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Iranian-Syrian World Cup qualifier ripples far beyond the pitch

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A nail-biting Iranian-Syrian World Cup qualifier has sent political ripples far beyond the Azadi Stadium’s soccer pitch in Tehran. In a boost for the regime of President Syrian Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian squad’s 2-2 draw was enough for the Syrian team to maintain hopes of Syria reaching the World Cup finals for the first time in its history. 

Similarly, the match in which Syrian women, some with their hair uncovered, were granted access to the stadium while Iranian women fans were barred, has sparked public debate in the Islamic republic about the viability of a ban on women attending men’s sporting events.

In doing so, the match has achieved in Syria what neither the Syrian government or the opposition have been able to accomplish: a momentary sense of unity in a country torn apart by a brutal, six-year old civil war.

Similarly, the match accomplished what international pressure by international sports federations failed to provoke: public pressure and domestic political support for recognizing women’s passive sporting rights.

Neither development is certain to produce a lasting outcome. Syria is more likely to remain splintered even if Syria progresses in its already stunning soccer performance against all odds.

By the same token, support for women’s passive sporting rights in Iran is more likely to be stymied by conservative forces strengthened by the lack of an economic trickle-down as a result of the lifting of international sanctions and the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the two-year-old nuclear deal.

Nevertheless, the admission of presumably predominantly Syrian Muslim women fans to the match, makes defense of the Iranian ban difficult, if not impossible. The Syrians were admitted on the principle that the Iranian ban does not apply to foreign fans. In past incidents, foreign women admitted into Iranian stadiums came primarily from non-Muslim countries.

The case of the Syrians, however, undermined religious arguments in favour of the ban and projected it as one not based on gender but on nationality. Activists on social media charged that the discrimination against Iranian women was humiliating and insulting.

Adding insult to injury, authorities allowed two women members of parliament to attend the match at the request of Tayebeh Siavoshi, a reformist deputy. Parvaneh Salahshouri, another member of parliament refused the invitation.

“At a time when girls of this country have no choice but to dress as men to get into the stadium, I as a representative of these people would not like to be present in the stadium by receiving a special permit. I go in when they too can come in,” Ms. Salahshouri said.

Ms. Salahshouri was referring to repeated attempts by women to smuggle themselves into Iranian stadiums by disguising themselves as men. A dual British-Iranian national, Ghoncheh Ghavami, was imprisoned in 2014 for attempting to smuggle herself into a stadium to watch a men’s volleyball match. She has since been released.

The differentiation between Syrian and Iranian women prompted an aide to President Hassan Rouhani as well as Islamic scholars known as moderates or reformists to publicly support a lifting of the ban.

“Just as the government managed to pave the way for the presence of women at volleyball matches, the same thing can happen for soccer,” said Ayatollah Mohsen Gharavian.

Iran’s public debate and increased activism in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup qualifier builds on Iran earlier this year allowing women spectators to attend a premier international men’s volleyball tournament on the island of Kish in a rare bowing to international pressure. It constituted a rare occasion on which the Islamic republic did not backtrack on promises to international sports associations to lift its ban on women attending international men’s sporting events. 

The issue of women’s passive sporting rights promises to split not only moderates and hardliners but also the Iranian sports community. Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar suggested that the government would look at creating facilities for families in stadiums, a formula that like in Saudi Arabia would create separate public spaces for men and for families, including womenfolk. “I am confident that the fans would respect boundaries which need to be respected,” Mr. Soltanifar said.

In an unprecedented move, Peyman Yousefi, a sports anchor on state-run television, said on air minutes before the qualifier that he was disappointed that women had not been allowed to enter the stadium. Earlier, the Iranian Football Association said that it had no plan for allowing women to attend the qualifier after a website for the first time was selling tickets for women as well as for men.

If the role of soccer in war-torn Syria and women’s rights in Iran have anything in common, it is the struggle for unfettered access to stadiums. Nonetheless, if the political ripples of the Iranian-Syrian soccer encounter have any legs, it’s more likely to be the case in Iran than Syria. The qualifier has taken the debate on women’s sporting rights to a new level by pushing it beyond an issue promoted primarily by activists into the political realm.

In Syria, memories of lost ones and the brutality of the Assad regime were never far even as many opponents of the Mr. Al-Assad cheered the Syrian national team, aware that the president would use the match to his political advantage.

Beyond the deep scars of the brutal civil war, militant Syrian fans are however already organizing to counter government moves to politically control the sport. The fans untied this summer to successfully reject an attempt by authorities to identify members of the country’s various groups of ultras, hardcore, often politicized fans.

“They wanted to control them who are going inside the stadium and who’s going out and why. The six ultras groups that are active in Syria now decided not to give them what they want. It is part of our right as ultras and as football fans to be there,” said Nadim Rai, a supporter of Syrian club Hutteen SC.

“In my place in the stadium and you are in another place, I hate you and you hate me. But one hand is strong, but two hands, they are more stronger. So, why we not all stay together, make something, not just football but make something to help our country?” added Rami, a fan of Al Karama SC.

