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Female flag carriers, the Olympics and the Arab World 30, July 2012

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Middle East.
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As a devout opening and closing ceremony skeptic, I missed the first fifteen minutes of the London Olympics opening jamboree sure in the knowledge that they’re all naff, incomprehensible wastes of money or in the case of Beijing, a freakish show of iron population control and a waste of money. Curiosity got the better of me, however, and after I started watching I was enthralled.

After the theatrics had finished– James Bond with Queen Elizabeth II and all – I watched the start of the athlete procession planning to switch off and finally go to bed. But again, this too was oddly compelling and I noticed that there were a surprising number of female athletes as flag carriers for Arab countries.

It started off surprisingly strongly. After Algeria’s typical male opening Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, and Djibouti (of all places) were led out by ladies. Iraq and Jordan followed too with female flag bearers.

Eventually, with Qatar and Somalia surprising many by being led by female athletes, the final tally for the Arab world was nine out of the twenty-two nations being female-led, more than double the 2008 Olympic tally of four female flag bearers for Arab States.

Does it mean anything?

Given the near-parity of females to men leading out the teams in a region that is resolutely male-dominated, clearly something is afoot. Is the answer as simple as ‘the Arab Spring’? Do states’ athletic federations, extensions of the governments, feel obliged to field female flag bearers as some kind of notion that they are ‘moving with the times’? It is tempting to make such a conclusion, and there may be something to it, but aside from vague notions that this ‘might make sense’, there is no evidence on which one can draw.

A more fruitful approach would be to look at the states individually to discern if any rhyme or reason can be found.

The countries

No-one is surprised that Qatar led with a female athlete. Indeed, given the influence of Sheikha Moza here for many years now, QF’s emphasis on female empowerment, and the ever upcoming 2022, it would have been a surprise had they not led with a female athlete. This is wholly in keeping with the ‘Western-friendly’ face that Qatar likes to present at these jamborees. It is likely that they can’t make much of a splash on the pitches, fields, mats, and pools, but they can in other ways. Moreover, when you’re bordered by a luddite-like state like Saudi Arabia, I’m always convinced that the Qataris can’t resist poking and prodding away, noting that while they may be of the same religious denomination, they are nevertheless vastly different.

After being led out by a lady in Beijing, the UAE reverted to a man this year (who was dressed like some kind of paramilitary-type: very odd). I doubt that there’s much significance to this and while one could make jibes about the UAE trying to maintain a highly traditional status quo (to wit: Al Islah) above all else, this may be a digression too far.

Great play has been made of the fact that Saudi Arabia finally sent women to the Games. And they should be congratulated on this. But I almost think that they should leave their female athletes at home if they’re going to make them walk x paces behind the men; a truly medieval moment there, I thought, revealing a bit too much about the underlying mindset. And as for KSA’s bitter protests that they will withdraw their team if their female athlete cannot wear her hijab in her event, I truly can’t explain in words how little I would care if KSA withdraw. I utterly fail to see why anyone is giving this temper-tantrum the slightest attention.

No-one is overly surprised that Bahrain had a female flag carrier. It was thus in Beijing and this time around I’m not sure whether Bell Pottinger or Qorvis gave them any choice.

Seeing as Egypt can’t even arrange to buy non-knock off kit, I doubt that anyone could entertain a conversation about  have a lady leading them out or not so they stuck to the norm. And otherwise in North Africa, aside from Morocco, it was as per usual.

But perhaps most surprisingly of all, what were the odds that Djibouti and Somalia would have female athletes leading the states out? Forgive my naivety and my resort to cliché, but these places don’t seem to be the most advanced places in terms of equality. Granted, it was a fifty-fifty choice for the Somali team with only two competitors, but still, they went for the lady; good for them. A good image to show to the world at least.


So, does this mean anything? I suspect not, though I am something of an incorrigible cynic. I think that a wave of feminism would be one of the greatest waves that could fall over the Middle East, but it does not appear to be that close at hand. As ever, it is one step forward and any number backwards. Certainly it is a good sign that KSA sent women for the first time; hopefully they will send more next time and they’ll not be made to derisively walk behind the men.




Bahrain stripped of only ever Olympic medal 18, November 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain.
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Bahrain have only ever won one medal at the Olympics. Or, rather, they had only ever won one medal. Now, thanks to the disqualification of their Gold Medal winning athlete Rashid Ramzi for doping, the small Gulf State are, once again, looking for their first ever Olympic success.

Ramzi, a Moroccan native, won the 1500m at the Beijing Olympics only to be found guilt of using Cera, a new and illegal blood-booster drug, according to the BBC. It is easy to presume that the pressures that went with his presumably multi-million dollar allegiance switch to Bahrain forced Ramzi to cheat to win. Wether this is the case or not is, of course, nearly impossible to tell. Though it does indeed pose as something of a cautionary tale for the Gulf States many of whom seek to buy in their talent as their population base is either so small or so lazy untrained that they can not attain world standards.

