Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Iranian soccer fans protest government’s failure to rescue Lake Orumiyeh

By James M. Dorsey

Iranian authorities have arrested scores of soccer fans and protesters demanding during a match this weekend that the government take measures to prevent Lake Orumiyeh in the predominantly Azeri northwest of the country from drying up.

The protest followed an Iranian parliament vote against allocating funds to channel water from the Araz River to raise the level of the salt lake that lies between the Iranian provinces of East and West Azerbaijan near the border with Turkey. Parliament suggested instead that Azeris living near the lake be relocated.

The protest was the third time this year that anti-government sentiment spilled onto the soccer pitch, one of the few places that strength of numbers and moments of intense passion spark expressions of dissent.

The protest erupted during a match on August 25 in the city of Tabriz between storied Iranian top league team Tractor Sazi SC, a flashpoint of Iranian Azerbaijan’s identity politics that is owned by state-run Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO), and another local team, Shahrdari Tabriz SC.

“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” says a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

Thousands of fans chanted "Lake Urmia is dying, the Majlis orders its execution" during Tractor Sazi’s match against Shahrdari.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that at least 30 ethnic Azeris had been arrested because of the protests, some of them during an iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their Ramadan fast. Protesters were also reportedly arrested in Ardabil and other Iranian Azerbaijani cities.

RFE quoted Azeri human rights activist Vahid Qaradagli as saying the arrests were designed to prevent further protests. Mr. Qaradagli said tha some 10 million tons of salt would be exposed and pose a risk to the environment and public health if the lake dried up.

Lake Orumiyeh (Source: Mehr News Agency)

Iranian soccer pitches are battlefields for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a soccer fan who sees the game as a way to polish his tarnished images, and fans who view it as a venue to express dissent.

A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tehran disclosed by Wikileaks describes how Mr. Ahmadinejad has sought with limited success to associate himself with Iran’s national team in a bid to curry popular favour.

Mr. Ahmadinejad went as far as in 2006 trying to lift the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadiums, but in an early public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The funeral in May of a famous Iranian soccer player in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned into a mass protest against the government of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

A fan waves a photo of late defender Nasser Hejazi at the entrance to Azadi Stadium in Tehran (Source: France 24)

Tens of thousands reportedly attended the ceremony for Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender and outspoken critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

In a rare occurrence, some 1,000 women were allowed to be present during the ceremony. Iran bans women from stadiums in accordance with its strict segregation of genders in public places.

Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” in a reference to Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April to task for Iran’s gaping income differences and budgetary measures which hit the poorest the hardest.

The mourners also shouted "Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning" and "Mr Nasser, rise up, your people can't stand it anymore".

The Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) postponed in February league matches in Tehran in a bid to prevent celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution from turning into anti-government protests inspired by the anti-government protests in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled presidents Zine el Abedine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

Monday, January 17, 2011

Demonstrations in Libya and Jordan put Tunisian model to the test

By James M. Dorsey

Deutsche Welle

The protests in Libya against corruption throw up the question whether the Tunisian crisis heralds the beginning of the end for autocratic Arab leaders. The West is encouraged and is hoping for lasting change.

The specter of authoritarian regimes falling like dominoes may however be overly optimistic. While there is no doubt that developments in Tunisia have emboldened the discontent across a swath of land stretching from Morocco to the Gulf, it remains to be seen, according to analysts, whether protestors in other Arab countries have the wherewithal to sustain demonstrations and casualties for weeks and to what degree Arab governments have learnt lessons from the Tunisian experience.

Demonstrations in Algeria subsided last week after authorities moved to roll back increases in prices of commodities. Protestors in Jordan have yet to show that they are cut from the same cloth as their counterparts in Tunisia.

Protests in Libya erupted three days ago, but have so far largely gone unnoticed by the international media with the exception of a few reports in the Arab press as well as statements and videos circulated on the Internet by Libyan opposition groups. The Libyan opposition website Almanara reported that demonstrators had clashed with security forces in the town of Al Bayda, 800 kilometers (500 milies) east of Tripoli, after throwing stones at government offices in the town and setting a government office on fire. The protesters were demanding "decent housing and a dignified life," Almanara said.

