out of the most immediate criticism of Gulf leaders and project them as enlightened rulers. Yet, at the same time labour reform is as tricky and potentially treacherous as political reform. It involves managing what are legitimate, existential fears among the region’s citizenry about a future in which demography threatens their ability to maintain indigenous control of their culture and societies.
A report commissioned and endorsed by the Qatari government lays out a roadmap for labour reform that would involve the introduction of minimum wages, abolition of the sponsorship system, development of unfettered labour markets, setting of wage rates through collective bargaining, workers’ freedom to change employers, and ethical recruitment that eradicates corruption and the indenture of workers.49
To be sure, the Gulf’s need for foreign labour has an upside. “Foreign migrant workers earn vastly more in the GCC than they would at home in Bangladesh or India, where they would make around $1,000 per year. By welcoming migrant workers, the UAE and its neighbour Qatar do more than any other rich country to reduce global inequality, professors Eric Posner and Glen Weyl argued in New Republic in defence of kafala.50
“The kafala system exists as part of an effort by Qataris to retain control of their country. Abolishing the system means opening up a labour market in a country where there is no labour market. The requirement for an exit visa is partly the result of Qatar not having extradition treaties with a lot of countries and wanting to prevent those who break the law from simply skipping the country,” added Ray Jureidini, author of a Qatar Foundation report that advocates far-reaching reform of the labour system.51
Yet, in a further sign that Qatar’s top leadership recognizes the political, social and economic implications of the labour issue, the Doha-based Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies, an initiative fostered by Sheikh Tamim, warned that “in the absence of the establishment of a modern state based on the bond of citizenship, justice, the rule of law, and equal opportunity among all components of society, it is extremely difficult to assimilate immigrants. … The Gulf countries, due to the delay in the construction of the modern state on the institutional, legal and constitutional levels, have extreme difficulties integrating the population of their home societies – let alone assimilating immigrants.”52
The cost to Gulf states of restrictive labour regimes is not just reputational and the risk is not simply demographic. Despite perceptions that the kafala system ensures the supply of cheap labour, it is proving to be detrimental to the efforts of Gulf leaders to turn their countries into cutting edge, 21st century knowledge-based societies. A study by researchers of Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar argued that Qatar would be near the top of the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI) if adjustments were made for the country’s large population of migrant workers.53 
The cost of cheap unskilled labour is magnified by the fact that it offers little incentive to governments to develop economic policies that encourage the private sector to focus on exports. Business opts instead for low-tech, labour intensive products for a domestic market and shies away from the higher risk investments in human capital, facilities and innovation that would allow companies to compete internationally. The aluminium and petrochemicals sectors although they only marginally contribute to diversification because of their dependence on oil are the exception that demonstrate Gulf countries’ ability to compete if the right policies are adopted.
If the Gulf was ever in need of vision and leadership it is in the forthcoming decade. The challenges are multiple and enormous. They are both domestic and regional and the two often are inseparable. The list is long and includes managing almost impossible demographics; cementing national identities; institutionalization and political reform that need not endanger the longevity of ruling families but will have to involve accommodating a citizenry that wants to see greater inclusion, involvement in the political process, transparency and accountability; transition to truly diversified, post-oil economies; and adjustment to a Middle East in which Iran with its history and sense of empire, huge population base, and an economy that after several years of deep structural reform is likely to be alongside Turkey one of the most vibrant in the region.
Gulf leaders appear to be still grappling with the enormity of these challenges. They have yet to reveal statements of vision that address the full gamut of issues they will have to confront. Dubai, Qatar and Oman, despite concerns about transition to a post-Qaboos era, are furthest down the road in addressing at least some of the issues. In doing so, they hold out the promise of being best able to manage multiple processes of almost simultaneous political, social and economic change.
In some ways, Sheikh Mohammed has set a model for ensuring that populations are on board. “Sheikh Mohammed puts ideas out there before their time,” a person close to the Dubai ruler said. “He has a keen sense of supply and demand. He understands that people have demands. He leaves his ideas out there and waits. People get their time and finally they are desensitized.”54

