Fan pressure emerging as focal point of dissident in Saudi Arabia
James M. DORSEY
Saudi Arabia’s al-Shabab player Sebestian Tagliabue (C) heads the ball past an opponent during an AFC Champions League match at King Fahad stadium. AFP photoFootball, alongside minority Shiite Muslims and relatives of imprisoned government critics, is emerging as a focal point of dissent in Saudi Arabia, which is struggling to fend off the waves of change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa despite a ban on demonstrations.
Fan pressure is evolving as a potent tool in the absence of the right to protest. It follows intermittent demonstrations and at times deadly clashes with security forces in the kingdom’s predominantly Shiite Eastern Province that hosts its major oil fields as well protests by family members of activists imprisoned for lengthy periods of time without being charged.
In the latest assertion of fan power, a Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution has demanded the resignation of Prince Faisal bin Turki, the owner of storied Riyadh club Al Nasser FC and a burly nephew of King Abdullah who sports a mustache and chin hair. A YouTube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly being pelted and chanted at as he rushed off the football pitch after rudely shoving a security official aside.
The campaign against Prince Faisal follows last year’s unprecedented resignation of Prince Nawaf bin Faisal as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF), the first royal to be persuaded by public pressure step down in a region where monarchial control of the sport is seen as politically important.
Prince Nawaf’s resignation led to the election of a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid al-Harbi – who is widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women’s football – in a country that views free and fair polling as a Western concept that is inappropriate for the kingdom. Prince Nawaf retained his position as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the senior official responsible for youth welfare that effectively controls the SFF.
Nevertheless, the resignation of Prince Nawaf and the campaign against Prince Faisal has gained added significance in a nation in which the results of premier league clubs associated with various members of the kingdom’s secretive royal family are seen as a barometer of their relative status, particularly at a time that its septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders prepare for a gradual generational transition.
“The Saudis are extremely worried. Football clubs rather than the mosque are likely to be the center of the revolution. Kids go more to stadiums than to mosques. They are not religious, they are ruled by religious dogma,” said Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad, who heads the Gulf Institute.
Al-Ahmad was referring to the power of clerics preaching Wahhabism, the puritan interpretation of Islam developed by 18th-century preacher Mohammed Abdul Wahhab. Saudi Arabia’s ruling al-Saud family established the kingdom with the help of the Wahhabis who in return were granted the right to ensure that their views would dominate public life.
Sporting sources in the football-crazy kingdom say the authorities are seeking to reduce football’s popularity by emphasizing other sports like athletics and handball in policy and fundraising while at the same time preparing to professionalize and further commercialize the sport using the English Premier League as a model.
“They are identifying what talent is available in the kingdom. Football is a participatory sport. They want to emphasize the social aspects of other sports. Football won only one medal in the last Asian Games. They think they can score better in other sports. There are parallel agendas with competition about who gets the visibility,” one source said.
Football’s popularity and competition with religion was evident during the 2010 World Cup when authorities parked trucks in front of Internet and other cafes, rolled out red carpets and urged Saudis watching matches on television screens to interrupt at prayer time.
The clergy’s puritan view of life that only allowed for the emergence of football in the 1950s is under pressure with clerics being forced to retreat from their refusal to permit physical education for girls and women’s sports facilities. Saudi Arabia recently announced it would allow girls’ physical education in private schools as long as they do so in line with Islamic law. Yet, a five-year national sports plan, the kingdom’s first, currently being drafted does not make provisions for women’s sports.
In a further move, sporting sources say Saudi Arabia may be on the verge of licensing women’s football clubs that currently operate in a legal nether land often with the help of more liberal members of the royal family. These opportunities are, however, largely accessible only to women from wealthier families. The deputy minister of education for women’s affairs, Nora al-Fayez, was recently quoted as saying public schools could follow suit.
Women left behind
With sporting facilities for women almost non-existent, women are forced, for example, to jog dressed so that men cannot see their bodies. Similarly, there are no opportunities to train for international tournaments. Under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, Saudi Arabia fielded women for the first time last year – albeit expatriate ones – at an international competition during the London Olympics. In the kingdom itself, the all-woman Princess Nora Bint Abdul Rahman University is the only institution of higher education that has sports facilities, including a swimming pool, tennis court and exercise area for females.
However, it reflects gradual change. Women are prominent in various professions, will be allowed to run for office and vote for the first time in the 2015 municipal elections, were last year admitted to the more or less toothless top advisory council to the king and permitted to be sales’ clerks in female apparel shops and ride motorcycles and bikes in parks properly dressed and accompanied by a male relative. The ban, however, on driving remains in place.