Groundbreaking voting of Saudi football chief masks revolt fears

Groundbreaking voting of Saudi football chief masks revolt fears

James M. DORSEY Hürriyet Daily News
Groundbreaking voting of Saudi football chief masks revolt fears

AFP photo

The recent election of former footballer Ahmed Eid al-Harbi as the first freely chosen head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF) in a country that views polling as an alien Western concept appears to mask regional fears of the impact of the Arab Spring.

The election also constitutes the first time that autocratic rulers have sought to reduce their identification with football in a break with a tradition that employs the beautiful game in a bid to polish their tarnished images.

“Words such as freedom of choice, equality, human rights, rational thinking, democracy and elections, are terms we came to view with high concern and suspicion. We treat them as alien ideas that are trying to sneak within our society from the outside world,” wrote columnist Mohammed al-Saif in the Arab News. “But last week an amazing and irregular event took place, in one of our sporting landmarks. The members of the General Assembly of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) have elected, through popular voting, their first president.”

Western system

Al-Harbi, a former goalkeeper of Al-Ahli SC of Jeddah is widely seen as a reformer and proponent of women’s football in a country where women are fighting to gain the right to play football.

“Saudis were witnessing for the very first time in their lives a government official being elected through what they used to consider as a Western ballot system. People eagerly followed a televised presidential debate between the two candidates the previous day,” al-Saif wrote.

The election, which al-Harbi narrowly won, took place at a time in which the need for political and economic reform is increasingly being debated openly in the kingdom even as the government is cracks down hard on its critics.

With unrest simmering among the predominantly Shiite population of Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province as well as among the families of political prisoners, the government has sought to fend off popular protest with a $130 billion program to shore up public services such as housing and create employment, particularly in the security sector.

In a commentary in the Arab News, columnist Khaled al-Dakheel warned that economic reform and addressing social needs should “be followed by other steps of reform dealing with political issues, such as elections, representation, the separation of powers, activation of the Allegiance Commission, freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, and making all people equal before the law, etc. The necessity of political and constitutional reform is due to the fact that the positive impact in people’s economic reforms, especially financial, is usually temporary because of the variable nature of their economic and social circumstances,” he said.

The writer laid out a program for political and constitutional reform in a country that identifies the Quran as its Constitution. Al-Dakheel’s program included an overhaul of the country’s bloated bureaucracy; ensuring that the longevity of long-serving officials, many of whom are members of the royal family, is based on merit rather than position; an expansion of the powers of the country’s toothless Shura (Advisory Council) to gradually transform it into an elected legislature authority; tackling issues of unemployment, foreign workers’ rights and corruption; and diversification of the economy.

Calls for reform

In the meantime, authorities this week arrested prominent writer and critic Turki al-Hamad for criticizing Islamists in a series of tweets and calling for reform. Al-Hamad charges that the Islamists “have distracted us with nonsense that we forgot the important issues, compared Islamism to Nazism and effectively called for reform of Islam.” “Our Prophet has come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is a time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed,” al-Hamad tweeted.

Activist Raif Badawi was arrested in June and is on trial for violating Islamic values, breaking shariah law on the Internet. Badawi allegedly insulted Islam by allowing debate on his website about the difference between popular and political Islam.

Fan pressure forced Prince Nawaf bin Feisal earlier this year to resign as head of the SFF following Australia’s defeat of the kingdom in a 2014 World Cup qualifier. His resignation broke the mold in a nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that sees control of football as a tool in preventing the pitch from becoming a venue for anti-government protests, distracting attention from widespread grievances and manipulating national emotions.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, autocratic leaders have associated themselves with football, the only institution in pre-revolt countries that traditionally evokes the same deep-seated passion as religion, in a bid to polish their tarnished image.

The kingdom’s ruling al-Saud family retained its grip on sports with Prince Nawaf staying on as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the senior official responsible for youth welfare on which the SFF depends alongside broadcast rights for funding.

In addition, sports remain a male prerogative in the arch-conservative kingdom. Saudi Arabia underlined its lack of intention to develop women’s sports by last year engaging Spanish consultants to develop its first-ever national sports plan – for men only.