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Chess Tournament puts Sports Governance and Saudi Change under the Microscope

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Saudi Arabia’s hosting of an international chess tournament focuses attention on the fundamental problem wreaking havoc in international sports governance and shines a spot light on the limitations of covert Saudi-Israeli cooperation in confronting Iran and political Islam and the Palestinians’ ability to be a game spoiler.

By seducing the World Chess Federation (FIDE) to grant the kingdom hosting rights with a $1.5 million check that amounted to four times the federation’s standard annual fee, Saudi Arabia joined the likes of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in using sports to polish its troubled international image.

The Saudi effort comes at a time that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to convince Saudis, the kingdom’s allies, and foreign investors that he is diversifying and reforming the economy and transforming a nation imbued by Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism into a 21st century, knowledge-driven state.

The tournament takes place almost two years after the kingdom’s grand mufti and top religious authority, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, opined that Islam forbids chess as a form of gambling and a waste of time.

The Saudi bid faced two obstacles: strict dress codes for women and Israeli participation. The way the kingdom sought to overcome the obstacles says much about Prince Mohammed’s approach and the limits of his ability to introduce change.

Women’s dress codes proved easiest to address and served to highlight Prince Mohammed’s moves to increase women’s participation in the work force, lift a ban on women’s driving, and grant women access to male sporting events in a limited number of stadiums.

Saudi Arabia’s concession on women’s dress codes for the chess tournament mirrored the limited nature of Prince Mohammed’s reforms for women that failed to challenge the core of discriminatory practices in the kingdom: male guardianship that gives men the power to decide for women.

Similarly, in a country that insists on women being fully covered, female participants in the chess tournament are not entitled to dress the way they may want to. Instead, they can avoid the hijab by wearing dark blue or black formal trousers and a high-necked blouse.

Allowing at least seven Israelis to participate in the tournament would have been far trickier. It would have been the first time that Israelis would have officially been allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia and would inevitably have been seen as yet another indication of increasingly close, albeit covert, ties between the kingdom and Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s refusal to grant the Israelis visas demonstrated that an Israeli presence would have been a bridge too far. It would have added to mounting indications that Saudi Arabia has been willing to compromise on minimal Palestinian conditions for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, including control of East Jerusalem, in its effort to work with Israel in confronting Iran and political Islam.

The refusal’s underlining of the sensitivities evoked by Palestine is all the starker when contrasted with Saudi Arabia’s willingness to grant entry to a player representing Qatar despite the fact that the kingdom six months ago cut off all economic, diplomatic and air, sea and land links to the Gulf state in a so far failed bid to force it align its foreign and defense policy with that of its bigger brother.

By refusing the visas, Saudi Arabia demonstrated that the Palestinian issue may not be the root of the Middle East’s multiple problems, but that its resolution is a sine qua non for normalizing Israel’s relations with much of the Arab and Muslim world and facilitating cooperation and the pursuit of perceived common interests.

The refusal also shielded the kingdom from possible controversy during the tournament if some players refused to sit at a chess board with an Israeli. A unidentified Palestinian champion had already declared that he would refuse to play an Israeli. “We are not in a normal situation with Israel, so I can’t act as if it is,” the player said.

If other recent sporting events are anything to go by, more players may well have adopted a similar attitude. Saudi judoka Joud Fahmy bowed out of the first round of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro to avoid competing against Israel’s Gili Cohen. The Saudi Olympic committee declared at the time that Ms. Fahmy had suffered injuries during training.

The sensitivity of projecting normalcy in relations with Israel was also evident in October when Israelis participated in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament. Israelis took part as representatives of the International Judo Federation rather than their country, and were banned from displaying national symbols.

Ironically, the UAE is the only Arab country to host an Israeli embassy, even if it is not accredited to the Emirates, but to the Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The embassy, nonetheless, is Israel’s diplomatic presence in the Gulf.

All of this, coupled with some national chess federations and players protesting against FIDE’s decision to grant Saudi Arabia hosting rights despite its human rights record and refusal to ensure all qualified players would be able to participate, testifies to the inextricable relationship between sports and politics.

Literally everything involving Saudi Arabia’s hosting of a chess tournament is political. The very fact that Saudi Arabia is the host is political. FIDE’s decision to look the other way in exchange for a financial contribution when it comes to access for players and women’s rights is political. Saudi Arabia’s visa policy is political as is the kingdom’s willingness to concede on women’s dress.