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

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Gulf countries pivot towards Israel: Can Arab recognition be foresighted?

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The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman surprised the entire world and delivered a message of smoothening of relations between Oman and Israel. This event has marked the first ever visit by any Israeli leader to Oman in 22 years. The Israeli Prime Minister and the Sultan discussed ‘Ways to enhance the peace process in the Middle East’ as well as other issues of ‘joint interest’. For Netanyahu, a milestone was achieved in the form of Oman recognition of Israel as normalizing relations with fellow regional states is one of the important clause of Netanyahu’s policy. Moreover, an Israeli Minister Yisrael Katz attended an International Transport Conference in Oman and proposed a railway link to connect Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea. However, the railway link isn’t confirmed yet, it was just proposed in the conference. In parallel, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev attended Abu Dhabi Grand Slam 2018 in United Arab Emirates, where for the first time in history the national anthem of Israel was played. Similar approach was adopted by Israel towards Qatar. These changing dynamics can foresight the future of Gulf politics, that is, gulf countries can align with Israel to counter the influence of Iran in the region and for this purpose gulf countries may recognize Israel.

An important thing to notice is that the countries smoothening their relations with Israel are members of GCC, where Saudi Arabia is at the top of hierarchy- the major decision maker in Middle East- which means without Saudi Arabia’s willingness and its interests, GCC countries cannot take such a big decision. Now here a question arises, why would Saudi Arabia allow this approach?

The main reasons are; firstly, the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman have cordial relations with Israel’s top leadership and he(MBS) is seen as a potential ally by Israel in Middle East, the major reason why Israel demanded US to side by Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi murder case. Second, it would be very difficult for Saudi Arabia- the self-proclaimed leader of the Sunni Muslim world- to recognize Israel while other states in the region still oppose the existence of a Jewish state in Middle East. Recognition of Israel by other GCC countries would make it far easier for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel or at least to melt ice. Lastly, the Khashoggi murder case have already deteriorated the international image of Saudi Arabia, at this point of time the country cannot afford to bear another blame as Muslim countries think it would be injustice to Palestinians if Israel is recognized.

So will Saudi Arabia follow the suit and recognize Israel? The question still remains ambiguous, but since Saudi Arabia haven’t opposed these action of GCC countries and a continuous diplomatic support from Israel to Saudi Arabia have been visible although both countries do not have diplomatic relations, it can be predicted that something is going on, between both of these states which they have chosen  not to disclose now. Coming to Qatar, since Qatar is also involved in this process of developing diplomatic relations with Israel, it can prove to be a catalyst in the troubled Saudi/Qatar relations as helping Saudi Arabia to develop relations with Israel while other Arab states are doing the same can lift up the entire blame from Saudi Arabia. Maybe the sanctions over Qatar will be lifted or just become less intensified. Qatar sees it as an opportunity to regain the similar status in the region as well as to reconstruct relations with the other Arab countries.

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Turkish Newspaper Implicates UAE’s Crown Prince in Covering Up Murder of Khashoggi

Eric Zuesse

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, are close friends and allies, who jointly lead the war against Houthi-led Yemen. On Sunday afternoon, November 18th, a leading Turkish newspaper, Yeni Şafak, reported the two leaders to have also collaborated in hiding the murder on October 2nd in Istanbul of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Yeni Şafak headlined “Dahlan ‘cover-up team’ from Lebanon helps hide traces of Khashoggi murder” and reported that on October 2nd, “A second team that arrived in Istanbul to help cover-up the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dispatched by Muhammed Dahlan, UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed’s chief hitman in the region, … according to an informed source who spoke to Yeni Şafak daily on the condition of anonymity.”

On November 16th, the Washington Post had headlined “CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination”.

Bin Salman and bin Zayed are U.S. President Donald Trump’s closest foreign allies other than, possibly, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All four men are determined that there be regime-change in Shiite Iran. This anti-Shia position bonds them also against the Houthis, who are Shiites, in Yemen, where bin Salman and bin Zayed lead the war, and the United States provides the training, logistics, and weapons. Both bin Salman and bin Zayed are fundamentalist Sunnis who are against Shia Muslims. Israel and the United States are allied with these two princes. Saudi Arabia’s royal family have been committed against Shia Muslims ever since 1744 when the Saud family made a pact with the fundamentalist Sunni preacher Mohammed ibn Wahhab, who hated Shia Muslims. Thus, Saudi Arabia is actually Saudi-Wahhabi Arabia, with Sauds running the aristocracy, and Wahhabists running the clergy.

In 2017, in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh, Trump sold, to the Saudi Crown Prince, initially, $350 billion of U.S.-made weapons over a ten-year period (the largest weapons-sale in world history), and $110 billion in just the first year. That deal was soon increased to $404 billion. For Trump publicly to acknowledge that Salman had “ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination” would jeopardize this entire deal, and, perhaps, jeopardize the consequent boom in America’s economy. It also would jeopardize the U.S. alliance’s war against Shiites in Yemen.

