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Thursday, June 22, 2017

Gulf crisis ties global soccer governance into knots

By James M. Dorsey

International soccer governance is tying itself up in knots with football associations grappling with the fallout of the Gulf dispute between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Qatar that lays bare the contradictions embedded in their insistence that sports and politics do not mingle.

The contradictions were evident in different responses to the Gulf crisis by world soccer body FIFA and its African affiliate, the Cairo-based Confederation of African Football (CAF). In fact, FIFA was seemingly so tied up in knots that it contradicted itself in a 24-hour span.

Asked whether the Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic embargo of 2022 World Cup Qatar would impact the tournament, FIFA president Gianni Infantino insisted that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics."

Yet, FIFA, on the same day that Mr. Infantino made his statement, waded into the escalating Gulf crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier following a request from the United Arab Emirates.

FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors.

By taking that stand, FIFA in effect was saying that sports and politics were not separate but inextricably intertwined. On an even slipperier slope, the organization also appeared to be judging the referee’s professionalism based on his nationality.

For its part, CAF, in a statement this week warned Egypt’s two top clubs, arch rivals Al Ahli FC and Al Zamalek SC, that they could be penalized if they went through with a declared boycott of BeIN Sports, the Middle East’s prime satellite sports channel that is part of the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television network.

The two clubs declared their boycott with the support of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), a CAF member and the host of CAF’s Cairo headquarters.

"The Egyptian FA fully supports the long-awaited decisions of the political administration against an entity that has repeatedly tried to harm our country. In agreement we call on all Egyptian clubs and their personnel to suspend all activities with the Qatari sports channels on all contracts or in programming in rejection of the Qatari attitude,” the EFA said in a statement.

Al Ahli and Zamalek said they were barring BeIN from their premises and news conferences as part of Egypt’s participation in the Saudi-UAE led diplomatic and economic embargo on the Gulf state.
BeIN owns the Middle East broadcasting rights for the CAF Champions League in which the two Egyptian clubs regularly feature. It also holds the region’s rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the Asian Cup, the Africa Cup of Nations, the Champions League, and the AFC Champions League.

CAF warned that neutrality and a separation of sports and politics was “part of the statutory missions of CAF and FIFA, as well as the obligations of member associations.” It said that it would be “particularly vigilant as regards respect for these principles of neutrality and independence in all future games played under its aegis.” The federation warned that its committees would monitor developments and where necessary take punitive action.

The CAF effort to uphold the fiction of a separation of sports and politics maintained almost universally among international and national sports administrators stands a chance of succeeding as long as Egypt does not follow the UAE and Bahrain in criminalizing expressions of support for Qatar. 

The Egyptian government, unlike the Gulf states, has also refrained from acting against BeIN.
Wearing a jersey of globally popular Spanish soccer giant FC Barcelona can lead to a 15-year prison sentence in the UAE and/or a fine of up to $136,000 because it carries the logo of Qatar Airways, the club’s foremost sponsor.

Not known for its press freedom, Egypt ranks among the world’s top jailers of journalists and has banned dozens of websites in the walk-up to the embargo, including Qatari-sponsored media like Al Jazeera, whose journalists it has long targeted, alleging that the network supported the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Economically dependent on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Egypt is, however, likely to support a Saudi competitor of BeIN once it is up and running. In another demonstration of the incestuous relationship between sports and politics, Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that it was launching a sports network to replace BeIN. The initiative is part of Saud Arabia’s effort to force Qatar to adopt policies aligned with those of the kingdom, which include shutting more free-wheeling media, including Al Jazeera, that are funded by the Gulf state.

Saudi Media City chairman Muflih Al-Hafatah said the new network was being establish together with Egypt and that its 11 high definition channels were “Egyptian with a 100 percent Saudi capital.” 
Mr. Al-Hafatah said the channels would charge a fee only if forced to do so because of encryption, but would ensure that it was affordable. BeIN has suffered in countries like Egypt from the fact that many could not afford its cost.

FIFA will likely be an arbitrator in the battle between BeIN and the new Saudi network. Saudi sports lawyer Majid Garoub said the kingdom was attempting to convince the world soccer body that Qatar could not be allowed to have a monopoly in regional soccer broadcasting rights.

"Due to the political situation in the region Saudi Arabia will have to negotiate with FIFA on the rights issues. We will be submitting a report on the developments and FIFA will have to look into it," Mr. Garoub said.

With other words, FIFA and various of its regional associations will be dragged into the Gulf crisis by hook or by crook even if the issue of Qatar’s World Cup hosting rights is not directly addressed. The more soccer associations get sucked into the dispute, the tougher it will be for them to maintain that sports and politics have nothing to do with one another.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The rise of Mohammed bin Salman: A mixed blessing?

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi King Salman’s appointment of his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as crown prince at the expense of his nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, could prove to be a mixed blessing for a kingdom in transition that faces significant international challenges of its own making.

Prince Mohammed’s ascendancy was never in doubt. It was a question of when rather than if. Reportedly ill and clearly feeble in his public appearances, King Salman may have wanted to ensure sooner than later that his 31-year old son would be his successor.