Yet, FIDE like all other international sports federations denies that there is any link between sport and politics. The denials enable a world in which political corruption is at the root of sports’ multiple scandals involving financial and performance corruption and in which transparency and accountability are rare quantities.

The chess tournament in Saudi Arabia like the judo competition in the UAE suggests that an ungoverned relationship between sports and politics raises not only fundamental problems of governance but impinges on players’ rights. The chess tournament also suggests that it takes much more than a sporting event for a country to successfully polish its tarnished image.

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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No peace for Kurds: Rojava still under attack

Silvia Fornaroli

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The Amazon is still on fire. The “lungs of the Earth” are hardly breathing while the flames are threatening people and nature reserves. As long as we do not see with our own eyes the burnt trees, the endangered species and the indigenous tribes fighting to save their dying forest, we seem incapable to understand the actual consequences.

Thousands of miles away from this environmental catastrophe, a different kind of tragedy is waiting to happen. Rojava-Northern Syria Federation — the self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish people managed to carve out in northeastern Syria during the Civil war — is burning again.

On September 24, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed to create a “safe zone” in the north of Syria, in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees. He is hoping to establish a peace corridor with a depth of 32 kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers, which would easily turn the area into the world’s largest refugee camp. Despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, this might represent the umpteenth attempt to destroy the Kurdish dream of an independent democratic enclave.

It is undeniably clear, in fact, how Turkey could take advantage of the situation: Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has already claimed that Ankara’s aim is also to clear the borders from “terrorist elements.”

The People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), which — along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — played a key role in the fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are the official army of Rojava but currently designated as terrorist organizations. These armed groups, in fact, are considered as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the far-left militant and political organization founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan and  often involved in armed clashes with Turkish security forces.

Kurdish people are about to be left alone once again and the recent decisions of the White House trigger alarm in the whole Middle East.

On October 7, president Donald Trump announced that the United States  — so far the main financer, trainer and supporter of Kurds — would start pulling troops out of those territories, although it would not constitute a full withdrawal.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” and that “The US Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.”

Mazlum Kobanê, the commander in chief of the SDF, announced that they will protect Syrian’s borders and fight back against Ankara’s army. Since the majority of Kurdish cities are located in this area, it is not difficult to understand how potentially devasting this ongoing operation could be.

Turkish assault is going to begin from the city of Gire Spi/Tell Abyad, once controlled by the so-called Caliphate and captured in 2015 by the YPG during the Tell Abyad offensive. The cities of Qamishli, Derek/Al Malikiya, Tell Tamer and Kobanê/Ayn al Arab are next to become target of air strikes and artillery fire as well.

It is no coincidence that shortly after the siege of Kobanê, Kurdish forces directed their efforts towards Tell Abyad, being such a strategic site for ISIL militias. The city, in fact, was better known in the West as the “Jihadi Highway”, a de-facto corridor for foreign fighters. In the chaos caused by the fighting, jihadists would surely try to regain strength and Turkish move is serving the cause.

At the Al-Hol camp — a huge detention female camp near Al-Hasakah — numerous riots have occurred in the past few weeks, and the managers of the structure believe that the women held in the prison — former jihadi brides — might be the vehicle for renewed forms of radicalization.

In view of the fact that US officials confirmed that they will not intervene nor will they seize control of those prisons, Kurdish forces called Washington’s move “a stab in the back”. Meanwhile in Raqqa, ISIL militants are still carrying out suicide bombing attacks against SDF positions.

Shervan Derwish, official spokesman of the Mambij Military Council, has expressed his concern with a very touching message on Twitter.

The YPG and YPJhave fought in many historical battles and their solitary resistance during the last Turkish Afrin offensive in January 2018 became a symbol of their resilience.

On the other hand, Turkey’s army will be backed by their well-known rebel allies:  “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly, “wrote Fahrettin Altun — Turkey’s communications director — in a Washington Post column. Numerous military groups are active in the region and, although their nature is still debated, there are evidence of many connections with jihadi-inspired organizations.

Working in cooperation with the SDF, Rojava’s cantons are ready to resist and defend their independence, but Trump’s decision sounds like a betrayal.

If forests are burning, so will be democracy in Syria. The Rojava project is in imminent danger, and this time there will be no mountains for the Kurds to seek refuge in. Here in the West we are blessed not to directly witness the destruction of both tragedies, but it is still up to us whether to look those flames in the eye or remember them as the unique environments they actually were.

In loving memory of Mehmet Aksoy, who dedicated his life to the Kurdish cause.

