Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Friday, November 25, 2022

World Cup Host Qatar a Vile Pretender

 Henry Srebrnik, [Halifax] Chronicle Herald

I’m guessing many millions of Canadian had never heard of Qatar before now. But the small Persian Gulf state has changed all that, by hosting one of the planet’s great sports spectacles: the World Cup of soccer, sponsored by its international governing body, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association).

For this small country, it is the culmination of 12 years of preparation and more than $200 billion in infrastructure spending.

Eight new stadiums have been built for the World Cup, including the 80,000-capacity Lusail Stadium, which is the biggest venue at the tournament and will host the final.

A soccer non-entity, Qatar also became only the second country to be awarded a FIFA World Cup despite having never even qualified for a previous one. It’s as if Canada were to host a world cricket match. But hundreds of the world’s finest soccer players and more than a million fans are now in the capital for the tournament.

The discovery in 1971 of the world’s largest gas field led to the transformation of Qatar, turning it into one of the wealthiest countries in the world -- the fourth richest in the world per capita -- and emboldening its leaders to see their nation not just as an appendage of its wealthier Persian Gulf neighbours.

Qataris account for just eleven per cent of the country’s total population, vastly outnumbered by the 2.4 million foreigners who live among them. They sit atop the social ladder, their status demonstrated by the expensive cars they drive, the season’s designer handbags that hang on the wrists of women, the soaring salaries and leading positions afforded to Qataris by state-funded institutions.

But Qatar’s position as the tournament host has not been without controversy. Reports by investigative journalists have linked the FIFA leadership with corruption, bribery, and vote-rigging. Multiple FIFA board members are alleged to have accepted bribes to swing the vote to Qatar. The country in effect “bought” the 2022 tournament.

As well, there were objections to Qatar’s political system. It is ruled by the House of Thani as a hereditary monarchy. The head of state and chief executive, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the current emir, holds nearly all executive and legislative authority, as well as controlling the judiciary.

But most criticism of Qatar has revolved around its extremely poor human rights record, from the death of migrant workers and the conditions many have endured in Qatar, to LGBTQ and women’s rights in a country that criminalizes homosexuality.

Qatar relies on low-income workers from South Asia and Africa, who often work grueling hours for meager pay and sometimes face outright abuse. They are described, with only slight exaggeration, as slave labour. They are often banned from entering the malls where Qatari citizens purchase luxury goods and eat at western food outlets. Salaries depend on where you come from and which passport you hold.

London’s Guardian newspaper in February 2021 published the results of an investigation that concluded that 6,500 migrant workers had died in the country since the World Cup was awarded in 2010. Trade unions are prohibited and the media is strictly regulated so little of this is reported.

Qatar World Cup 2022 secretary general Hassan Al-Thawadi has disputed these figures. Asked if the 2022 tournament was “sportswashing,” he maintained that it “could not be further from the truth.” The Qatari government said in a statement that the mortality rate among these communities “is within the expected range for the size and demographics of the population.”

The emirate’s Preventive Security Department forces have arbitrarily arrested lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and subjected them to ill-treatment in detention, Human Rights Watch reported in October. As a requirement for their release, security forces mandated that transgender women detainees attend conversion therapy sessions at a government-sponsored “behavioural healthcare” centre.

Qatari officials have bristled at much of the criticism, arguing that the country is being unfairly singled out in a manner that suggests an undercurrent of racism.

Hosting soccer’s premier event in an Arab and Muslim-majority country for the first time “is a truly historical moment and an opportunity to break stereotypes about our region,” Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, asserted.

Qatar wants to increase its international footprint, particularly in the Middle East. For example, it funds the influential Al Jazeera television network, founded in 1996, which broadcasts worldwide. The bid to host the World Cup was another step in this quest, one component of a much broader strategy intending to position Qatar as a significant regional actor.

 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Challenges Facing the ASEAN Alliance

  By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attended a flurry of international meetings across four countries this month. It started on Nov. 12 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for a leaders’ meeting at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

Canada is in trade negotiations with the 10-country bloc, which makes up Canada’s sixth largest trading partner, and Trudeau announced $333 million in new funding for various programs.

ASEAN membership has proven stable and mutually beneficial despite the diversity of its members. They are large (Indonesia, Malaysia) and small (Singapore); rich (Brunei) and poor (Laos); closely affiliated with the United States (Thailand, the Philippines) or much more aligned with China or Russia (Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam). They span a wide range of religious, cultural, and economic characteristics.

ASEAN has finally agreed to grant accession to Timor-Leste, or East Timor, the nation occupying half the island of Timor, which applied for membership after gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002.

When ASEAN was formed in 1967, the nations of Southeast Asia had been riven by disputes. Indonesia and Malaysia had fought a low-grade border war on the island of Borneo, and Malaysia and the Philippines were also at loggerheads over conflicting territorial claims. War still raged in nearby Indochina, threatening the stability of the entire region.

At the initiative of Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman of Thailand, he and his counterparts from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore convened to explore the creation of an organization that would enable these neighbors to strengthen their regional relationships, bring peace and prosperity to their citizens, and avoid open conflict when disagreements arose.

At the conclusion of the summit, the ministers signed what became known as the Bangkok Declaration, announcing the formation of ASEAN. Then, starting in 1976, ASEAN heads of state began attending summits, and they also created a secretariat whose leadership also passes among its members.

In 1992, the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) was signed, leading to the phased elimination of tariffs and customs duties on trade between the countries and in 2009, an ASEAN human rights body was established. ASEAN began to engage other nations and regional groups as a bloc, signing free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand, China, India, and South Korea.

But ASEAN now struggles to remain effective in an increasingly polarized world. It has fashioned itself as a zone of peace and neutrality, where its member states seek consensus and avoid criticizing each other. Its lack of any process for enforcing decisions on members reflects this mindset.