In doing so, King Salman appears to be taking a gamble. Prince Mohammed has garnered popularity among Saudi youth, many of who feel that his ascendancy puts in office a member of the ruling Al Saud family who because of his age is more attuned to their aspirations.

The prince has introduced, to the chagrin of religious ultraconservatives, entertainment, including music concerts, theatrical productions, film showings and comedy performances, in a country in which culture was largely limited to traditional, religious and tribal expressions. He has also signalled his support in principle for lifting the ban on women’s driving and other rollbacks of austere public codes.

The prince’s more liberal vision, part of a far broader process of change, comes, however, with a heavy price tag. Forced to restructure the kingdom’s rentier economy at a time of reduced energy prices and upgrade the country’s autocracy, Prince Mohammed’s measures sparked criticism not only from the kingdom’s Sunni Muslim ultra-conservative religious establishment, a pillar of the rule of the Al Sauds, but also ordinary Saudis who have felt the cost of change in their wallet.

The significant revamp set out in Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 plan for the future involves a unilateral rewriting of the kingdom’s social contract that offered a cradle-to-grave welfare state in exchange for political fealty and acceptance of Sunni ultra-conservatism’s austere moral and social codes.

Saudis have, since the introduction of cost-cutting and revenue-raising measures, seen significant rises in utility prices and greater job uncertainty as the government sought to prune its bloated bureaucracy and encourage private sector employment. Slashes in housing, vacation and sickness benefits reduced salaries in the public sector, the country’s largest employer, by up to a third.

Online protests, fuelled in part by Prince Mohammed’s acquisition of a $500 million yacht shortly after he came to office, persuaded the government in April to roll back some of the austerity measures and restore most of the perks enjoyed by government employees.

Reduced public spending and delays in payments have put two of the kingdom’s major companies, Bin Laden and Saudi Oger, in dire straits. Thousands of employees have been unpaid for months. Bin Laden workers last year burnt a bus in Mecca in protest. Oger reportedly is bankrupt and likely to go into liquidation.

On the foreign policy front, Prince Mohammed, since first coming to office in 2015, has embroiled Saudi Arabia in two major international entanglements without an exit strategy, forcing the kingdom to grope for a face saving way out.

Prince Mohammed also serves as defense minister and is the lead official responsible for the war in Yemen. Three years into the war, Saudi Arabia’s ability to effectively deploy its massive state-of the-art military acquisitions is in question. The war has dragged on producing a humanitarian crisis with large numbers of people on the verge of starvation and risks of epidemics as evident in a recent outbreak of cholera. The crisis has caused Saudi Arabia reputational damage and promises to produce a generation of Yemenis who will resent the suffering and destruction caused by the ill-fated invasion.

Similarly, the diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, initiated by Prince Mohammed and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, threatens to backfire. The ability of Qatar, a tiny state with only 300,000 citizens, to resist the embargo and the inability of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to put forward demands that stand a chance of garnering international support has turned into an embarrassment.

The US State Department took the two Gulf powers to task this week. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the strongest US language yet, that “now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf States have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”

Ms. Nauert’s comments followed a series of US steps that appeared to strengthen Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Those steps included a joint US-Qatari naval exercise, a $12 billion fighter jet deal, and a statement by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, a key demand floated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, was all but impossible.

Prince Mohammed, moreover, has failed to win substantial support in the Muslim world for the Saudi-UAE campaign. Most major Muslim nations, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia are keen to stay on the side lines. Turkey is supplying Qatar with food and has sent troops to the Gulf state.

On a third front, tension with Iran has escalated since Prince Mohammed’s rise. The prince last month poured fuel on the fire by portraying the conflict between the two Middle Eastern rivals in sectarian rather national or ideological terms and promising to take the fight to Iran itself. At least, regarding Iran, Prince Mohammed enjoys the support of the United States even if, like in the case of Qatar, much of the Muslim world does not want to be sucked into the dispute.

Prince Mohammed has his work cut out for him. To succeed in turning the Saudi economy around, blunting the sharp ends of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, and bringing the kingdom’s autocracy into the 21st century, Prince Mohammed will have to demonstrate the kind of deftness and ability to build bridges he has yet to put on display. While bold in his ambitions and willingness to gamble, he will also need to recognize the need for exit strategies.

Prince Mohammed could well prove to be the figure that pushes through the kind of change that will enable Saudi Arabia to successfully compete in the 21st century. By the same token, he could also tie the kingdom further into knots.  

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Gulf Crisis: Southeast Asia has seen it all before

Semaan Khawam: Thawrat / Source:

By James M. Dorsey

Two competing visions of ensuring regime survival are battling it out in the Gulf.

To Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the 2011 Arab popular revolts that toppled autocratic leaders in four countries and sparked the rise of Islamist forces posed a mortal threat. In response, the two countries launched a counterrevolution that six years later continues to leave a trail of brutal repression at home and spilt blood elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

Virtually alone in adopting a different tack based on former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s principle of “riding the tide of history,” Qatar, a monarchical autocracy like its detractors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, embraced the revolts and wholeheartedly supported the Islamists. The result is an epic battle for the future of the region that in the short-term has escalated the violence, deepened the region’s fissures, and put the tiny Gulf state at odds with its larger brethren.

