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2018 World Cup potentially set to become latest Middle Eastern battlefield

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A possible Saudi-Iranian clash on the soccer pitch promises to be a highlight of this month’s World Cup in Russia.

It would add significant drama to multiple soccer-related battles involving Saudi attempts to control Middle Eastern and Asian governance of the sport at the expense of Iran as well as challenges to Qatar’s 2022 hosting rights and its holding of World Cup broadcasting rights that threaten to deprive Gulf fans of access to the Russian tournament’s matches.

For the clash to happen, both Iran, the highest ranked Middle Eastern team to have qualified for the 2018 tournament, and Saudi Arabia, widely viewed as an outsider, would have to make it out of the group stage. That could prove to be for both a tall order.

Nonetheless, the two teams’ presence in Russia is likely to shine a spotlight on the covert wars between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iran as well as a related dispute with 2022 World Cup host Qatar, which did not qualify for this year’s tournament, even if failure to perform fails to bring the kingdom and the Islamic republic face to face on the pitch.

Iran plays into the dispute with Qatar that this week commemorates the imposition a year of a diplomatic and economic embargo by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt in part because of the Gulf state’s relationship with the Islamic republic.

Already, Gulf fans are feeling the impact with uncertainty over whether the boycotting states will allow broadcasts of matches by BeIN, the sports subsidiary of the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television network that owns the broadcasting rights.

The boycotting states are demanding that Qatar shutter Al Jazeera or at least curb its freewheeling reporting and talk shows that often challenge the policies of countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

As a matter of principle, BeIN has been blocked in the boycotting states for the past year. While Saudi Arabia has sought to ignore Qatar’s rights by creating beOutQ, a 10-channel bootlegging operation based in the kingdom, the UAE has backed down from its initial blockage of BeIN broadcasts but maintained its jamming of Al Jazeera.

beOutQ transmits over Arabsat, a Riyadh-based satellite provider Arabsat owned by Saudi Arabia.

Unable to challenge the Saudi action in Saudi courts, Qatar has urged world soccer body FIFA to take action against what it described as Saudi pirate broadcasters

In a soccer-crazy part of the world in which the sport is politically sensitive because it evokes the kind of deep-seated passion that religion and nationalist sentiment does, Qatar appears to have decided to stir the pot by blocking BeIN broadcasts to the UAE.

“We regret to inform that our customers are temporarily unable to view beIN sports channels and packages as a result of a decision by the broadcaster of beIN sports,” UAE telecom  and digital television company Du said in a statement this weekend on its website.

Qatar’s move appeared to be designed to force UAE carriers to accept commercial terms. In doing so it would score a political success by breaching the boycott.

Its strategy appeared to be working with Du’s competitor. Etisalat, announcing 24 hours after the Du statement that customers could sign up for BeIn  broadcasts of World Cup matches.

The dispute nevertheless reflects deep-seated disagreement within the lame-duck six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) over the campaign against Qatar. Oman, which like Qatar maintains close ties to Iran and has offered to mediate, sought to thwart the Saudi bootlegging effort by banning the import of beOutQ decoders.

“The import of these decoders, called beOutQ, was banned because they violate the law on intellectual property,” an Omani official said. Oman was responding to a Qatari request.

Qatar’s broadcasting rights are but one soccer battlefield on which the Gulf dispute is being fought.

Saudi and UAE media together with UK tabloid The Sun exploited this week’s London launch of the Foundation for Sports Integrity by Jamie Fuller, a prominent Australian campaigner for a clean-up of global soccer governance.

The launch involved a reiteration of assertions of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful World Cup bid that media like Abu Dhabi’s The National and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya projected as pressure on FIFA to deprive Qatar of its hosting rights.

“It is no secret that football’s governing body is rotten to the core. (FIFA) will rightly come under renewed pressure to strip Qatar of the competition and carry out an internal investigation in the wake of the most recent allegations. The millions of fans eagerly anticipating 2022’s festival of football deserve better,” The National said.

Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al Awsat newspaper reported that this month’s FIFA Congress may hold a re-vote on the hosting of the 2022 World Cup. There is no independent indication of such a move.

In a further bid to complicate life for Qatar, Saudi Arabia has backed a proposal to speed up the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32, which is now scheduled for 2026, by making it already applicable to the 2022 World Cup.

If adopted, Qatar could be forced to share the hosting of the 2022 tournament with others in the region. Iran has already offered to help Qatar.

The Saudi-UAE moves come on the back of a two-pronged Saudi effort to gain a measure of control of global soccer governance.