Libyan activists and opposition groups reported that hundreds of people had also occupied some 600 empty apartments in Beghazi, Libya's second largest city, and 800 units in Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli. The activists said the squatters had been expecting to move into new homes promised to them under a government housing scheme, but had seen apartments they had already paid for awarded to others.

"Bani Walid has no basic services; thousands of people are without houses and the local authority is corrupted, it only delivers services with bribes. Nothing will make Bani Walid calm but freedom, justice and transparency," the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya said in a statement on its website. The Front reported that the lawyers in Benghazi were joining the protests of the squatters.

Lessons to be learned?

Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gaddafi appears to have drawn a lesson from President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's failed handling of the protests in Tunisia, ordering police to avoid clashes with demonstrators while protecting government buildings. The country's Revolutionary Council said in a statement that it would investigate the complaints and promised that "all the problems will be solved soon through the legitimate authorities."

At the same time, however, Gaddafi true to his idiosyncratic eccentrism, voiced what other leaders probably believe but have kept to themselves. Describing the departure of Ben Ali as "a great loss" for Tunisia, the Libyan leader said he still considered Ben Ali the country's constitutional leader.

The United States and the European Union have so far responded cautiously to the wave of protests in the Arab world, fearing that the unrest could destabilize the volatile region and bring anti-Western forces to power. "The European Union has an interest in keeping a strong partnership. This is why countries including France, Spain and Italy have not clearly condemned what happened," Ivan Ureta, a professor of international relations at King's College in London, told Deutsche Welle.

A key concern for the US and the EU is that the protests in most Arab countries like Libya and Jordan, where thousands demonstrated over the weekend against government economic policies and called for the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai, are backed by Islamist opposition forces.

"As in all cases of revolution, you must be careful what you wish for. The politics and demographics in these countries mean that what replaces the corrupt old regimes could be even worse; strengthening the hands of terrorists and radicals," says Mark Almond, a visiting professor in international relations at Ankara’s Bilkent University.

Islamist influence

Analysts note that the absence of Islamists in the Tunisian protests is because Tunisia, unlike other Arab countries, has since its independence aggressively sought to ban Islamists from public life.

"Most influential Tunisian Islamists now live abroad, while those who remain in Tunisia have been forced to form a coalition with unlikely secular and communist bedfellows. The nature of the opposition and the willingness of the Tunisian government to back down are not coincidental. If it had been clear that Islamist opposition figures were playing a large role in the current unrest, the government would likely have doubled down on repressive measures," says Michael Koplow, a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University, in a commentary in Foreign Policy.

Islamists are nonetheless certain to exploit the widespread discontent and may benefit once protesters realize that change involves a lot more than toppling a corrupt and authoritarian leader. Ben Ali's departure has thrown Tunisia into turmoil. The country, at least for now has lost tourism, one of its main sources of foreign income. With the evacuation of thousands of European tourists, it will be some time before Tunisian tourism regains lost ground.

The rise of secularism

In a first sign of the reemergence of the Islamists, Rached Ghannouchi, the 69-year old leader of Tunisia's banned Nahda or Renaissance movement, announced on Sunday that he was returning to Tunisia from his 22 years in exile in London.

Analysts say that Ghannouchi will encounter a country very different from the one he left. While he still may have supporters in Tunisia, he does not have an infrastructure and many of those Islamists that remained in the country have radicalized and are likely to see Ghannouchi as a spent force too willing to compromise.

More importantly however, Tunisia's long-standing suppression of the Islamists has allowed secularism to build roots that many Tunisians will want to preserve. Tunisian-born Israeli sociologist Claude Sitbon notes that Tunisians on the Internet joked that Ghannouchi would be met at the airport by bikini-clad women. "Women have achieved an amazing status in Tunisia. They wear jeans in the street and bikinis on the beach; women are judges and ambassadors. Tunisians won't want to lose that," Sitbon says.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Twin Threats of Protests and Cessation Set Stage for Change in MidEast and North Africa

By James M. Dorsey

A rare wave of protests across the Arab world against widespread economic mismanagement, unemployment, corruption and lack of civil liberties as well as the probable partition of Sudan potentially set the stage for the redrawing of the political map of the Middle East and North Africa.