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Revisiting Saudi-Iranian Rivalry: From A Cold War Perspective

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood

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Middle East considered the “bridge between the East and West” has long grabbed attention of great power policy makers due to its geostrategic and geopolitical significance. After the discovery of oil in the early part of 20th Century, Iran and Saudi Arabia had gained a prominent position at the global international arena. The defining moment in their relation was the year 1968, when the British government announced its withdrawal from the “Persian Gulf,” threatening thereby the balance brought to an equilibrium by more than 150 years of English security guarantees to the sheikdoms. The international community largely sees the conflict in terms of sectarian and on religious grounds which is an inadequate approach and one that rules out other detrimental factor. There have been little analysis and studies undertaken on the conflict from a “Cold war” perspective, which can significantly help other states in maintaining a viable balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The conflict dubbed as the “New Middle East Cold War” or “Saudi-Iranian Cold War” is not the first event termed as “Cold war” in the Middle Eastern history. Malcolm Kerr writing in his acclaimed book Arab Cold War 1958-67 termed the growing rivalry and quest for leadership in the Middle East at the aftermath of British and French withdrawal between Republican Egypt and conservative Arab monarchies as a regional equivalent of Cold war. The present relations of Saudi Arabia and Iran are short of war, a condition where although the contenders do not engage in open battlefields face to face, it is a ‘battle’ nevertheless fought on different fronts including the media. Daniel Serwer of John Hopkins writes that Saudi-Iran conflict is regional equivalent of20th century US-Soviet Cold war.

Characteristics of Cold War

The term ‘cold war’ had been in use before 1945 to describe period of extreme tensions between states that were just short of war. In the year 1893, German socialist Eduard Bernstein described the arms race between Germany and its neighbors as a kind of ‘cold war’ where “there is no shooting but bleeding.” The term rapidly came back into use when United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) faced each other eyeball to eyeball. British writer George Orwell remarked on the significance of the moment foreseeing “a peace that is no peace” where the two mighty powers were to be “unconquerable and in a permanent state of cold war.”Anders Stephanson has defined the essence of a Cold War as consisting of characteristics whereby both sides deny each other the legitimacy as a regime, attempting to attack each other by all means short of war. This is in the view of the author, followed by an intense military buildup with a prolonged arms race.

Cold War since then has exclusively referred to as the ‘sustained state of political and military tensions’ between the 20th century superpowers. Although the rivalry had ceased with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the term and subject-matter has remained ever relevant to an extent that the study of grand strategy and security is considered incomplete without the former’s inclusion. Saudi Arabia and Iran, in order to contain conflict and to ensure; that it ends up being short and as shallow as possible, need to revitalize the lessons of the ‘original Cold War.’ United States and Soviet Union despite their sustained rivalry developed a variety of mechanism for escalation and risk management. This was undertaken without foregoing their core national interests and ideologies. The leadership understood that there was ‘wisdom in engaging’ rather than isolating the other. The approach is more relevant today in the era of globalization than it was in those years. “Geo-economics must replace geopolitics” as the focal Saudi-Iranian approach in order to reach a ‘non-zero sum situation.’

Religious and political ideology plays an important role in the foreign policy between Riyadh and Tehran. The two offer competing ideologies and political model with a strong desire for strategic and geopolitical supremacy. The standoff, experts believe is also the result of the desire and aspirations of the two, for political leadership in the Islamic world. The conflict is not the result of alleged schism between Shia and Sunni school of Islam, but is rather a byproduct of centuries’ political and religious contestation that existed between empires and is now manifested into politics of these modern states.

Diplomacy is integral to the Middle East cold war. Since establishing relations in 1929, the two have had their ups and downs. In the years of the Shah, relations began to take the turn for worse when Shah’s ‘hegemonic desires’ and Saudi Arabia’s desire not to accept Iran predominant role in the Gulf and beyond. Nevertheless, relations remained intact at least diplomatically despite severity of incidents such as Gunboat coercion and the oil wars.

Conclusion

Wars have recognizable beginnings and they comprise of direct fighting between the adversaries with armistices and peace treaties as their conclusive ends. However, a Cold war has none of these characteristics, in words of Walter Lippman, “it brings neither peace nor honour to those who wage it.” The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has “spillover effects” and repercussions beyond the region. States such as those in the West, and Pakistan in particular close in proximity to the two have had a tough time “balancing” their relations. A careful, delicate and pragmatic approach needs to be adopted on part of statesmen, taking into account the opportunities and challenges arising from a “Cold War” need to be taken into account. Media on both sides has an important role to play in patching up the hostilities by upholding ethical standards and avoiding propagandist contest to avoid further aggravation of the conflict. 