Ironically, an analysis of political transition in Southeast Asia during the last three decades would likely prove instructive for leaders in the Gulf. At the core of people power and change were militaries or factions of militaries in the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar that saw political change as their best guarantee of holding on to significant powers and protecting their vested interests.

In the Philippines and Indonesia, factions of the military partnered with civil society to show the door to the country’s autocrat. In Myanmar, internationally isolated, the military as such opted to ensure its survival as a powerful player by initiating the process of change.

Sheikh Hamad, and his son and successor, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, have adopted the principle set forward by Southeast Asian militaries and their civil society partners with one self-defeating difference: a belief that by supporting political change everywhere else they can retain their absolute grip on power at home.

In fact, if there is one fundamental message in the two-week-old Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, it is the recognition of the two countries’ ruling elites that they either thwart change at whatever cost or go with the flow. There are no half-measures.

There is however another lesson of history to be learnt from the Southeast Asian experience: change is inevitable. Equally inevitable, is the fact that unavoidable economic change and upgrading rather than reform of autocracy like Saudi Arabia is attempting with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the driver’s seat has a limited shelf life without political change.

Gulf autocrats marvel at China’s ability to achieve phenomenal economic growth while tightening the political reigns. It’s a model that is proving increasingly difficult to sustain as China witnesses an economic downturn, a failure to economically squash popular aspirations, and question marks about massive infrastructure investment across Eurasia that has yet to deliver sustainable results and has sparked debt traps and protest across the region.

The Southeast Asian lesson is that political change does not by definition dis-empower political elites. In fact, those elites have retained significant power in the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar despite radical reform of political systems. That is true even with the rise for the first time of leaders in Indonesia and the Philippines who do not hail from the ruling class or with the ascendancy to power in Myanmar of Aung San Suu Kyi, a long-persecuted daughter of the ruling elite, who has refrained from challenging the elite since winning an election.

The bottom line is that ruling elites are more likely to ensure a continued grip on power by going with the flow and embracing political change than by adopting the Saudi-UAE approach of imposing one’s will by hook or by crook or the Qatari model of playing ostrich with its head in the sand.

The Qatari model risks the ruling Al Thani family being taken by surprise when an inevitably reinvigorated wave of change comes knocking on Doha’s door. More ominous are the risks involved in the Saudi-UAE approach.

That approach has already put the two states in a bind as they struggle in the third week of their boycott of Qatar to formulate demands that stand a chance of garnering international support. Even more dangerous is the risk that the hard line adopted by Saudi Arabia and the UAE will fuel extremism and political violence in an environment starved of any opportunity to voice dissent.

The lessons of Southeast Asia are relevant for many more than only the sheikhdoms that are battling it out in the Gulf. International support for political transition in Southeast Asia produced a relatively stable region of 600 million people despite its jihadist elements in the southern Philippines and Indonesia, jihadist appeal to some elsewhere in the region, religious and ethnic tensions in southern Thailand and Myanmar, and deep-seated differences over how to respond to Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

That support also ensured that the process of change in Southeast Asia proved to be relatively smooth and ultimately sustainable unlike the Middle East where it is tearing countries apart, dislocating millions, and causing wounds that will take generations to heal.

To be sure, Southeast Asia benefitted from the fact that no country in the region has neither the ambition nor the ruthlessness of either Saudi Arabia or the UAE.

Southeast Asia also had the benefit of an international community that saw virtue in change rather than in attempting to maintain stability by supporting autocratic regimes whose policies are increasingly difficult to justify and potentially constitute a driver of radicalization irrespective of whether they support extremist groups.

Former US President George W. Bush adopted that lesson in the wake of 9/11 only to squander his opportunity with ill-fated military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, a flawed war on terrorism, and a poorly executed democracy initiative. The lesson has since been lost with the rise of populism and narrow-minded nationalism and isolationism.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Gulf Crisis Grappling for a face saving solution

By James M. Dorsey

A two-week old conflict in the Gulf goes to the core of key issues in international relations that hamper the fight against political violence and govern diplomatic relations: the absence of an agreed definition of terrorism that allows autocrats to abuse efforts to counter extremism by repressing non-violent critics and the ability of small states to chart their own course and punch above their weight.

Proponents of maintaining the term terrorism as a multi-interpretable catchall phrase argue that one man’s terrorist is another’s liberation fighter. While that is no doubt true, it applies to persons and groups that see violence as a legitimate tool but misses the mark when applied to non-violent critics, particularly proponents of a pluralistic, democratic environment and/or forms of Islamic governance that challenge monarchical autocracy.

Authoritarian leaders like the Gulf ruling families, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Egyptian-general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi have a vested interest in either imposing their definition of terrorism on the international community or preventing it from adopting a definition. 
The absence of a definition has allowed them to brutally suppress basic human rights, including freedoms of expression and the media, and to put tens of thousands of non-violent critics behind bars.

