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Chess Tournament puts Sports Governance and Saudi Change under the Microscope

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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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Middle East

Israel admits involvement in the killing of an Iranian army officer

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Image credit: MEHR News Agency

Col. Sayad Khodayee, 50, was fatally shot outside his home in Tehran on Sunday when two gunmen on motorcycles approached his car and fired five bullets into it, according to state media. Iran has blamed Israel for the killing, which bore the hallmarks of other Israeli targeted killings of Iranians in a shadow war that has been playing out for years on land, sea, air, and cyberspace.

Although a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister declined to comment on the killing. But according to an intelligence official briefed on the communications, Israel has informed American officials that it was behind the killing.

At the funeral in Tehran for a colonel in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, thousands of mourners packed the streets around the cemetery chanting “Death to Israel” and calling for revenge for his killing.

“We will make the enemy regret this and none of the enemy’s evil actions will go unanswered,” Gen. Hossein Salami, the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, said in a speech on Monday. A member of Iran’s National Security Council, Majid Mirahmadi, said the killing was “definitely the work of Israel,” and warned that harsh revenge would follow, according to Iranian media.

The United States has designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group unilaterally — a decision that has been a sticking point in the negotiations with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has demanded that the designation be removed as a condition for restoring the deal, but the United States has refused, leaving the negotiations frozen. The Nuclear deal was terminated by President Trump, but President Joe Bidden wanted to resume the deal and is in communication with Iran for restoration. Definitely, Iran had bitter experiences and concerns about the sincerity of Washington. It wanted safeguards and certain guarantees. Iran is willing to such a nuclear deal, which protects the interest of both sides, any unilateral deal may not be accepted by Tehran.

Israel is openly opposed to the nuclear deal. In fact, President Trump, after meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, took the unpopular decision of terminating the deal unilaterally. Some Iranian analysts close to the government said the attack was aimed at derailing the nuclear talks at a delicate point and undermining any possibility that Iran and the United States might reach a consensus over the issue of the Guards.

However, the Israelis told the Americans the killing was meant as a warning to Iran to halt the operations of a covert group within the Quds Force known as Unit 840, according to the intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. Whereas, Iran has portrayed the colonel as a martyred hero who joined the Revolutionary Guards as a teenager, volunteered as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, and went on to play a prominent role in the Quds force fighting the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria. The people of Iran are proud of his contributions.

What so ever is the justification presented by Israel, is a clear violation of international laws and practices. It has violated the UN charter and all norms of the civilized world. It might bear consequences, and Iran’s warning to retaliate is legitimate as a victim has not been provided justice yet. The aggressor needs to be taught a bitter lesson to avoid any future misadventure.

It has created new tension in the region and many speculations are roaming in the middle-east. Iran is a sovereign state and has the legitimate right to protect its safety, security, and vital interests. Iran has the capability to react, but, the visionary leadership in Tehran, might be waiting for an appropriate time, and opportunity. Iran does not want to escalate further and trying to minimize the existing tension, while committed to safeguarding its sovereignty and interests.

As matter of fact, Israel is the root cause of all problems in the Middle East and since its inception is over-engaged creating problems one after another. It is a defaulter of the UN and denied the implementation of several resolutions passed by the UNSC. It strongly urged that the UN and the International community must keep eye on Israeli activities and atrocities that are spoiling the peace and security of the whole region.

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Playing games in NATO, Turkey eyes its role in a new world order

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NATO’s spat over Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership is about more than expanding the North Atlantic military alliance. It’s as much about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s immediate political goals as Turkey’s positioning itself in a new 21st-century world order.

On its surface, the spat is about Turkish efforts to hinder support for Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and national aspirations in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq and a crackdown on alleged supporters of a preacher who lives in exile in the United States. Turkey accuses the preacher, Fethullah Gulen, of instigating a failed military coup in 2016.

The spat may also be a play by NATO’s second-largest standing military to regain access to US arms sales, particularly upgrades for Turkey’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets as well as more advanced newer models of the F-16 and the top-of-the-line F-35.

Finally, playing the Kurdish card benefits Mr. Erdogan domestically, potentially at a time that the Turkish economy is in the doldrums with a 70 per cent inflation rate.

“Erdogan always benefits politically when he takes on the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) and groups linked to it, like the YPG in Syria… In fact, attacking the PKK and the YPG is a two-for-one. Erdogan is seen to take on genuine terrorists and separatists, and at the same time, he gets to take a swipe at the United States, which taps into the vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey,” said Middle East scholar Steven A. Cook.

While important issues in and of themselves, they are also likely to influence where Turkey will rank as the world moves towards a bi-polar or multi-polar power structure.