The protests and referendum likely to establish oil-rich southern Sudan as an independent state spotlight the failure of most Middle Eastern and North African regimes to provide economic prospects for their populations and guarantee security and equal rights for religious and ethnic minorities. A spate of recent deadly attacks targeting Christians in Iraq and Egypt has further focused attention on inflamed religious and ethnic tensions and the region’s lack of minority rights.

Middle Eastern governments fear, according to officials and Western diplomats, that an independent southern Sudan will fuel nationalist aspirations of rebels in Darfur, secessionists in southern Yemen; Shiite rebels in northern Yemen; non-Islamist controlled parts of Somalia; Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey; Berbers across North Africa and Azerbaijanis in northern Iran. The region’s military and security dominated regimes also worry that the protests will further embolden their populations to vent boiling anger and pent-up frustration with long-standing authoritarian, corrupt and incompetent rule. Last week’s warning by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that record food prices are likely to increase even more as a result of erratic global weather patterns threatens to further tempers and tensions.

Several Arab states have moved to curb commodity prices in a bid to prevent the riots from spreading to their countries. Libya abolished taxes and custom duties on wheat-based products, rice, vegetable oil, sugar and infant milk. Morocco has begun subsidizing imports to ensure that the price of soft milling wheat does not rise in tunes with hikes on world markets.

Jordanian King Abdullah in a bid to prevent an escalation of mounting tension between Palestinians and East Bank Jordanians this week ordered his government to reduce prices of commodities, particularly rice and sugar, freeze plans to raise public transportation fees and accelerate initiation of job creation projects. The order came as Jordanian trade unions called for nationwide demonstrations on Friday to demand better living standards and the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai. Jordan’s Islamist opposition said it had yet to decide whether it would support the protest, but warned that price hikes would spark “an unprecedented explosion” similar to the turmoil in Tunisia and Algeria.

“The government is seeking to contain mounting public resentment. Events in Tunisia and Algeria are forcing it to act because Jordanians have seen that protests produce results,” says Mohammed Masri, an analyst at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies. Masri was referring to Algeria’s weekend decision to reduce commodity prices in response to sustained daily protests that left at least three people dead, the Tunisian government’s inability to quell a month of demonstrations in which so far up to 50 people are believed to have been killed and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s bid this week to meet some of the protestor’s demands by announcing that he would not again run for office when his term ends in 2014, firing his interior minister, promising to release detained demonstrators and launching an investigation into corruption. “Price hikes are certain to increase anger at the government’s policies,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, a Jordanian Islamic Action Front spokesman.

While the demonstrations in Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt as well as recent soccer riots in Jordan and Iran and human rights-related protests in Kuwait are unlikely to immediately overturn governments, they signal a growing popular refusal across the region to continue to accept the status quo. Even in Saudi Arabia where public protests are particularly rare, unemployed teachers are publicly protesting government job creation policies. Tunisian trade unions have said they would continue their protests despite Ben Ali’s announced concessions.

The hardening of the region’s social and economic battle lines creates stark choices for both Middle Eastern and Western governments. Desperate to cling to power, Middle Eastern regimes are likely to increase repression coupled with window dressing measures that create the impression of responding to widespread discontent rather than opt for real political, economic and social reform. This week’s concessions by Ben Ali come after the president’s efforts to squash the protests by charging that the protesters were being manipulated by foreign terrorists failed. Ben Ali’s assertion contrasted starkly with the fact that Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been conspicuously silent about the ongoing turmoil in its theater of operations and the fact that the protests were void of any Islamist tint.