Bahrain this week, in a bid to pressure the United States to adopt the Saudi-UAE definition of terrorism that includes any group, violent or not, that challenges government or potentially questions their autocratic rule, expelled Qatari military personnel working at a US military base on the island state. The expulsion was the first indication that the Gulf crisis could affect the US defensive umbrella for the region as well as operations to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In a twist of irony, Bahrain’s minority Sunni Muslim ruling Al Khalifa family relies on support of the 
Muslim Brotherhood, a main target of the Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar, to counter opposition from the Gulf state’s Shiite majority. Yet, it has been exempted from the ire of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Bahrain joined the Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar and accused Doha of seeking to overthrow its government.

There is little doubt that Qatar maintains ties to jihadist militants as does Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, there is also little doubt that the Saudi-UAE effort to force Qatar to adopt their sweeping definition of terrorism would undermine US-backed efforts to maintain a back channel to militants.

In one such instance, the US State Department in a letter to US Republican Congressman Peter J. Roskam during the 2014 Gaza war noted that Qatar was important in efforts to get Hamas, the Islamist group that traces its roots to the Muslim Brotherhood and controls Gaza, to accept a ceasefire with Israel. The department further pointed out that Qatar was also funding the internationally recognized Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

“We need countries that have leverage over the leaders of Hamas to help put a ceasefire in place. Qatar may be able to play that role as it has done in the past,” Assistant Secretary for Legal Affairs 
Frifield said in the letter. At the same time, Ms. Frifield admitted that the US was pushing Qatar to be more compliant in its crackdown on funding of political violence, which she described as “inconsistent.”

Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, but not the United Nations. The EU has kept Hamas on its terrorism list despite a controversial EU court ruling that it should be removed.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear, two weeks into the boycott of Qatar, to be struggling to present Qatar with their demands or what Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir termed “grievances.” While there was no explanation why demands had not yet been tabled, it seemed likely that the two Gulf countries were trying to establish which demands stood a chance to garner international support. They have said they would put forward their demands within days.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have signalled through their media and various statements by officials that they want Qatar to break its ties to Islamists, including the Brotherhood and Hamas, as well as shutter Qatar-sponsored media, first and foremost among which the Al Jazeera television network.
Speaking in an interview, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash lumped the Brotherhood, Hamas and Al Qaeda together as terrorist organizations and demanded that Qatar be put under some kind of international supervision.

“If we get clear strategic signals that Qatar is going to change and it will stop funding violent Islamist militants that is the basis for a discussion, but we would need a monitoring system. We do not trust them. There is zero trust, but we need a monitoring system and we need our western friends to play a role in this,” Mr. Gargash told The Guardian. In separate comments to journalists in Paris, Mr. Gargash suggested that the Saudi-UAE-led effort to isolate Qatar “may last for years.”

Many in the international community, including the United States, which could emerge as the major mediator in the Gulf crisis, are unlikely to support curbing of the press. Saudi Arabia and the UAE more over differ over the degree to which the Muslim Brotherhood poses a problem.

If that were not enough to complicate the formulation of a list of demands, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that seeking to ban the Brotherhood was all but impossible.  Speaking to the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Mr. Tillerson cautioned that designating the Brotherhood, with an estimated membership of 5 million, as a terrorist organization would “complicate matters” with America’s relations with foreign governments.

“There are elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that have become parts of governments. Those elements… have done so by renouncing violence and terrorism,” Mr. Tillerson said. He said groups affiliated with the Brotherhood that commit violence had already been added to the US terrorism list.

By breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposing an economic boycott on the Gulf state without a clear definition of demands that stood a chance to win international support, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have put themselves in a position in which they are effectively grappling for a face-saving exit strategy.

In the process, they have highlighted the danger of not clearly defining what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist not only for the rule of law and defense of human rights but also for the credibility of autocrats who abuse the void in their bid to arbitrarily impose their will.

The United States, France, Iran, Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey and Kuwait have urged both sides to quickly resolve their differences in negotiations. The calls put Saudi Arabia and the UAE further on the spot as long as they do not table a clear set of demands that resonate with the international community.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Qatar Crisis Mediators Expect Saudi, U.A.E. Proposals Soon (JMD quoted on Bloomberg)

by Fiona Macdonald  and Glen Carey

June 15, 2017, 6:03 PM GMT+8 June 15, 2017, 8:05 PM GMT+8
·       Gulf official sees signs that parties want to resolve crisis
·       Kuwait, Turkey are mediating between Qatar, Saudi-led alliance
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are expected to relay
to mediators what they want Qatar to do in return for ending
their isolation of the tiny Gulf nation, according to a Gulf official
with direct knowledge of the matter.

The proposals, which may come in the next two days, would
make it easier to end the dispute, the official said on condition of 
anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. While the two
sides are far apart at the moment, there are positive signs they’re
willing to reach a conclusion and want Kuwait to continue to
mediate, the official said, adding that Turkey was also helping.

Qatar said the absence of a clear list of demands has
complicated efforts to resolve the crisis, which escalated
this month when Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Bahrain
severed ties and transportation links with their neighbor,
accusing its government of supporting extremist groups and
cozying up to Iran. Qatar, which described the action as an
 illegal siege, has denied the charges.

“A clear list of demands will be critical toward reaching a
resolution -- without it, it’s difficult to find a starting point,”
said Allison Wood, an analyst with Control Risks in Dubai.