The battle over perceived Scandinavian, and mainly, Swedish support for Kurdish aspirations involves the degree to which the United States and Europe will continue to kick the can down on the road of what constitutes yet another Middle Eastern powder keg.

Mr. Erdogan announced this week that Turkey would soon launch a new military incursion against US-backed Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. Mr. Erdogan said the operation would extend the Turkish armed forces’ areas of control in Syria to a 30-kilometer swath of land along the two countries’ shared border.

“The main target of these operations will be areas which are centers of attacks to our country and safe zones,” the Turkish president said.

Turkey asserts that the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian militia that helped defeat the Islamic State, is an extension of the PKK. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey, home to some 16 million Kurds. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Mr. Erdogan charges that Sweden and Finland give the PKK sanctuary and is demanding that the two countries extradite the group’s operatives. Turkey has not officially released the names of 33 people it wants to see extradited, but some were reported in Turkish media close to the government.

Swedish media reported that a physician allegedly on the list had died seven years ago and was not known to have had links to the PKK. Another person named was not resident in Sweden, while at least one other is a Swedish national.

Swedish and Finnish officials were in Ankara this week to discuss Turkey’s objections. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson insisted as the officials headed for the Turkish capital that “we do not send money or weapons to terrorist organizations.”

Conveniently, pro-government media reported the day the officials arrived that Turkish forces found Swedish anti-tank weapons in a cave in northern Iraq used by the PKK. Turkey recently launched Operation Claw Lock against PKK positions in the region.

Mr. Erdogan’s military plans complicate Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO. The two Nordic states slapped an arms embargo on Ankara after its initial incursion into Syria in 2019. The Turkish leader has demanded the lifting of the embargo as part of any deal on Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

A renewed incursion that would cement Turkey’s three-year-old military presence in Syria could also throw a monkey wrench into improving relations with the United States due to Turkish support for Ukraine and efforts to mediate an end to the crisis sparked by the Russian invasion.

Turkey slowed its initial incursion into Syria after then US President Donald J. Trump threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy.

The State Department warned this week that a renewed incursion would “undermine regional stability.”

Revived US arms sales would go a long way to cement improved relations and downplay the significance of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system, even if Turkey’s opposition to Scandinavian membership will have a lingering effect on trust. The United States expelled Turkey from its F-35 program in response to the acquisition.

This week, Mr. Erdogan appeared to widen the dispute in NATO after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis lobbied the US Congress against military sales to Turkey. “Mitsotakis no longer exists for me. I will never agree to meet him,” Mr. Erdogan said. He said that Mr. Mitostakis’ lobbying violated an agreement between the two men “not to involve third countries in our bilateral issues.”

The US arms sales would also impact Turkish Russian relations, even if Turkey, in contrast to most NATO members, will continue seeking to balance its relationships and avoid an open rift with Moscow or Washington.

“Russia’s geopolitical revisionism is set to drive Turkey and the West relatively closer together in matters geopolitical and strategic, provided that Turkey’s current blockage of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bid is resolved in the not too distant future,” said Turkey scholar Galip Dalay.

Turkey’s NATO gamble is a game of high-stakes poker, given that Russia is as much a partner of Turkey as it is a threat.

NATO is Turkey’s ultimate shield against Russian civilizationalist expansionism. Russian support in 2008 for irredentist regions of Georgia and annexation of Crimea in 2014 created a buffer between Turkey and Ukraine and complicated arrangements between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, Mr. Erdogan risks fueling a debate about Turkey’s membership in NATO, much like Prime Minister Victor Orban’s opposition to a European embargo of Russian energy has raised questions about Hungary’s place in the EU.

“Does Erdogan’s Turkey Belong in NATO?” asked former US vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, a former senator, in an oped in The Wall Street Journal. Unlike Finland and Sweden, the two men noted that Turkey would not meet NATO’s democracy requirements if it were applying for membership today.

“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan, it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance. Article 13 of the NATO charter provides a mechanism for members to withdraw. Perhaps it is time to amend Article 13 to establish a procedure for the expulsion of a member nation,” Messrs. Lieberman and Wallace wrote.

The two men implicitly argued that turning the tables on Turkey would force the complicated NATO member back into line.

Adding to that, prominent Turkish journalist and analyst Cengiz Candar cautioned that “giving into Ankara’s demands amounts to letting an autocrat design the security architecture of Europe and shape the future of the Western system.”