Global tech investor Softbank, which counts Saudi Arabia and the UAE among its largest investors, is believed to be behind a $25 billion proposal embraced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino to revamp the FIFA Club World Cup and launch of a Global Nations League tournament. If approved, the proposal would give Saudi Arabia a significant voice in global soccer governance.

Complimenting the Saudi FIFA bid is a Saudi effort to undermine the position of the 47-nation Asian Football Confederation AFC headed by Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahrain ruling family and one of the most powerful men in global soccer.

To do so, Saudi Arabia has unilaterally launched a new regional bloc, the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), a potential violation of FIFA and AFC rules.

The federation would be made up of members of both the AFC and the Amman-based West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups all Middle Eastern nations except for Israel and is headed by Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a prominent advocate of soccer governance reform.

The heads of founding member associations, including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and the UAE, were flown to Jeddah for the SWAFF launch all-expenses paid, offered gifts and promised funding for soccer development.

SWAFF will be based in Jeddah with Saudi football federation president Adel Ezzat as its head and Saudi sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as its honorary president.

The likelihood of SWAFF taking off would effectively weaken the AFC of which Iran is a prominent member. Iran is unlikely to want to join SWAFF given the chance that Saudi Arabia would probably veto Iranian membership.

As a result, Saudi Arabia’s bid for regional soccer hegemony runs parallel to US President Donald J. Trump’s vow to isolate Iran and makes a mockery of global sports governance’s insistence that sports and politics are separate.

The joker in the Saudi bid are East Asian nations with China, Japan and South Korea in the lead, that are powerhouses within the AFC and maintain close economic and diplomatic ties to the kingdom but have studiously remained on the side lines of its struggle with Iran. East Asian nations are unlikely to want to be sucked into Saudi Arabia’s battles.

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

God’s Grace: Reichstag Fire and July 15 Military Coup

Zakir Gul, Ph.D.

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“By the grace of God!” Some rulers use the cry to explain why certain events happen and why they play out as they do. They will argue that God, in allowing the events to happen, has bestowed his grace upon the ruler. Two rulers and two events—the Reichstag fire in Germany on February 27, 1933,and the military coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016—illustrate the devastating consequences this twisted logic can have on the lives of ordinary people.When Adolph Hitler arrived at the scene, he told German Chancellor Franz von Pape, “This is a God-given signal” to crush Communists (and later opponents). Immediately after the failed military coup, Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the event was “a gift from God” and justification for Erdogan to start cleansing the military (and later purging opponents).

The similarities between the two events are striking in terms of beneficiaries, consequences and suspicions about the rulers’ true intentions going forward. Soon after the fire, Hitler started to consolidate his powers in the name of protecting the state’s security and democracy. To do so, Hitlersuspended civil liberties and shut the door on the rights and freedom of the country’s citizens. The fire in the heart of the countrywas used to justify the notion that the country was in a great danger. With decrees, Hitler purged his opponents, even though there was only one person considered to be responsiblefor the fire. Erdogan followed a similar path when he has declared a state of emergency after the coup attempt and consolidated his powers with radical changes in the country’s political and legal systems. With decrees, Erdogan purged hundreds of thousands of people under the guise of protecting the country’s security and democracy—even though soldiers who allegedly were involved in the coup attempt that night already had been into custody.In the political arena, Hitler increased the number of votes he received in the election that took place a week after the fire. Similarly, public support for Erdogan increased after the coup attempt. History does, indeed, repeat itself. These are two of many examples that could have been cited.

It may not be possible to know for sure who staged and orchestrated the Reichstag fire orthe military coup attempt; however, it is clear that the rulers’ purported motives are suspicious and their explanations filled with inconsistencies, given the many controversies arising from both events.The Reichstag firehas been discussed by scholars and historians who concluded that Hitler and his team—either directly or indirectly—helped to instigate the fire. Indeed, the arsonist responsible for the fire was pardoned years later. The military coup in Turkey wasa terrorizing and wicked deed against humanity and democracy, and the persons responsible must be identified and punished based on the rule of law and democratic values. It is, however, a Herculean task. Too many loopholes and controversies about the coup attempt need to be clarified. Erdogan should provide evidence-based, honest and objective explanations to remove the suspicions surrounding the coup attempt. Many answers are needed. For example,why did Erdogan refuse to answer questions from the major opposition party (the Republican People’s Party, or CHP) about the coup? Why has the investigation case report and the report of the parliament’s investigation committee deemed inappropriate and unsatisfactory even by some members of the committee? More important, why has an international committee not been allowed to investigate the case? Questions such as these highlight the many mysteries and suspicions that still surround the event two years after it occurred.