Saudi and U.A.E. officials didn’t immediately return requests
for comment. Kuwait has played a role in trying to end the
Gulf conflict since it started, with the country’s emir visiting
Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Qatar last week. Turkey has joined
the efforts, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu holding
talks with Qatari and Kuwaiti officials this week.

Stocks Gain

Qatar’s benchmark stock index rose after the report, closing
0.7 percent higher.

Members of the Saudi-led alliance have said nothing short of a
complete overhaul of Qatari foreign policy to stop supporting
extremist groups could restore ties. They’ve put more than 50
people and entities in Qatar on a terrorism list, and have ordered
Qatari citizens to leave their countries.

Qatar has responded by expanding trade ties with Turkey and
Iran, as well as ramping up domestic food production. Its
finance minister, Ali Shareef Al Emadi, has said the country’s
pockets are deep enough to withstand the pressure.

Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have failed to build “a real
groundswell of support by nations following suit in breaking
off relations with Qatar,” said James Dorsey, a Gulf specialist
and senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in
Singapore. Their action has been “hampered by the bad optics
of blocking the flow of food and medicine, the hardship opposed
on individuals,” and “Qatar emerging as an underdog putting up
a fight against what many may have seen as bullying,” he said.

Mixed Messages

The U.S. has sent mixed message about resolving the crisis.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially declined to take
sides, but his cautious approach was overshadowed almost
immediately by President Donald Trump -- who sent tweets
appearing to take credit for and praising the Saudi-led bloc’s

The four Gulf Arab monarchies at the heart of the dispute
are U.S. allies. Qatar hosts the regional headquarters for U.S.
Central Command, which includes a state-of-the-art air base
the U.S. depends on to target Islamic State.

In a surprising twist, Qatar on Wednesday completed a $12
billion deal to buy as many as 36 F-15 jets from the U.S.
“The mixed signals from the U.S. aren’t productive when it
comes to negotiating a settlement,’’ said Wood at Control
Risks. “The different signals will allow the various parties to
ally themselves with the individuals and departments that
support their side within the Trump administration.’’

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stepping up the pressure: Saudi strong arms Muslim nations to take sides in Gulf crisis

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia, in a first move to pressure mostly Muslim states to join its campaign against Qatar, has persuaded six sub-Saharan African nations with threats of reduced financial aid and restricted quotas for the haj, the annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, to follow its lead in taking punitive steps against Qatar.

The Saudi effort in Africa suggests that the kingdom is seeking to tighten the screws on Qatar more than a week into a Saudi and UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott that has failed to persuade the tiny Gulf state to bow to demands that it halt its support for Islamists and militants and curb, if not shutter, Qatar-funded media outlets, including Al Jazeera.

Saudi efforts, however,, despite the actions of the six countries -- Senegal, Chad, Niger, Comoros, Mauritius, and Djibouti – are proving to be only partially successful. Of the six states, only Mauritius severed its diplomatic ties with Qatar. Senegal, Chad, Niger and the Comoros restricted themselves to recalling their ambassadors from Doha while Djibouti, like Jordan, simply reduced the level of its diplomatic relations.

The six countries joined six other economically dependent nations, including Bahrain, Egypt, the Maldives, Mauritania, and the Saudi-UAE backed internationally recognized government of Libya that controls only part of the country, who had already followed the Saudi-UAE lead in breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar.

Most Muslim states hope to avoid being sucked into the Gulf crisis. Countries like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Somalia have so far rejected Saudi overtures and instead called for dialogue between Qatar and its detractors. Similarly, Nigeria, the black African nation with the largest Muslim population has so far remained silent on the crisis.

Elsewhere in the Muslim world, Pakistan insisted that it remained neutral in the dispute.  Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif accompanied by senior ministers and military commanders, joined on a visit to Riyadh the chorus of calls for a quick resolution to the crisis that have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Somalia, a strategically located, war-torn nation in the Horn of Africa, has emerged amid the mixed response to the Saudi and UAE effort as something of a mystery. Somalia has maintained neutrality despite the fact that Dubai-owned P&O Ports signed in April a $336 million, 30-year agreement to develop and manage a multi-purpose port in Bosaso in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland. The self-declared republic of Somaliland agreed weeks later to allow the UAE to establish a military base in the port of Berbera and signed a $442 million deal with P&O to turn the port into a world-class training hub.

Somali media moreover reported that President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed had rejected a Saudi offer of $80 million in return for his government breaking off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Somali planning, investment and economic development minister Jamal Mohamed Hassan announced nonetheless this week that Saudi Arabia had agreed to increase Somalia’s haj quota by 25 percent. Somalia’s strategic importance to the Gulf in commercial as well as military terms would seem to be the only logical explanation for it being rewarded despite refusing to join the Saudi-UAE campaign.

The mixed response to the Saudi effort to rally the Muslim world raises questions about the degree to which the kingdom can call in chips on the back of four decades of massive global investment in religious, educational, and political activities. Saudi difficulty in leveraging its soft power investments was evident already in 2015 when the Pakistani parliament rejected a request by the kingdom for troops to be sent to Yemen in support of its ill-fated military invasion of that country.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia’s use of its management of the haj, one of the five pillars of Islam, could have significant consequences for the Muslim world, particularly Asian countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia that are home to the world’s largest Muslim populations and have large migrant labour communities in the kingdom.