Personally, I think that if proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the athlete in question willfully, knowingly and deceitfully cheated then they should be financially ruined for life. I don’t so much care about the notion that they cheated: let’s all grow up somewhat. No, I just think of the poor athlete that worked for 4 years, 360+ days per year, however many hours per day, abstaining from countless luxuries and forcing themselves to eat nothing but rice and lettuce (or whatever is it they eat) only to come 4th in the Olympics, only for their placement to be bumped up to the podium 15 months later. No adulation, no roaring crowd, no fame, no raising of the flag, no teary glory, no affirmation of their life’s work and perhaps no funding next year; instead, all they get is a medal delivered by Fex-Ex.

Stories like this and those where athletes that miss out on glory by 0.002 of a second or .01 cm or something make me wonder how there aren’t more suicides in athletics.

Hat tip: Abstract JK

Stop enlarging the Olympics 9, October 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Random.
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Rugby Sevens and Golf are the latest sports up for consideration for joining the Olympics. Moreover, they are expected to pass accreditation at the IOC HQ sometime soon, joining the regal and illustrious sports of BMX biking, beach volleyball, handball, trampolining and the ever ridiculous synchronized drowning swimming. Enough is enough. It is hard enough plumping up however many hundreds of millions of pound to stage an Olympics, renovating decrepit areas of cities and giving them exactly what they need – cycling velodromes – without having to make sure Golfing facilities are available too.

Olympiads are infamous for landing cities and countries with enormous mountains of debt (here, here, here – in a 30 second search), surely the great and the good in Lausanne can see that adding another two sports will just make this worse? And does anyone really care about a second-rate sport like Rugby Sevens? As for Golf, do we really need more occasions for rich, middle-aged usually overwhelmingly Caucasian men to strut their Pringle? Kifayyah, as they say in these parts.

Update: They’re in.

Qatar bids for 2022 World Cup 19, March 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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Qatar has officially announced that it will bid to host the 2022 World Cup. This is one plinth of a far larger strategy to – essentially – put Qatar on the international map, whilst winning friends and influencing them. Sport is one method that Qatar is using to purse this goal. They have already hosted the 2006 Asian Games, one of Tennis’ WTA Championships, and will host the 2011 Asian Cup football tournament as well as the 2010 World Indoor Athletics Championships. Additionally, no-one watching television in (what seems like) the entire Middle East can have missed adverts for Qatar’s ‘Aspire’ sports academy, which aims to train the next generation of Olympic athletes from the region.

The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new 25, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China.
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The Chinese media reaction to the Darfur crisis – caught between the old and the new.

The Chinese reaction to the criticism of their Sudanese policies has varied widely. Liu Guijin the Chinese special envoy to Africa spoke eloquently to journalists in London last week. In excellent English, he calmly and coherently made the Chinese case. China was indeed trying to help in Darfur through various meetings and other mediums. China only supplies some 8% of the weapons to Sudan, he claimed, and professed confusion as to how stories exaggerating China’s arms exporting deals come about. “Is it a misunderstanding or is it intentional?” he mused. However, he reiterated the fundamental plank of Chinese foreign policy being non-intervention and was clear that China would only go so far in terms of persuasion. This particular example is similar to the Chinese response in front of the Western media as a whole: professional and slick.

This is in stark contrast to the Chinese domestic response to the same crisis, even in the English language news in China. Take Xinhua for example, the Governmental mouth piece. To choose two of their stories covering Sudan and China, one was titled “Sudan’s FM lauds China’s role in solving Darfur issue.” At a press conference with Liu Guikin the Sudanese foreign minister gave a statement as if it was written for him by the Chinese:

“China is using its good relations with Sudan to help it solve the Darfur issue…China is not here to help Sudan in a way that will prompt the Darfur conflict to continue. China is here to help Sudan in issues regarding economic developments. China is here to help build Sudan, and China is engaged in business not only in the oil sector, but also other sector…[Commenting on some Western organizations’ threat to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games] What they should do is to solve the Darfur issue in a right direction, instead of putting more pressure on China.”

It seems that the Sudanese English language newspapers were equally on message, as quoted in Xinhua:

Sudan Vision, the largest English-language daily in terms of circulation, ran an editorial in both English and Chinese, the first of its kind by a newspaper in Sudan.

“Indeed, Chinese leadership and media refused to trail behind Western fabrications on Darfur, and have instead firmly stood in the face of pressures put on it because it is fully aware of Western attempts to capitalize on the African problem to pass its own agendas which did not change since the colonial era,” the independent daily said in the editorial.

“We have every right to mock at the flawed voices attempting tolink the Olympic Games China will host to the Darfur problem. Such cheap attempt will not affect the eligibility of China for hosting this international activity in the best manner,” the editorial said.

“We, too, appreciate China’s repeated call for political dialogue to resolve the Darfur issue, contrary to Western pressures on Sudan,” it said.

“But the way Western countries dealt with the issue, providing Darfur rebels with funds, weapons and political support, made the rebels reluctant to reach peace. Not only that, the West has continued to use rebels as pawn to achieve its target,” said the editorial.


Such flagrant bias would simply not be tolerated in Western media. Indeed, it would surely be treated with the scorn and contempt that it deserves. What is more puzzling is that China appears to realise this, at least to some extent. You don’t see them peddling this kind of insipid and transparent dialogue in the West, not that they could find (one would hope) a Western newspaper to promulgate Beijing’s line in such an obsequious manner.