Western diplomats say that the fact that a majority of the dead in Tunisia were killed by security forces after the Obama administration, the European Union and the United Nations called on Tunisia to exercise restraint in the use of force and respect fundamental freedoms point to a sense of alarm within the government that makes it less susceptible to US and European pressure. “It’s inconceivable that they are not worried that this is the beginning of the end,” one diplomat said.

On a visit to Qatar this week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nonetheless signaled that the United States and its European allies may be less persistent in their long-standing preference for stability in the Middle East and North Africa rather than democracy that could initially bring Islamic and more nationalist forces to power – a policy that has fueled anti-Western sentiment among large segments of the region’s population.

Addressing the Forum for the Future launched in 2004 by the G-8 group of industrial nations as a way to promote growth of nongovernmental civil group, Clinton bluntly challenged Middle Eastern leaders to open their political systems and economies and warned that "the region's foundations are sinking into the sand." Clinton said the region's governments need to share power with civic and volunteer groups to tackle issues like exploding populations, stagnant economies and declining natural resources. Pointing to unemployment rates of 20% and up, the secretary said "people have grown tired of corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order" and are demanding reforms, including eradication of corruption.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Middle East Heralds New Year With Winter of Discontent

By James M. Dorsey

The Middle East and North Africa welcomed the New Year with a rare phenomenon: protests in an arc stretching from Algeria to Kuwait, directed against repressive regimes at home rather than a foreign power. The protests are a rare outpouring of pent-up frustration and anger at discrimination and failed economic and social policies as well as corruption in a region that is governed by authoritarian governments intolerant of public criticism.

It is too early to conclude that the protests signal a milestone after which Middle Eastern population groups no longer quietly endure repression and economic deprivation and instead increasingly and publicly challenge their authoritarian leaders. Yet even if they are unlikely to repeat the regime-toppling successes of the velvet revolutions of Eastern Europe, the protests reflect increased chafing at disenfranchisement and lack of opportunity and good governance. Tunisia is witnessing the most-sustained demonstrations against an Arab government in recent history. The New Year's church bombing in Alexandria, Egypt, has sparked a rare public outburst of pent-up Coptic anger. Demonstrators in Algeria this week protested food-price hikes, unemployment and an alleged deterioration of government services. Riots in the southern Jordanian town of Maan erupted following a brawl in which two people were killed. And protests in Kuwait denounced the beating by police of a law professor critical of the government.

The wave of discontent follows a series of underreported economically inspired protests in recent years across North Africa -- including in Tunisia's southern Gafsa mining province in early 2008, in Morocco's impoverished port city of Sidi Ifni in the same year, and in various Egyptian towns over the past several years -- as well as ethnic and political clashes sparked in recent weeks by soccer rivalries in Jordan and Iran. A draw last week in the world's most violent soccer derby between Cairo arch-rivals Al Ahly and Zamalek sparked speculation by Egyptian sports commentators that the government had fixed the match to prevent potential soccer riots that could turn political. Algeria this weekend postponed all national soccer league matches in a bid to prevent games from turning into anti-government protests.

Read further at World Politics Review

Monday, December 27, 2010

UAE Central Bank Orders Hike Saad and Gosaibi Provisions

The Central Bank of the United Arab Emirates has required UAE lenders with exposure to feuding Al Saad Group and Ahmad Hamad al Gosaibi & Brothers to increase their loan loss provisions from 50 to 80 percent. The requirement issued in a circular to all UAE lenders is designed to protect UAE financial institutions from a worst case fallout of the dispute between the two groups.

"All these provisions must be by the end of 2010 and the Central Bank's approval of the banks' annual audited results are conditional on the allocation of those provisions," UAE Central Bank Governor Sultan Nasser al-Suweidi said in the circular.

The circular comes a year after the Central Bank ordered lenders to raise provisions related to Al Saad and Al Ghosaibi to 50 percent. It follows press reports that Saad had offered Kuwaiti lenders a settlement based on payment of $0.20 for each dollar the group owes. The press reports said lenders were negotiating for up to $0.40 on the dollar.