Curtailing the number of nationals allowed to make the pilgrimage risks sparking a domestic backlash, particularly among more conservative segments of society. A threat to expel migrant workers as the kingdom did in the past when it disagreed with Yemeni policies could have serious economic consequences.

In a twist of irony, however, alleged machinations of the kingdom’s closest ally, the United Arab Emirates, to thwart any expression of political Islam, may have created in Turkey the potentially greatest obstacle to the two Gulf states’ ploy to impose their will on Qatar.

Turkey, which has backed Qatar in its dispute with Saudi Arabia and the UAE and is sending up to 3,000 troops to the Gulf state, has suggested that the UAE funded last year’s failed coup aimed at overthrowing Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a watershed event in modern Turkish history.

Mr. Erdogan on Tuesday denounced the isolation of Qatar as "inhumane and against Islamic values", and said the methods used against the Gulf state were unacceptable, and analogous to a "death penalty."

Daily Sabah, a, a newspaper with close ties to the government of Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as well as anonymous Turkish foreign ministry sources accused the UAE of having pumped $3 billion into the failed coup that the president blames on Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who lives in exile in the United States.

Yeni Safak columnist Mehmet Acet quoted Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying in a recent speech that “we know that a country provided $3 billion in financial support for the coup attempt in Turkey and exerted efforts to topple the government in illegal ways. On top of that, it is a Muslim country." Mr. Acet said the minister identified the country as the UAE in a subsequent conversation.

Mr. Erdogan has, in the wake of the coup, arrested tens of thousands of his critics; dismissed up to 140,000 people from jobs in the judiciary, the military, law enforcement, civil service and education sector; declared a pro-longed state of emergency; and used the failed takeover to introduce a presidential system of government in which he has far-reaching powers.

Qatar-backed Middle East Eye reported barely two weeks after the failed coup that the UAE had used Mohammed Dahlan, a UAE-supported former Palestinian security chief with ambitions to succeed Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas, to funnel funds to Mr. Gulen.

While there is no independent confirmation of the allegations against the UAE, what is clear is that Mr. Gulen with his projection of a liberal and tolerant interpretation of Islam would fit the country’s efforts to create an alternative, anti-Salafi, anti-Islamist and anti-Muslim Brotherhood religious authority.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The longer the Gulf crisis lasts, the higher the stakes get

A Qatari LNG vessel / Source: Nakhilat

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia and the UAE appear to be contemplating engineering a military coup in Qatar with the stakes in the Gulf crisis so high that a negotiated solution may prove difficult, if not impossible.

Neither side in the Gulf divide can afford to back down or be seen to have failed in achieving its objectives.

Caving in to Saudi and UAE demands that it break its ties to Islamists and militants and curb, if not shutter, Qatar-funded media like Al Jazeera, would amount to Qatar surrendering its ability to chart its own course, and like Bahrain becoming a Saudi vassal.

Bahrain has been walking in step with the kingdom since Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Qatari support helped its minority Sunni Muslim ruling family brutally squash a popular uprising in 2011.

Similarly, neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE can tolerate a repeat of 2014 when Qatar appeared to put on public display the limits of their power by refusing to bow to the two states’ demands after they and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have this time raised the stakes by not only breaking off diplomatic relations but also declaring an economic embargo. The longer tiny Qatar with a citizenry of only 300,000 people resists Saudi and UAE pressure, the more embarrassing it is for the two Gulf states.

Amid indications that Qatar may have the political will and economic backbone despite the economic obstacles and commercial losses to hold out for some time to come, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will likely look for ways to increase pressure on the recalcitrant Gulf state.

Increased economic pressure could involve the withdrawal of Gulf deposits from Qatari banks, the closure of a partly UAE-owned pipeline that pumps Qatari gas to the UAE and Oman, and pressure on other Muslim states like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan to join them in taking punitive economic measures.

The majority of Muslim and non-Muslim nations, except for the economically dependent six nations, including Bahrain, Egypt, the Maldives and Mauritania, who joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE in acting against Qatar have sought to remain on the side lines of the dispute. States like Pakistan and Bangladesh are, however, vulnerable because they rely to a significant extent on migrant workers’ remittances in the Gulf for their foreign currency reserves.

US President Donald J. Trump has come closest among outside powers to endorsing the Saudi-UAE-led action, but even he has so far refrained from turning words into deeds that would exert real pressure on Qatar.

Turkey and Iran are helping Qatar meet its food and water needs after Saudi Arabia closed the two countries’ land border, preventing one third of the Gulf state’s food and water imports from reaching it. Turkey, moreover, is sending troops to Qatar, which is home to the largest US military base in the Middle East, a possible reason why the US has not gone beyond words in its support for the Saudi-UAE campaign.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of predominantly Shiite Iraq appeared to also come to Qatar’s defense by countering some of the allegations that the Gulf state had funded militants. Mr. Al-Abadi told Shiite militias, according to Al Jazeera and other Qatar-controlled media, that a ransom paid by Qatar for the release of 26 members of its ruling family who were kidnapped in December 2015 while hunting in Iraq remained in Iraq’s central bank. News reports suggested that the ransom had been paid to Syrian militants and Iraqi security officials and was one straw that broke the Saudi and UAE camel’s back.