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Learning lessons: Protesters stay one step ahead of rulers

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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There’s a déjà vu feeling to this year’s wave of protests across the Arab world.

It’s not that this year saw the toppling of the leaders of Algeria and Sudan as a result of popular revolts, a harking back to the 2011 protests that overthrew the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

It’s that it’s the protesters in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco rather than illiberal or autocratic regimes that have learnt the lessons of 2011.

Had illiberal and autocratic leaders learnt the lessons, they would not have been taken again by surprise by mass protests, often sparked by a black swan.

Lessons learnt would have meant putting their ear to the ground, hearing the groundswell of anger and frustration boiling at the surface over lack of economic opportunity and basic services, widespread corruption that benefits the few and complicates life for the many, and a clamouring for the ability to vent those grievances.

Lessons learnt would have meant addressing those concerns before its too late and spill into the streets in massive votes of no-confidence in the political and economic system and its leaders.

It’s a lesson that is valid beyond the Arab world with similar protests, like in 2011, erupting across the globe in countries such as Hong Kong, Russia, Peru, Haiti, Ecuador, Indonesia, and world-wide climate change-related demonstrations.

For their part, demonstrators in Algeria and Sudan concluded from the 2011 protests that toppling a leader was the beginning not the end of the process.

In Algeria, protesters remain in the streets six months after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, battling the army for a political process that will guarantee structural change rather than enable an electoral process that ensures that the military and its aligned business interests remain the power behind the throne.

Sudanese demonstrators surrendered the street only after agreement had been reached with the military on a three-year-long transition towards civilian rule.

The Sudanese and Algerian experiences, like the lessons to be learnt from the 2011 revolts, suggest that the playing field in the wake of the fall of an autocrat is striking a balance between protesters’ demands for fundamental change and the determination of elites and the military to preserve their economic interests, some degree of control of security and safeguards against being held accountable for past abuse.

What demonstrators have going for them, beyond the power of the street, is the fact that popular discontent is not the only thing that mitigates against maintenance of the pre-protest status quo.

Countries across the Middle East and North Africa, characterized by youth bulges, can no longer evade economic reform that addresses widespread youth unemployment, the need to create large numbers of jobs, and inevitable diversification and streamlining of bloated government bureaucracies.

Algeria is a case in point. Foreign exchange reserves have dropped from US$193.6 billion in 2014 to US$72 billion in 2019. Reserves cover 13 months of imports at best in a country that imports 70 percent of what it consumes,

“If the state can no longer deliver goods and services, socio-economic discontent will rise further…. In order to avoid such a situation… the state and its citizens will have to renegotiate their relationship. In the past the state provided, and Algerians abided. This is no longer economically feasible today, nor is it what Algerians appear to want as they seek more transparency, less corruption, and better governance of Algeria’s resources,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem.

Attention in the past years since the 2011 popular Arab revolts has focussed on the consequences of the Saudi-UAE led counterrevolution that brutally rolled back protesters achievements in Egypt and contributed to the Iranian-backed military campaign of Houthi rebels in Yemen and the devastating subsequent military intervention in that country as well as civil wars in Syria and Libya.

Yet, the past eight years have also been characterized by issues-oriented protests that often involved new, creative forms of expression of discontent.

Iraq, Algeria and Sudan rather than Egypt contain lessons for the future.

Egypt’s field marshal-turned-president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi may have squashed recent protests with mass arrests and security force violence, but his conspiratorial depictions of a plot engineered by the repressed and weakened Muslim Brotherhood are unlikely to dampen widespread discontent with his failed economic policies that have benefited the elite and impoverished many.

Mr. Al-Sisi may have ended the protests for now, but continued refusal to address grievances makes Egypt an accident waiting to happen.

The demography of protesters in Iraq proves the point. The protests could have been avoided had the Iraqi government focused on tackling corruption, ensuring the delivery of basic services, and creating jobs for university graduates and opportunities for those who returned from defeating the Islamic State to find that they were deprived of opportunities.

One lesson of the protests in Iraq and Hong Kong is the fact that repressive government responses, the killing of more than 100 demonstrators in Iraq or the banning of face masks in Hong Kong, fuel rather than calm public anger.

Said Hong Kong pro-democracy law maker Fernando Cheung: “This is adding fuel to the fire. This will mark the beginning of riots in Hong Kong.”

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