The Central Bank circular asked banks to maintain their 100 percent provisions Saad Group’s Bahrain-based Awal Bank and Al Gosaibi’s The International Banking Corp (TIBC) that were taken over by the Bahraini central bank last year. The difference is provisioning ratios reflects the Central Bank’s assessment of exposure by UAE lenders to those entities and the likelihood that lenders will be able to recover their outstanding loans.

Defaults on loans by Awal Bank TIBC set off a bitter legal battle on three continents between the two groups that are related by Saad Group’s Maan al Sanea’s marriage to a daughter of the Al-Ghosaibi family. Al-Gosaibi has accused Al-Sanea in court filings on three continents of siphoning off $10 billion from his in-laws.

Al Gosaibi is seeking to recover $9.2 billion in lawsuits in the Cayman Islands against al-Sanea and Awal subsidiaries. Court proceedings involving Awal are also ongoing in the United States, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Britain.

A Chapter 11 filing by Awal in New York has suggested that the bank may file for liquidation in Bahrain. According to its court filing, Awal has assets valued at most at $100 million and liabilities of more than $1 billion. Under Bahrain law, the administrator has until the summer of 2011 to decide whether to liquidate Awal or return it to its owners.

Assuming that the bankruptcy filing was made with the consent of the Bahrain Central Bank, the filing suggests that Bahrain has decided that Awal is beyond salvation and should be liquidated. In its filing, Awal asserts that after payment of the administrators and other immediate expenses, it will not be able to compensate its unsecured creditors, who number somewhere between 60 and 100 and include: Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, AlGosaibi Money Exchange, Bank of Montreal, Bayerische Hypo-und Vereinsbank, Bayerische Landesbank, Boubyan Bank, Calyon Corporate and Investment Bank, Commercial Bank of Kuwait, Commercial Bank of Qatar, Commerzbank, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Fortis Bank, Gulf International Bank, HSBC, HSH Nordbank AG, JP Morgan, Kuwait Finance House and The International Banking Corporation.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Judicial Reform in Saudi Arabia: A Battle of the Fatwas


A spate of recent religious opinions and court rulings ranging from the bizarre to endorsement of mutilation issued by prominent Saudi sheikhs and judges highlight the difficulty King Abdullah faces in clamping down on fatwas and codifying the kingdom's largely unwritten Islamic legal regulations. James M. Dorsey reports

In response to disputed religious opinions and court rulings in Saudi Arabia, king Abdullah has intervened repeatedly in recent months to ensure that none of the more outrageous legal opinions and rulings were implemented and has curtailed media access of their authors.

In doing so, Abdullah appears to be gaining the upper hand in his battle to push through sweeping legal reform and codification of Saudi law needed to meet World Trade Organization and human rights standards, encourage foreign investment, standardize legal practice and grant courts enforcement powers.

Restructuring of the court system

Abdullah recently won a major victory when the kingdom's top religious body endorsed his reform and codification proposals. Abdullah also decreed that only members of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars were authorized to issue fatwas in a bid to halt religious rulings that embarrass the kingdom. Abdullah last year removed Sheikh Saleh al Luheidan from his post as head of the Supreme Judicial Council because the ultraconservative cleric was obstructing implementation of the king's proposed restructuring of the court system.

Lawyers and analysts say the recent spate of controversial fatwas constitute an attempt to thwart Abdullah's efforts by his opponents within the royal family and conservative clerics who fear that they could undermine Saudi Arabia's puritan interpretation of Islamic law as well as the independence of judges by making them adhere to written rules and regulations. "The traditional establishment is by nature against these reforms. So it's going to take time to implement them," said Riyadh-based lawyer Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh.

Opposition to the principle of retribution

In the latest ruling sparking international concern, Saudi judge Sheikh Saud Al-Yousef ordered a man to be paralyzed in retribution for injuries he allegedly caused with a meat cleaver during a fight two years before the verdict. Applying the principle of 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth', the judge ruled that the man should be injured at the same place on his spinal cord to cause identical crippling damage to what he inflicted on his victim, 22-year-old Abdul-Aziz al-Mitairy.