Oman, one of two Gulf states to have refrained from joining the Saudi-UAE campaign, has opened its ports to Qatari shipping that no longer can access key Saudi and UAE ports. Qatar maintains its access to international shipping lanes and can refuel its LNG vessels at alternative ports, including Singapore.

The UAE, with Qatar’s ability to retain its energy exports, its main source of revenue, undeterred would be damaging itself if it closed the partly Abu Dhabi pipeline from Qatar that supplies Dubai with 40 percent of its natural gas requirement.

International ratings agency Standard & Poor (S&P) reported that Qatari banks were strong enough to survive a withdrawal of all Gulf deposits plus a quarter of the remaining foreign funds the banks keep.

Deposits and other funding sources from Gulf countries represent about eight percent of total liabilities of Qatari lenders or $20 billion, S&P said. It said that in a worst-case scenario, only two lenders of Qatar’s 18 lenders would have to dip into their investment securities portfolio.

Failure to force Qatar on its knees any time soon would force Saudi Arabia and the UAE to look at other ways of forcing Qatar to comply, including regime change, either by invading the tiny Gulf state or engineering an internal coup.

UAE state minister for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash insisted last week that the Saudi-UAE campaign was “not about regime change -- this is about change of policy, change of approach."

Saudi and UAE media reports nonetheless suggest that the Gulf states may be gunning for a coup given that unlike in the case of Bahrain and the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015, the legitimate, internationally recognized government of Qatar is unlikely to seek their military assistance.

In the latest episode of the Gulf  media war, Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah-based Arab News, in the clearest sign yet that, the kingdom and the UAE were fishing in Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim’s military backyard, this week published an interview with retired General Mahmoud Mansour, an Egyptian military officer whom Saudi and Egyptian media described as the father of Qatari intelligence.

General Mansour has long been on the war path against Sheikh Tamim, and his father, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who abdicated as emir in 2013. General Mansour asserted that Sheikh Hamad and his long-standing prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber bin Mohammed bin Thani Al Thani, had attempted to foment unrest across the globe in the Gulf, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Russia.

Speaking separately to Al Arabiya, the Saudi tv network established to counter Al Jazeera, General Mansour accused Qatar of aiding and abetting Iranian efforts to penetrate the Arab world. “Iran needed to penetrate some Arab countries, needed an Arab force to introduce them more and more within the Arab fabric, so it addressed her intentions through the friend who lost their mind, Qatar,” General Mansour said.

UAE newspapers reported earlier that a little-known member of Qatar’s ruling family, Sheikh Saud bin Nasser Al-Thani, who lives in Europe was forming an opposition party in exile.

Despite criticism of the emir, Qataris largely appeared to be rallying around the government in rejection of the effort to force their country to surrender its ability to graft its own policies.

It was not clear whether General Mansour maintains close contacts within the Qatari military and intelligence community.

An effort to replace Sheikh Tamim with a member of the ruling family more amenable to Saudi policies would not be the first time the kingdom has tried to influence who rules Qatar. In a gesture to former Saudi King Abdullah, Sheikh Hamad pardoned in 2010 a group of Saudis for their involvement in an attempted coup to overthrow him in 1996.

Qatar by holding out against Saudi Arabia and the UAE and garnering international support for a negotiated solution to the crisis is raising the stakes in what increasingly amounts to a risky poker game. Both the kingdom and the emirates feel emboldened and believe they need to strike while the iron is hot.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Gulf crisis: A battle for the future of the Middle East and the Muslim world

Sheikh Al-Madkhali and General Haftar / Source Libya Tribune

By James M. Dorsey

A Saudi and UAE-led campaign to force Qatar to halt its support for Islamists and militants is little else than a struggle to establish a Saudi-dominated regional order in the Middle East and North Africa that suppresses any challenge to the kingdom’s religiously cloaked form of autocratic monarchy.

The Saudi and UAE effort goes to the heart of key issues with which the international community has been grappling for years: the definition of what and who is a terrorist and what are the limits of sovereignty and the right of states to chart their own course.

It’s a battle that has pockmarked the Middle East and North Africa since World War Two, but kicked into high gear with the 2011 popular Arab revolts. Saudi Arabia and Little Sparta, a term used by some US officials to describe the UAE, waged a concerted campaign to roll back achievements of the uprisings.

The two states’ effort has projected Saudi Arabia and the UAE as leaders in the fight against extremism. Yet, if successful, their campaign could empower a strand of supremacist Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that advocates absolutist, non-democratic forms of governance, and threatens to perpetuate environments that potentially enable radicalism.

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE differ in their view of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, they agree on defining political Islam as terrorist because it advocate an alternative worldview or form of governance.

The outcome of the crisis in the Gulf, these differences notwithstanding, is impacting the larger Muslim world rather than only the Middle East and North Africa. A Saudi defeat of Qatar would cement the kingdom with its advocacy of ultra-conservatism, efforts to impose globally its anti-democratic values that make a mockery of basic human rights, and exploitation of the moral authority it derives as the custodian of Islam’s two most holy cities, Mecca and Medina, as an almost unchallenged force in the Muslim world.