Victor Mallet of the Financial Times recently wrote an interesting piece tangential to this theme. He suggested that Beijing ought to open up its media to a greater extent, to allow Chinese people to decide the pros and cons for themselves. Then, “its officials and citizens would be better prepared for the onslaught of criticism and political activism likely to be directed at Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies ahead of the Olympic Games.”

Beijing’s cautious, simplistic and anachronistic assumption that such sycophantic reporting is the safer way to proceed to minimise protest and disharmony is sure to backfire.

Firstly, if people do indeed believe such stories in their entirety then, as Mallet points out, they will be shocked and none too happy with the Western media coverage of events in the lead up to the Olympics. This will create a feeling that the Western media and thus the West are unjustly attacking China just as it is about to take centre stage in one of the most significant events in its recent history. Again, one must not underestimate the importance of the Olympics to the Chinese, in terms of the pride with which they take in hosting it and the prestige that they believe will bestowed on China because of it.

Secondly, for those who read such reports with a wry and rueful smile, the Chinese government are doing themselves no favours. Such reporting suggests gullibility on the part of the reader: not a nice assumption to be fostered upon anyone. Disenfranchising swathes of citizens (and it is surely swathes: most people don’t really take these reports seriously?) will only push them to seek more sources of news, something which the Government seeks to keep under control.

Overall, such reports smack of the old days; of absurd communist pre-Perestroika press or even of Comical Ali, where press reporting was decidedly more fiction than fact. And, to reiterate, the Chinese know better: they show that they do in their modern, fluent and professional Western media interviews. They must not think that they can keep – á la King Canute – the tide of free press and free discussion away from their citizens, it is simply not feasible and, in the long run, not advantageous.


The Beijing Olympics and China’s evolving foreign policy 14, February 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in China, Foreign Policies.
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A recent article in Foreign Affairs suggests that China is modifying its foreign policy. “Over the last two years, Beijing has been quietly overhauling its policies towards pariah states” the authors claim. They then proceed to make a very convincing case almost to the contrary of this statement. Indeed, their evidence at best suggests that China is improving its foreign policy image, without substantial changes in the nuts and bolts. Furthermore, what their ample and well researched evidence suggests to me is that Beijing is being as pragmatic as ever in the pursuit of its foreign policy.

China’s dealings with pariah states are well known. It has intimate relations with despotic North Korea, racist Zimbabwe, genocidal Sudan and terrorist-propagating Iran, to name but a few. The article, however, suggests that there is evidence that in recent times China has been playing a much more forceful hand towards these states, especially when they have fallen under international pressure. They cite many instances of China’s apparent change of foreign policy in recent years.

Regarding North Korea, amongst various other Chinese policies, the authors praise Beijing’s crucial role in forcing North Korea to the negotiating table in 2003. The singing of the UNSC resolution 1696 demanding Iranian suspension of their Uranium enrichment programme is seen – rightly – as a change in step by China. The important role of various Chinese ministers and special envoys in getting Sudan to accept foreign troops in Darfur is also a worthy argument, auguring towards a potential change in Chinese foreign policy. Also, the authors suggest that there has been a distinct cooling in Sino-Zimbabwean relations, despite the lack of significant international pressure, suggesting that China might have proceeded with this change in policy for internal reasons i.e. their overall change in foreign policy.

However, as the authors point out themselves, at every stage of these apparent changes, there were wholly pragmatic reasons for the Chinese to do so. The authors, however, do not fully appreciate explore this reasoning. In the example of Zimbabwe, with the economy plummeting and inflation rising as they have been for some time now, any Chinese investment was simply not seeing any real return. Thus, the cooling of relations between these countries is not, I would suggest, primarily because of Chinese human rights concerns, but simply motivated by basic economics: why would they invest heavily in a country with either poor or no return? The examples of Sudan and Iran can be explained by China’s increased vulnerability to international pressure, for the next year at least. It is difficult to underestimate the importance that the Olympics has for China. Whilst there are a significant number of people in the UK who are generally apathetic or even hostile to the London 2012 Olympics, people in China tend see this as an opportunity to extol China’s virtues after its century of humiliation. Indeed, as for back as 2003 there were Olympic t-shirts abounding in the markets of every Chinese town and Chinese people, when they stopped you in the street to talk (a daily occurrence), would frequently chat about the Olympics. It really is taking on a different level of importance in China. Thus, any notion that it might be branded the Genocide Olympics is a serious political concern for China. It genuinely seems likely that China would modify its international politics to some degree in order attempt to preempt or assuage the most vociferous anti-China voices and protect their Olympics from ridicule, protests and marginalisation.

These are only hypotheses. However, these are the simplest and to my mind the best explanation for China’s minor changes in foreign policy in recent years. They are an ultimately rational and pragmatic actor. When the benefits of interaction outweigh international displeasure, then China will ignore international displeasure and trade with the countries in question. However, if and when this calculation shifts – as it has done when the Beijing Olympics are considered – so does the Chinese position.