Al-Mitairy had petitioned the court in the town of Tabuk to replace its sentencing of his attacker to seven months in prison with an equivalent punishment in accordance with the Islamic principle of qisas, or retribution. Past Saudi applications of qisas have involved eye-gouging, tooth extraction, and death in cases involving murder. Two Saudi hospitals, including Riyadh's prestigious King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, rejected the judge's request that they implement his ruling.

In a statement condemning the ruling, Amnesty International said another hospital had advised the judge that it was medically possible to administer to the perpetrator an injury identical to the one that he caused. "Under international human rights law, the use of this sentence would constitute a violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," the statement said, suggesting that the court instead imprison, fine or flog the condemned man.

In response, officials say Abdullah persuaded Al-Yousef to deny that he had seriously considered ordering the mutilation. Al Riyadh newspaper quoted the judge as saying that "the proceedings in this case are still pending and no verdict had been issued in that regard." Al-Yousef said the court had queried hospitals and other authorities about surgical paralysis in order to convince the plaintiff that it would be impossible to carry out such a medical procedure. "The plaintiff was demanding punishment of the attacker, and the judicial ruling in this case only includes the plaintiff's eligibility for blood money," Al-Yousef said.

The hot and curious issue of gender mixing

At about the same time, Saudi authorities pulled on Abdullah's instructions the plug on the daily radio program of Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a cleric and royal court adviser who earlier this year earned notoriety by decreeing that women could give men breast milk to avoid illicit gender mixing. "The man should take the milk, but not directly from the breast of the woman," Obeikan was quoted. "He should drink it and then becomes a relative of the family, a fact that allows him to come in contact with the women without breaking Islam's rules about mixing." Islamic tradition stipulates that breastfeeding establishes a degree of maternal bond, even if a woman breast feeds a child who is not her own.

In a separate incident, the kingdom's most senior religious scholar, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheik, ordered a preacher to shut up after he issued a fatwa calling for a boycott of the Panda supermarket chain because it employs women as cashiers. The fatwa forced the chain to reassign 11 of its 16 female cashiers who were part of a pilot project to employ females in a country where women are prevented from working in gender mixed environments, according to Panda spokesman Tarik Ismail.

The preacher, Sheikh Yousuf Ahmad, known for his strident opposition to gender mixing, had earlier suggested that only Muslim maids could work in Saudi homes. He also called for the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site and the world's largest mosque, to be demolished and rebuilt to ensure segregation between the sexes in the shrine.

The Islamic Affairs Ministry, in a further curtailing of clerical power, ordered clerics to keep their Friday sermons short and smart. Azam Shewair, a ministry official, warned clerics they would face punishment if they didn't trim their speeches, including forced training or having their paychecks docked. Shewair said clergymen needed to keep in mind that elderly or sick worshipers may not be able to sit and listen to hour-long speeches filled with their words of wisdom.

New sources of legitimacy

A debate on the ministerial edict in the Saudi Gazette suggests a generational divide among Saudi religious scholars with older clerics displaying contempt for their younger colleagues whom they dismiss as a bunch of uneducated rabble who need to be cut down to size. "The impact of the sermon is not measured by its length but by the eloquent, concise and precise wording," said Saleh Humaid, a ranking cleric. "Imams should refrain from flowery and bombastic language and delve directly into the core of their sermon."

Another scholar accused some clergy of copying and pasting Friday sermons from books or the Internet and reading them out loud without even understanding what they're saying. Yet others suggested that clerics needed to improve their writing skills. "Some of them elaborate on the topic by repeating themselves and going around in circles," Ahmad Mawrai, a Saudi professor, told the Gazette. "In many cases they jump from one topic to another. This is why their sermons are tedious and boring."

The debate over the rules that govern the issuing of fatwas reflects King Abdullah's recognition and a growing body of public opinion that Wahhabisim, the kingdom's puritan version of Islam, hinders the development of a modern state capable of competing in the 21st century and catering to people's needs. Five years ago, bizarre and obscure fatwas would have been seriously debated rather than ridiculed and condemned.