The irony of the Saudi-led campaign against Qatar is that it pits against one another two autocratic monarchies that both adhere to different strands of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative worldview that legitimizes the rule of Saudi Arabia’s governing Al Saud family.

Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, governed by an absolute ruler, who keeps a tight rein on politics and freedoms of expression and the media, is an unlikely candidate for advocacy of greater openness and pluralism.

Yet, in many ways, the two countries are mirror images of one another. Both see strands of Islam as crucial to their national security and the survival of their regimes. Qatar, sandwiched between the Islamic republic of Iran and the Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, both of which it views as potential threats, sees political Islam, the force that emerged strongest from the 2011 revolts, as the future of a region that is in transition, albeit one that is mired in brutal violence, civil war, debilitating geopolitical rivalry, and Saudi and UAE-led counterrevolution.

Saudi Arabia, struggling with the fact that its four decade-long public diplomacy campaign, the largest in history, has let an ultra-conservative, often militant, inward-looking, intolerant genie out of the bottle that it no longer controls, sees Madkhalism, a strand of ultra-conservatism that advocates absolute obedience to the ruler, as the solution.

In doing so, Saudi Arabia is perpetuating the fallout of its public diplomacy that has been a key factor in Muslim societies such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh becoming more conservative, more intolerant towards Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, less pluralistic and less democratic.

It is a strategy that risks nurturing the kind of anti-Shiite sectarianism that serves the kingdom’s purpose in its power struggle with Iran as well as creating an environment that potentially fosters radicalism. Libya, a landscape of rival militias and governments, is an example of the Saudi strategy at work.

Much of the world’s focus on post-revolt Libya, torn apart by armed militias and ruled by rival governments, has focused on the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in the country. Yet, equally devastating for the country has been the proxy war between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt that depends on handouts from the two Gulf states for its economic survival on the one hand and Qatar on the other. Libya’s travails that created opportunity for IS are in many ways the product of battling Gulf states that support groups representing the rival strands of Islam they back.

As a result, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s darling, General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, rather than being a beacon of struggle against militant or jihadist Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism heads a force that is populated by Madkhalists, Saudi-backed ultra-conservatives that advocate a form of governance that in many ways is not dissimilar to that of the kingdom or IS.

Led by Saudi Salafi leader, Sheikh Rabi Ibn Hadi Umair al-Madkhali, a former dean of the study of the Prophet Mohammed’s deeds and sayings at the Islamic University of Medina, Madkhalists seek to marginalize more political Salafists critical of Saudi Arabia by projecting themselves as preachers of the authentic message in a world of false prophets and moral decay. They propagate absolute obedience to the ruler and abstention from politics, the reason why toppled Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi tolerated them during his rule.

Madkhalists often are a divisive force in Muslim communities. They frequently black list and seek to isolate or repress those they accuse of deviating from the true faith. Sheikh Al-Madkhali and his followers position Saudi Arabi as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

General Haftar integrated the Madkhalists into his fighting force after Sheikh Al-Madkhali called on his followers in Libya grouped in the Tawhid Brigade to join the renegade military commander in the fight against the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood. The integration of the two forces gave the Madkhalists control of key military positions in the port city of Benghazi and elsewhere in eastern Libya, according to scholar and NGO activist Ahmed Salah El-Din Ali.

Madkhalist influence in the region illustrates the kind of society Saudi-backed ultra-conservatives envision. The alliance with General Haftar has allowed them to gain control of the body that governs religion as well as mosques in areas administered by the internationally recognized government of Libya.

Madkhalist fighters, in their bid to enforce Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, have destroyed Sufi shrines and restricted Sufi religious activity in eastern Libya, Mr. Ali reported. Widely viewed as the mystical strand of Islam, Sufism is widespread in Libya.

Like in Saudi Arabia, Abd al-Razzaq al-Nazury, a military governor in the region associated with General Haftar and the Madkhalists, banned women from travelling without a mail guardian. Mr. Al-Nazury imposed the ban following a visit by Usamah al-Utaybi, a Jordanian-born Saudi Islamic scholar who was a fighter in the US and Saudi-backed jihad in the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan. An outcry on social media forced the governor to cancel the ban.

Similarly, protest on social media, according to Mr. Ali, forced authorities to release three men detained in March by General Haftar’s Madkhalist fighters for planning a public celebration of Earth Day. The fighters charged that the celebration would have been a form of un-Islamic Freemasonry that would have been immoral, indecent and disrespectful of those who had died for the cause.

Ironically, General Haftar’s association with the Madkhalists spotlights the contradictions in the Saudi-UAE-Egyptian alliance against Qatar. The UAE and Egypt share opposition to political Islam with the kingdom but see Saudi-inspired Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism as an equally potent threat.

The long and short of this is that there are no truly good guys in the battle between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Nonetheless, at the core of their high-stakes battle is a struggle over what Islam-inspired worldview will be most prominent in the Muslim world as well as the ability of Muslim nations, especially those in Saudi Arabia’s orbit, to chart a course of their own.

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 Africa as well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.