However, in the last decade, China’s occupation and military development of reef islands in the South China Sea has brought Beijing into direct conflict with ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines. Attempts to get China to agree to a “code of conduct” by ASEAN in the disputed areas have gone nowhere.

Beijing has simply stalled negotiations for 20 years. It also dismissed a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016 that its claims are invalid.

It has been just as evasive on problems caused by its large-scale damming of the Mekong River, whose source is in Tibet and which flows through or borders five ASEAN countries. The river is a major trade route between western China and Southeast Asia.

China has effectively destroyed ASEAN unity by picking off smaller states, such as Laos and Cambodia, which are now so dependent on Beijing’s largesse that they are more or less client states.

Even the host of next year’s summit, Indonesia, the largest ASEAN state and the one with the region’s most China-wary foreign policy, has under President Joko Widodo eagerly sought Chinese investment, loans and technology.

Meanwhile, violence in Myanmar continues to cast a shadow over ASEAN. There was no consensus over how to pressure Myanmar to comply with a five-step proposal for peace in the country. Since seizing power in a military coup in February 2021, its ruling junta has been banned from participating in ASEAN events.

In 2017 the military of the predominantly Buddhist country also began a sweeping campaign against its Rohingya Muslim minority. More than 730,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, while about 600,000 remain under oppressive rule in Myanmar.

In an effort to end the violence, the bloc’s plan, which Myanmar initially agreed to but has shown no willingness to implement, includes calls for the immediate cessation of fighting, mediation by a special ASEAN envoy, provision of humanitarian aid, and a visit to the country by the envoy to meet all sides for dialogue.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, whose country is the world largest Muslim state, takes the bloc’s rotating chair next year. He has proposed broadening the ban on Myanmar leaders beyond summits, something urged by human rights groups.

“Indonesia is deeply disappointed the situation in Myanmar is worsening,” he stated. “We must not allow the situation in Myanmar to define ASEAN.”

Singapore and Malaysia, and at times Brunei, all with large Muslim populations, backed Indonesia’s calls for strengthening the measures against Myanmar. However, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, all Buddhist nations, have been pushing back against the Indonesian proposal. It won’t be easy.

 

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Democrats Effectively Won Midterms

By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The American midterm elections did not turn out as Republicans had expected nor as many polls had predicted. Instead of a “red tide,” the electorate delivered a ripple and a very small majority in the House of Representatives for the GOP. Democrats retain control of the Senate even with a December runoff in Georgia still pending. The two chambers of Congress will be divided.

I won’t go into the minutiae of individual wins and losses, or longwinded analyses of races in individual states. Enough has already been written since the Nov. 8 contests to fill several bookshelves.

BLAME TRUMP

A lot of the fault lies with Donald Trump, that’s for sure, and most high-profile candidates he endorsed went down to defeat. It’s possible the Republicans otherwise could have won the Senate and a bigger majority in the House. Already many of his erstwhile supporters have now turned on him, as the party grapples with an underwhelming performance. They now look to Ron Desantis, who won re-election as governor of Florida by a landslide, as their great hope for 2024.

Trump seems to be one of those people who think they are indispensable. They’d rather lose as a candidate than have some other Republican – even one with similar views – become president. A solid and devoted core of his supporters appears ready to follow Trump wherever he leads again, even if into defeat.

But even if Trump retires to Mar-alago, it still feels like the United States is moving in the same direction as Canada: a left-of-centre country with the right-wing party a permanent minority, winning power occasionally nationwide while remaining very popular only in certain regions. In Canada, that would be the prairies, in the United States, the south and far western Rocky Mountain states.

RURAL DIVIDE

The big cities in both countries, are now a world apart, culturally, demographically, economically, and geographically, from the rural and small towns in what has become the political hinterlands – “flyover country.” And they vote solidly against the Republicans in the U.S. and the Conservatives in Canada.

The political left-of-centre has a hammerlock on them, and in American presidential and statewide Senate contests, where it’s “winner take all,” urban populations in vote-rich states typically outnumber rural residents. The result is Democratic victories.

Apparently younger voters in the U.S. came out in greater numbers than predicted, or in previous elections, and voted solidly Democratic. The results should give Republicans cause to worry. The cultural, educational, and media institutions in the United States all tilt “progressive,” and, as many writers have noted, politics is downstream from culture.

“Give me a child till he is seven years old,” remarked Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order, “and I will show you the man.”

PERMANENT MAJORITY

The economy alone should have beaten the Democrats by a red wave, but the Democrats effectively painted the Republican Party as a danger to democracy and human rights, perhaps even “semi-fascist,” in President Joe Biden’s words. The Supreme Court decision to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which made abortion legal across the country was a particularly decisive issue that worked against the GOP.

In Canada, Justin Trudeau will take heart and think that, despite his many foibles, he can beat Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre in the next federal election. In the U.S., the real test will come in 2024, if Trump is no longer dragging Republicans down.

If a Desantis sort of nominee loses to a Biden-type Democrat, assuming Biden is gone, the onward march of demography — younger and more diverse ethnic populations in urban centres — will prove unbeatable, and the Democrats will be a permanent majority, with Republicans retaining House seats in mainly rural areas of diminishing population.

“We’ve won seven of the last eight elections in the popular vote, we’ve got more registered, we have a new crop of young people every year, plus the fact that 70 per cent of eligible voters are either women, people of colour, or 18 to 25 year olds, or a combination of the three,” left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore told London’s Guardian. “That’s the Democratic party’s base.”

To overcome this, Republicans would need, in the words of a Polish Communist in the 1970s exasperated that his fellow citizens hated Communism, “a new population.”