An independent international investigation committee should be established by the United Nations to examine the coup attempt and eliminate possible suspicions about Erdogan and his governing team. The committee also should determine whether thousands of people were responsible for organizing the coup attempt, as the government alleges, and clarify the following: whether some U.S. citizens, such as Andrew Brunson, who is still in jail, were among the primary plotters of the coup; whether some other U.S. citizens for whom bounties were offered were behind the coup attempt; and whether the United States was behind the coup attempt, as Turkish politicians and government officials claim—even though the United States has denied any involvement in the event.

Another independent international investigation committee should be established by the U.N.(or some other internationally accepted institution)to investigate the aftermath of the coup. Violations of internationally accepted human rights (as reported by credible human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) that have been committed by government security and intelligence officials since the coup attempt should be investigated. The committee also should also determine whether persons victimized in any way (such as imprisonment, job loss, inhumane treatment, and deprival of constitutional rights and freedoms)were based on evidence or resulted from the arbitrary application punishment. A final task of the committee should be to investigate allegations of abductions, extrajudicial executions and torture by government security and intelligence agencies. As John Dalhuisen,Amnesty International’s Europe director, has said, “It is absolutely imperative that the Turkish authorities halt these abhorrent practices and allow international monitors to visit all these detainees in the places they are being held.”

An independent and objective domestic committee that consists of members from every political party in the country—regardless of the parties’ percentage of the vote among constituents—should be established to investigate the same issues the two international committees need to review. Care must be taken to ensure that the members of this domestic committee—unlike those serving on the committee that was formed after the coup attempt—can maintain their objectivity and are aware of their responsibilities. The committee should be transparent and its actions and discussions observed and by international representatives of the U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union, and individual countries and/or journalists.

Finally, the European Court of Human Rights, an internationally accepted high court of which Turkey is a member,should determine for itself—rather than rely solely on the response from government officials—whether the country’s domestic legal and judicial system can be accessed openly and freely by all citizens and the attorneys representing them in legal matters.

It is only through these independent international and domestic investigations that the truth about the failed coup attempt can come to light.

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Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian Pioneer Author of Resistance Literature

Sondoss Al Asaad

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The eighth of July marks the 46th martyrdom anniversary of Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated by the Zionist Intelligence;  Mossad, along with his 17-year-old niece Lamees. Days before their martyrdom, Lamees had asked Kanafani to diminish his activitism and to concentrate on his writings. He answered her,” I write well because I believe in a cause, in principles. The day I leave these principles, my stories will become purposeless. If I were to leave behind my principles, you yourself would not respect me.”

Kanafani was born in 1936, in Palestine, to a father who was a national activist in the resistance against the British colonialism. After the 1948 Zionist occupation, his family sought refuge to Syria, when he was 12-year-old. In the refuge camps, Kanafani wrote most of his novels which highlights the sufferings that the Palestinians endure in the diaspora. He won multiple awards for his works both during his life and posthumously. For instance, in “Umm Saad,” Kanafani’s protagonist is a symbol of the Palestinian women in the refugee camps.

Kanafani was inspired by Jamal Abd al-Nasser’s ideas of national independence and defiance of imperialism. Due to the decline of Nasserism after the 1961 failure to consolidate Egypt and Syria under a unified United Arab Republic, the ascendancy of imperialism and Zionism and the rise of communism; Kanafani, along with his comrade George Habash, resolved to adopt Marxism. They belived that the political crisis in the Arab world could only be solved by turning the anti-imperialist struggle into a social revolution.

In Lebanon, Kanafani adopted the Communist philosophy and become a leading member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). He says, “The Palestinian cause is not a cause for Palestinians only, but a cause for every revolutionary, wherever he is, as a cause of the exploited and oppressed masses in our era.”

Besides, he was a prolific creative and brilliant novelist and the first to anticipate the “resistance literature” genre. His literary products and fictitious works have inspired a whole generation of resisting youth, both during and after his lifetime as they are greatly rooted in the Palestinian culture and cause. Kanafani dedicated his works to reflect on the Palestinians’ lives and the challenges they face under the Zionist occupation. He states, “My political position springs from my being a novelist. In so far as I am concerned, politics and the novel are an indivisible case and I can categorically state that I became politically committed because I am a novelist, not the opposite.”