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

 1 Al Jazeera, Oil resources in the Gulf. 25 November 2009,الخليج-في-النفط-عائدات
2 Interview with the author, August 30, 2015
3 Gary A. Grappo, In the Shadow of Qaboos: Contemplating Leadership Change in Oman, The Arab Gulf States
Institute in Washington, 2015,‐content/uploads/2015/06/Grappo_Oman.pdf
4 Tina Nika Snoj, From here to where? The Gulf states face social and economic crises without oil revenues,
BQ‐Magazine, 1 April 2015,‐‐revenues
5 The Economist, The perils of relying on the sticky stuff, 5 September 2015,‐east‐and‐africa/21663235‐persistent‐low‐prices‐threaten‐entire‐ region‐perils‐relying
6 Interview with the author, 1 September 2015
7 Gulf News, UAE has eased residency rules for Syrians, 17 September 2015,‐has‐eased‐residency‐rules‐for‐syrians‐1.1582025
8 Maria Hanif, Standing tall against discrimination, Gulf News, 29 August 2015,‐tall‐against‐discrimination‐1.1574773
9 Simeon Kerr, IMF urges Gulf countries to reduce spending as oil price plunges, Financial Times, 21 January
10 Interview with the author, 5 September 2015
11 ASDA'A Burson‐Marsteller, Arab Youth Survey 2014, 7 April 2014,‐bursonmarsteller‐arab‐youth‐survey‐2014?related=1
12 The Independent, UAE deports rights activist Ahmed Abdul Khaleq in clampdown on dissent, 17 July 2012,‐east/uae‐deports‐rights‐activist‐ahmed‐abdul‐khaleq‐in‐ clampdown‐on‐dissent‐7946871.html
13 Claire Beaugrand, Biduns in the Face of Radicalization in Kuwait, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington,
14 Angus McDowall and William Maclean, Islamic State weaves web of support in Gulf Arab states, Reuters, 1
July  2015,‐kuwait‐blast‐plot‐insight‐idUKKCN0PB54X20150701
15 The Aviation Writer, Bahrain Air CEO Richard Nutall discusses the airline’s closure, 13 March 2013,‐interview‐bahrain‐air‐ceo.html
16 Jim Krane, City of Gold: Dubai and the Dream of Capitalism, New York: Picador, 2010, Kindle edition 17 Interview with the author 4 September 2015
18 Sultan Sood Al Qassimi, Twitter, 17 August 2015,
19 Interview with the author, 5 September 2015 20 Interview with the author, 6 September 2015 21 Ibid. Krane
22 Ibid. Krane
23 James M. Dorsey, Qatari promises of labour reform ring hollow amid revived corruption allegations, The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 5 May 2015, promises‐of‐labour‐reform‐ring.html
24 Interview with the author, 25 August 2015
25 David Harding, Qatar to launch major labour reform for migrant workers, Agence France Press, 16 August
26 Amnesty International, Promising Little, Delivering Less, 20 May 2015,
27  Ibid. Amnesty International
28 James M. Dorsey, International sports associations caught between $ signs and human rights ideals, The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 13 March 2015,‐sports‐associations.html
29 Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Give expats an opportunity to earn UAE citizenship, Gulf News, 22 September
30 Ibid. Al Qassemi
31 Conversation with the author, 12 June 2014
32 Mary Sophia, Sheikh Mohammed launches UAE Innovation Week, Gulf Business, 6 August 2015,‐mohammed‐launches‐uae‐innovation‐week/
33 Interview with the author, 12 June 2012
34 Rory Donaghy, UAE sends conscripts into Yemen battle, leaving Emirati families shocked and angry, Middle
East Eye, 10 August 2015,‐sends‐conscripts‐yemen‐battle‐leaving‐ emirati‐families‐shocked‐and‐angry‐557104176
35 Mazhar al‐Zo’by and Birol Baskin, Discourse and oppositionality in the Arab Spring: The case of the Muslim
Brotherhood in the UAE, International Sociology, Vol 30:4, p. 401‐417
36 James M. Dorsey, Gulf Security: A Risky New US‐Saudi Blueprint, RSIS Commentaries, 10 December 2013,‐content/uploads/2014/07/CO13225.pdf
37 Shashank Joshi, United They Stand, Can the Gulf's Joint Military Command Live Up to the Hype?, Foreign
Affairs, 10 December 2014,‐east/2014‐12‐10/united‐they‐ stand
38 Bloomberg Businessweek, Qatar Bond Issue Raises $4.1 Billion, 2 September 2015,
39 Jane Kinninmont, Future Trends in the Gulf, Chatham House, 2015,
40 Simona Sikimic, IMF warns deficit could erode Saudi reserves, Middle East Eye, 10 September 2015,‐warns‐deficit‐could‐erode‐saudi‐reserves‐1575774181
41 The National, Tax change is necessary to diversify UAE’s economy, 13 August 2015,‐change‐is‐necessary‐to‐diversify‐uaes‐eco
42Ibid. Sikimic
43 Ibid. Chatham House
44 Zaid Belbagi, Renegotiating the Social Contract in the GCC: Lessons from the Rousseau Playbook, Autumn
45 Ibid. Chatham House
46 CNN, FIFA: Human rights records to get 'greater status' in future World Cup bids, 13 August 2014,‐human‐rights‐fifa‐football/
47 International Olympic Committee, Olympic Agenda 2020,‐agenda‐2020 48 Maria Khan, Qatar Airways 'shamed into action' over sacking staff found getting married or pregnant,
International Business Times, 27 August 2015,‐airways‐shamed‐into‐action‐ over‐sacking‐staff‐found‐getting‐married‐pregnant‐1517385
49 DLA Piper, Migrant Labor in the Construction Sector in the State of Qatar, April 2014,
50 Eric Posner and Glen Weyl, A Radical Solution to Global Income Inequality: Make the U.S. More Like Qatar,
the New Republic, 6 November 2014,‐reduce‐global‐ income‐inequality‐open‐immigration‐policies
51 James M. Dorsey, Qatar: Perfecting the art of scoring own goals, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer,
2 October 2013,‐perfecting‐art‐of‐scoring‐own.html
52 Baqir al‐Najjar, Foreign Labor and Questions of Identity in the Arabian Gulf, Arab Center for Research &
53 Ravinder Mamtani,, Albert B Lowenfels, Sohaila Cheema and Javaid Sheikh, Impact of migrant workers on
the Human Development Index, Perspectives in Public Health, June 5, 2013,

54 Interview with the author, 5 September 2015