The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer (Review Middle East Monitor)
Author: James Dorsey Published: 5 Jun 2014 Publisher: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd Paperback: 256 pages ISBN-13:978-1849043311
Review by Alastair Sloan, Middle East Monitor
"I don't like football; I have absolutely zero interest in it." Strange words from a man who's just written a book called The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, James M Dorsey.
The book, which comes out in June (and is already available for pre-order), is an unusual and highly engaging look at the Middle East, seen through the eyes of an experienced journalist and resident, not a football fan but absorbed in how the game has sculpted Middle Eastern politics, and vice versa.
The Egyptian revolution against Mubarak probably wouldn't have happened without the Ultras - hardcore football fans who had four years of experience fighting the regime in their stadia after the matches.
"In the last four years prior to Mubarak the Ultras were the only continuing and organised force standing up to the regime," argues Dorsey.
The book explains how Egyptian Ultras have created a very specific ideology - at essence they view themselves as the only "real" supporters of their clubs. Players are denounced as mercenaries. Owners are often associated with the regime, counting them out too.
So, as the only "real" supporters, Ultras claim spatial and political ownership of their stadium.
In protesting the military ownership of their clubs, Ultras made spectacular displays in the stands. Aggressive support included flares, graffiti, chanting, fireworks and choreography. These demonstrations, ostensibly in support of their teams, presented a clear threat to Mubarak's regime.
"Large numbers of people were a combined strength. Loyalty to the clubs was tribal - so you've got the makings of something that can turn against the regime."
And indeed the Ultras did, providing a protection against police violence and encouraging others onto the streets.
"They played a key role in breaking down what I call the barriers of fear. Firstly they got people to leave their homes, go onto the streets and protest. Then they stood their ground in Tahrir Square and broke through the police barricades."
Dorsey is a journalist with 42-years of experience. He speaks seven languages and has lived in most of North Africa and the Middle East. Over the phone he seems a little gruff, occasionally grumpy, but mostly very friendly. Halfway through the interview, he steps outside and you can hear the rasp of a cigarette lighter and a puff of smoke blown down the phone. Is he a stereotypical hack? Not quite.
The style of Dorsey's writing is what struck me in the opening chapters - he has done a lot of reading. And not just pop sociology picked up in Waterstones on the way to Cairo or Beirut - hard analytical, political and even philosophical texts produced by leading academics. These extracts and analytical observations are intertwined with more journalistic sections - describing the fights between the hardcore Ultra fans and Mubarak's regime, or the bizarre nature of Gaddafi's football leagues. It makes for a slightly unsettling style - but once the reader adjusts, the benefits of having detailed thinking alongside descriptive sections are very compelling.
"Football has been a part of this region since the beginning of the 20th century," exclaims Dorsey. "It's been used for establishing regimes, maintaining regimes and toppling regimes."
Dorsey thinks football is a "release valve", and cites the resignation of a royal family member in Saudi Arabia in 2012 as an example. He was pressured to leave by groups organised by Saudi football fans.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has seen a huge upsurge in the popularity of football. Some have even started to question whether it is a threat to Islam. Last month, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Zobaydi, a Saudi cleric, posted a video of himself denouncing "sports fanaticism". He timed the release with a game between two of Saudi Arabia's top teams - Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal. The video has racked up 700,000 views.
Meanwhile, author and cleric Ayid Al-Qarni disagreed, tweeting to his five million followers, "To #Al-Nassr I dedicate my book 'Smile' and to #Al-Hilal I dedicate my book 'Don't be sad'."
Of course the conversation soon turns to the World Cup. Qatar was regarded as a shock decision in the West when they were chosen by FIFA to host the 2022 World Cup. Critics cited a lack of "football culture", the hot climate, even throwing about corruption allegations. But Sepp Blatter of FIFA was unequivocal in his support.
"The Arabic world deserves a World Cup. They have 22 countries and have not had any opportunity to organise the tournament," he told reporters in 2010.
Dorsey puts the negative reaction to Qatar hosting the competition as good old-fashioned post-colonial racism.
"A lot of it is shaded with envy, bigotry, arrogance and a degree of ignorance. If you look at the three years after Qatar won the bid - human rights groups have been able to publish their reports actually in Doha, which is quite rare in the Middle East.
"They've also made moves to address living conditions and even tackle the immigration cycle," he adds, referring to the onerous bureaucracy and malignant credit arrangements affecting migrant workers across the Middle East. The Qatari government is making some progress in regulating migrant worker employers and is believed to be working with the Indian government on this.
The Guardian recently published a series of investigations into working conditions for construction workers building new stadiums in Qatar, but Dorsey dismisses the enthusiastic journalism as late to the party.
"I first wrote about this issue in 1976. It's an old story. But while the Qataris knew the World Cup would give them a lot of leverage around the world, perhaps they didn't realise that it would give human rights groups and journalists a lot of leverage back."
Nevertheless, the World Cup may solidify existing football support while playing into Qatar's expansive "soft power" foreign policies.
Dorsey admits that football was once a non-entity. Until recently, Qatari and UAE clubs didn't cater to foreign nationals, only to nationals.
"The British CEO of a club in Abu Dhabi started catering to non-nationals a couple of years ago. Within a matter of months, he had quadrupled spectatorship in his stadiums."
Now, says Dorsey, there is even talk of moving the clubs out of the local sheikhs' hands and into public ownership - which would further legitimise expressions of democracy: fans acting together for a greater good. That's perilously close to democracy - which many Middle Eastern states are slowly preparing themselves for.
To pre-order a copy of James Dorsey - The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, head to Amazon.co.uk.