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Revisiting the Qatari crisis

Ahmed Genidy

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In 2017 the dispute between Qatar and a number of its neighbours Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Oman has considered as the most serious crisis since years and could escalate in the future to destabilise an already turbulent region. The Qatari support to the extremist parties and terrorist entities in the region is the apparent reason, however, conflicting of interest between Qatar and the other states about the Iranian relations, the political Islam and the competition over the regional leadership are the main reasons. Egypt, Oman and the UAE with the leadership of Saudi Arabia withdrawing diplomats, closing borders, announcing a number of Qatari citizens as terrorist supporters and place an embargo on Qatar and most of its interests and businesses in the region.

The primary reason for the Saudi’s camp blockade is the Qatari politically and financially support for violent extremist groups often affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood which considers as a real threat for the other GCC states in particular because of the ability of these group to create a secretive organisation with extreme religious behaviour. However, Qatar is relatively weaker in terms of politically and militarily than the Saudi’s camp, but it has continued to support its Islamist allies for many reasons: ideological sympathy; a believe that political Islam could reflect into Qatar’s influence in the region; a desire to challenge the traditional regional influence especially Saudi Arabia and its followers. In addition, Qatar has used its owned media tool the Aljazeera channel to magnify the Muslim Brotherhood influence and to criticise leaders in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi which has been the major thorn in the relations.

The Qatari-Iranian close tie is the second source of tension which seen by other GCC states as a threat to the stability and even the existence of the Sunni majority states in the Gulf. The growing Qatari Iranian relation is evident in many occasions such as the Qatari voting against the UNSC resolution that calling on Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment project and the signing of Qatari Iranian agreement in counterterrorism cooperation which is a Qatar approach to benefit from the Iranian forces due to the modest Qatari military capability. Moreover, the Amir of Qatar called the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and congratulated him on his re-election on April 2017. Finally, Qatar paid the amount of $700 for Kataab Hezbollah Iraq (Iranian baked militia) for the exchange of a member of the Qatari royal family who has been a hostage in Iraq, (probably falsely) was the act that irritated most of the GCC states and triggering the crisis.

The Trump’s administration policy in the region gives Riyad, Cairo and Abu Dhabi the green light to punish Qatar for its support to the Islamic movement. Trump expressed a passive acceptance to the Saudi and its allies in an attempt to contain the greedy Iranian strategy in the region and to confront the rising of the radical Islam. However, it seems that Saudi and its allies are unqualified for such a containment scheme to Iran the giant regional power. Trump also took credit on Twitter and describe the Qatari Amir as “high-level founder of terrorism.” Thus, the blockade can see as an attempt from the Saudi’s camp to push Qatar back to the line, an opportunity to satisfy their allies in Washington and to shift the public opinion to the Qatari issues instead of many internal issues and shortcoming.

The crisis involved a number of unpredictable stakeholders with huge interests in the region which could turn the situation into uncontrollable in many ways. The blockade camp clearly desires that Qatar recognise how serious they are, rapidly back to the line and admit unambiguously their list of demands which include shutting down Aljazeera, end the cooperating with Iran, stop supporting the Islamic parties and recognise the Saudi leadership in the GCC region. On the other hand, Qatar with its relatively small population 300,000 citizens and fund over $300 billion ensures the state will never face a serious financial issue in the future. Moreover, Qatar is the home of the U.S. air base Al-Udeid which is a critical component of the U.S. campaign in the Middle East. Therefore, Qatar knows that the U.S. has an immediate interest in emphasising the stability and the security in Qatar in particular while the U.S. does not have an alternative to Al-Udeid base to support its strategy in the Middle East. The Saudi’s camp is unlikely to abandon their demands. The crisis shows how much the GCC leaders are threatening and in a confusing situation toward support specific radical Islam movements and relation with Iran. In addition, the blockade camp can maintain the sanctions for a long time rather than take a military action due to its economic cost and the lack of suitable capabilities to conduct such a war. For instance, the Saudi campaign in Yemen now and after three years, shows a significant failure to achieve its strategic goals.

The current situations for both sides show that the crisis could easily continue for more years which is a critical concern to all the stakeholders in the region. Now Iran and Turkey are playing a significant role in supporting Qatar needs of foods and goods to minimise the inconvenient of the embargo. Also, Ankara is considering enhancing its military presence in Qatar which seen as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia the major regional compotator for the Turkish influence. That also shows a high possibility of an Iranian Turkish large-scale involvement in case of a military confrontation.

The U.S. mission should focus on balancing the support to the Gulf States and their core interests as well as supporting the stability by avoiding encouraging them from adopting a risky diplomatic offensives options that can backfire into the whole region. It seems that the U.S. should adopt nuanced diplomacy to end the crisis which is not that simple for the current U.S. administration. Since the conflicting parties of this crisis will not likely find a comprehensive solution on their own, the U.S. should make it a priority to help them do so before the costs of the dispute continue to escalate in unpredictable ways.

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