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Middle East

The May 27 Coup: An Attempt to Analyze Politics in Gramscian Terms

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On 27 May in 1960, Turkey witnessed its first full-fledged military coup. The coup was of a non-hierarchical nature in the sense that it was not carried out by generals but by other military officers belonging to lower status such as colonels. What paved the way for the coup can be seen as multi-dimensional. What I will try to do in this piece is not to put forward the reasons why that military intervention occurred or the impact it had upon society and politics in Turkey. My main concern is to analyze Turkish politics in Gramscian terms between the years 1960–1961.

The Democrat Party which was overthrown in 1960 can be viewed as a party which was supported by the masses who are critical of the single-party era. The strict state interpretation of secularism was undermined to some degree during the DP rule and this was welcomed by the masses in Turkey. Moreover, the economic backwardness of the rural areas was undermined to some extent, this development can also be seen as an important source of relief for the masses during that period. However, as Acton states “power corrupts”, the DP in the course of time had adopted some autocratic policies that discomforted the state establishment, most notably the military elites. Moreover, the state establishment thought that the DP had undermined the Kemalist principles especially in terms of challenging the secular character of Turkey.

Apart from political reasons, the structure of the military played a key role in the emergence of the 1960 coup d’état. As known, in 1952, Turkey became a part of the NATO, and this membership made the military personnel become more aware of the economic and technological backwardness of the army. Briefly, it can be said that those years were times of change: the military staff had become much more aware of the armies of other NATO members and as noted above, this paved the way for making them realize how backward they were both in technological and financial terms. On the other hand, there was a significant transformation of the Turkish society as domestic migration to cities was witnessed. Also the victory of the DP rule and then its tendencies towards a more authoritarian line played a central role in destabilizing the country.

What I attempt to do in this piece is to employ three of Gramsci’s terms / conceptualizations in analyzing Turkish politics before and after the 1960’s coup d’état. These concepts are hegemony, organic intellectuals and historical bloc. The term hegemony can simply be defined as the following: A society cannot be ruled through sole coercion and oppression; non-material instruments are needed, such as consent and persuasion, as well. Organic intellectuals can be defined as the intellectuals who are different from conventional intellectuals. Organic intellectuals have a significant role in society, they play a key role in the reproduction of the dominant ideology (hegemonic discourses) and they try to integrate the masses into the dominant ideology.

Historical bloc refers to a particular period of time with a particular type of power configuration shaped both by economic and political factors. The establishment of a historical bloc can be regarded as the end of the ideological dominance of a certain group while being the start of the dominance / ideological hegemony of another group.

First of all, the term ‘hegemony’ can be a good starting point in analyzing Turkish politics just before the military intervention. As noted, societies cannot be ruled by coercion only; there is also a strong need for consent. As known, the policies of the DP after the mid-1950s had begun to have an authoritarian character.

The DP rule chose not to negotiate with the opposing forces in the parliament, by contrast, the DP leaders chose to establish special investigative committees (tahkikat komisyonu) in order to cope with the opposing forces. These committees can be regarded as an instrument of coercion. In addition, freedom of speech had been under threat as the DP rule adopted strict censorship policies. These developments weakened the relative power of consent that was evident in the first years of the DP rule. In other words, it can be stated that, the hegemony of the political elites (the DP) had begun to be questioned right before the coup.

Secondly, the term ‘historical bloc’ can be employed in order to understand what had happened after the coup.As known, the military intervention put an end to the DP rule and party leaders while some other important political figures were sent to trial. Some of them were hanged later on. After the coup, transitional governments were established. These governments can be formulized as follows: Army + Republican People’s Party (RPP) = Political Power. It can be said that, the end of the DP rule can be seen as the end of a certain historical bloc. The historical bloc of the DP rule and its social/electoral basis had collapsed and another historical bloc, that of the RPP and the military came into-being.

Thirdly, a look at the new constitution drafting process will help us while evaluating the role of the ‘organic intellectuals’ in analyzing Turkish politics of that time period. After the coup, the military officers had asked some law professors to make a brand new constitution for Turkey. The nature of the 1961 constitution is not under investigation here, so only the role of the professors will be analyzed. The law professors were of Kemalist ideology and were determined to make a constitution in line with the ideology of the military. It is obvious that the professors played some sort of an organic intellectual role in making the new regime’s ideology dominant in the society. By drafting a new constitution, they aimed at justifying the coup as well as producing the ideology of the new regime. In addition, it can be stated that, the new constitution was seen as a tool for building up the new hegemony after the coup. The new laws paved the way for the diversification of the political arena letting new political actors emerge.

To put it in a nutshell it can be said that the events preceding and following the 1960 coup can be a good case study for applying Gramscian terms/conceptualizations in analyzing Turkish politics.

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