The assassination of Ghassan Kanafani was the result of his commitment to the Palestinian cause and the resistance methodology. Today, his legacy echo within every free revolutionary who devoted his life to confront the imperialist conspiracies. Indeed, Kanafani was murdered merely because he had constituted an intellectual threat to the Zionist entity. He refused the negotiations with the enemy, pointing that it would be “a conversation between the sword and the neck […] I have never seen talks between a colonialist case and a national liberation movement.”

The chief thematic field of Kanafani’s writing was inseparably connected to the anti-imperialism struggle. He stressed that the Palestinian cause could not be resolved in isolation of the Arab ‘s social and political crisis. Further, he insisted on developing the resistance movement from being a nationalist Palestinian liberation movement into being a pan-Arab revolutionary socialist movement of which the liberation of Palestine would be a vital component.

Definitely, Kanafani played an influential role in raising consciousness on the issue of imperialism. He maintains, “Imperialism has laid its body over the world, the head in Eastern Asia, the heart in the Middle East, its arteries reaching Africa and Latin America. Wherever you strike it, you damage it, and you serve the world revolution. “Shortly after Kanafani’s obituary in Lebanon, “The Daily Star” stated, “He was a commando who never fired a gun, whose weapon was a ball-point pen, and his arena the newspaper pages.”

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Bahrain’s Top Spiritual Leader in U.K. for Medical Reasons

Sondoss Al Asaad

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Eventually, Bahrain’s prominent, 80-years-old, Top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim has been flown to the U.K., after the severe deterioration of his health conditions.

The Bahraini authorities have frequently procrastinated the proper hospitalisation of the ailing Ayatollah Qassim until last week when the Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa twitted that Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s ruler, had approved off Ayatollah Qassim’s “facilitation of travel” to find medical assistance.

Ayatollah Qassim was earlier transferred to Bahrain’s International Airport by ambulance. The authorities have currently issued a one-year temporary passport for Ayatollah Qassim as he is technically stateless since Bahrain’s Cassation Court stripped him of citizenship.

The arbitrary prosecution of Ayatollah Qassim has been related to his religious duty of collecting charities, known as “Khoums.” This religious ritual has been violated by the government, the charities have been confiscated and the Ayatollah has been audaciously accused of “money laundering.”

Ayatollah Qassim’s medical team issued a statement confirming his transfer abroad in order to avoid further complications in his health. The team said, “Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim left Bahrain for England Monday morning, July 9, 2018.This measure has been taken on the basis of medical reports and consensus of his doctors who emphasized the need for his immediate transfer to a specialised hospital to prevent a further deterioration.”

Moreover, Ayatollah Qassim’s health has been deteriorating after the authorities imposed on him a house arrest. Medical sources have informed that Ayatollah Qassim is suffering from cancer, which is in an early stage.

Since June 2016, Ayatollah Qassim has been arbitrarily stripped of his nationality. Bahrain’s Court of Cassation convicted Ayatollah Qassim of “illegal collection of funds and money laundering, serving foreign interests” and sentenced him to one year in jail suspended for three years. It also ordered him to pay $265,266 in fines.

The unfair, politically motivated,  blatant trial had led Ayatollah Qassim’s followers to peacefully protest, on daily basis, in his residence area, up to 23 May 2017.

On that day, the government violently stormed the sit-in zone, in Duraz village, murdered 5 youth and arrested around 300. Since then Ayatollah Qassim has been under house arrest and denied adequate medical care, which let his situation to drastically worsen and to another health complications.

Clearly, the denaturalisation of Ayatollah Qassim and various dissents is regarded as a systematic reprisal against the political and religious freedom in the country.

Since the onset of the 2011 peaceful uprising, Duraz village along with scores of Bahraini villages have been subjected to an ongoing clampdown and restrictions.

Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has gone to great lengths to clamp down on dissents. On 15 March 2011, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were deployed.

Religious freedom has been violated  until the central Friday prayer; the largest Shiite religious congregation, held in Duraz, has been banned. Armoured vehicles were deployed to cordon off Duraz’s mosque and various police checkpoints were set to thoroughly lock down the village.

Regularly, the government have been criticised for violating the freedoms to religious rituals, assembly, association, expression, etc. Since 2011, when protests; demanding democracy, reforms and justice, have erupted; tensions have simmered.

Dozens of high-profile activists have been detained or exiled, opposition associations have been dissolved and citizenships have been revoked.

Unfortunately, the Shiite community have long endured a pivotal and methodological persecution in  an attempt to forged the demographic representation.

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