Many Saudi clergymen have yet to recognize that Abdullah's legal reform offers them an opportunity to consolidate their influence. Yet, they seem more intent on scoring own goals that undermine their public credibility and ultimately could signal the decline of clerical power in Saudi Arabia. In doing so, the clergy could be opening the door for the House of Saud to identify new sources of legitimacy that go beyond their historical reliance on Wahhabism.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

World Cup 2022: A Middle East Game Changer?

By James M. Dorsey

With its winning of the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar may face both its greatest challenge and biggest opportunity in positioning itself as a maverick regional peacemaker and agent of change.

Soccer constitutes for Middle Eastern regimes a double-edged sword. Only soccer commands the kind of deep-seated emotion evoked by Islam. And in a world of predominantly repressive regimes, soccer together with Islam provides the only public space for pent-up anger and frustration. Managing the national, ethnic, religious and social fault lines that soccer in the Middle East highlights could make cooling down football stadia in temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius the least of Qatar’s worries.

A look at the Gulf Cup that ended in Aden on Sunday as well as Middle Eastern soccer’s walk up to this year’s World Cup in South Africa tells all. To many residents of southern Yemen, which united with the north in 1990, the Gulf Cup highlighted the very reasons why southerners support cessation. It also highlighted the effect of political control of the game by regimes bent on retaining power. To southerners, Yemen’s national team represented the country’s most powerful government-aligned tribes rather than the nation. That sense was reinforced by the fact that southerners were virtually excluded from participation in the organization of the cup.

The picture is no better elsewhere in the Middle East where spectators in Lebanon have been barred from soccer games since the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; Palestinians can’t compete because of Israeli travel restrictions; Iran and Iraq’s performance has been hampered by political interference; players on Egypt’s national team have to prove not only their soccer skills but also their religious devotion; and Saudi players struggle to maintain international standards because the government discourages players from joining foreign clubs. The world’s most violent derby between Cairo archrivals Al Ahly and Zamalek constitutes an epic struggle over nationalism, class and escapism. Women’s soccer is a continuous fight for its existence in a chauvinist, male dominated world in which women playing the game is at best controversial and at worst blasphemous.

If anyone can rise to the challenge a World Cup in the Middle East poses, it is Qatar, a maverick oil-rich Gulf state that maintains close ties to Islamic radicals while hosting a US military base and has rewritten the Middle East’s heavily controlled media landscape with Al Jazeera’s often no-holds barred reporting. Qatar’s successful bid could prove to be with FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s help the monkey wrench that forces Middle Eastern rulers to recognize opportunities offered by sports to manage the region's many fault lines.

The Middle East is riper than ever for a contribution by Blatter, who has successfully imposed his will on notoriously intransigent Middle Eastern leaders seeking to control the game. Take Middle East peace for example. Blatter could engineer Israel’s return to playing World Cup qualifying games in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) against Middle Eastern teams rather than as it does against European squads in UEFA since the Arabs four decades ago forced its ouster from the AFC.

International tennis has paved the way for Blatter to force the issue. Three Israeli tennis players appeared this year at the ATP World Tour and World Tennis Association tournaments in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates despite the two countries’ formal ban on sports encounters with Israel and Israeli passport holders crossing their borders.

If Israel drew for example Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen or Iraq, governments would be hard pressed to prevent their teams from playing. Stopping their teams would cost their squads valuable points and reduce, if not eliminate, their chances of reaching the Asian and World Cup finals.

The teams would face censure from FIFA, which in turn could spark riots as soccer did in Tehran in 1998 and 2001. So deep-seated is soccer passion that governments would be acting at their own peril and would likely conclude that they have no alternative but to allow their teams to play Israel. By doing so, they would effectively recognize the Jewish state and offer Middle Eastern soccer fans a picture of Israelis that differs substantially from widespread preconceptions.