James M. Dorsey
After protests that has shaken the governments, the sports scene in the Middle East and North Africa needs to be reconsidered and basic attitudes should be altered
This file photo shows a challenge between Iraq’s Mehdi Agil (R) and Egypt’s Ahmad Said Mohammed during their Arab Cup football match in Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah. AFP photo
The road from a successful popular uprising to a more liberal, safe and just society in the Middle East and North Africa is proving to be a rocky journey into the uncertain. That is the case if human rights, freedom of expression and notions of good sports governance in post-revolt societies are anything to go by.
It’s easy to blame post-revolt governments representing vested interests, or Islamists whose liberalism is at times little more than a facade for continued lack of respect for human rights, restrictions on freedom of expression, and failure to clean out the corrupt boards of sports bodies.
However, that would only be painting a small part of the picture. The fact of the matter is that the Arab public is proving to be as illiberal as its rulers. As a result, post-revolt regimes are under little if any pressure to build truly liberal societies in which the rights of the weak are protected. For that to happen, popular notions of freedom will have to experience a revolution of their own.
To many Egyptians who participated in last year’s demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, freedom increasingly means access to jobs and better quality of life, rather than protection from arbitrary military rule or street mobs that rape any woman who crosses their path.
“I do not fear the Muslim Brotherhood. I do not fear the army. I fear my own people - their mentality. They will not defend my rights,” a female Egyptian election observer recently told Doha
Debates host Tim Sebastian, in an article in which he described how a young woman was sexually abused and stripped naked in Tahrir Square after President Mohamed Morsi’s election victory.
In a twist of irony, football, the very tool that Arab autocrats used to reinforce patriarchal and nationalist values to bolster their tarnished images, is emerging as a key tool in one of the region’s few real efforts to alter basic attitudes and mentality.
Supported by a group of ambitious professionals, Jordanian Prince Ali has turned the 16-member West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) and the Jordanian Football Association (JFA) into models based on international standards of governance, transparency and accountability; democratic standards and bottom-up delegation of responsibilities. The JFA is the first Arab football body to have FIFA-approved rules and regulations. Urge for control
Ironically, the fundamental motive underlying Jordanian reform stems from the region’s urge for control. “Sports play a major role in a society with relative unemployment. It eases social tensions,” said Mohamed Alayyan, JFA vice president.
The JFA focused its reforms on separating its administrative and judicial functions and weaning clubs away from the notion that politics dominated its administrative decisions. To do so, it borrowed heavily from the statutes of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) with the creation of a disciplinary and an appeals committee as well as committees for marketing, human resources, competitions, player status and revenue generation. It further shifted responsibilities to the member associations by insisting that they too separate their executives from their administrative bodies.
The JFA has since taken the process a step further with plans for the creation of a league governing body designed to increase accountability and force clubs to come to grips with stadium management, and efforts to persuade clubs to transfer their assets to newly founded commercial entities. The body would be responsible for distributing 80 per cent of sponsorship income equitably among the competing clubs.
“Clubs need to feel that they have to work, have proper corporate governance and are accountable to the sponsor. The incentive for the clubs is that it opens the door to playing in the Champions League. We are telling the clubs that we are being forced to impose these changes by FIFA and the AFC,” said Khalil Salem, a former investment banker-turned-JFA general manager.
The JFA’s next step is club licensing. The association recently appointed a licensing manager tasked with building the administrative infrastructure including a body of first instance and an appeals body.
The changes in the JFA are attracting attention across the Middle East, including from nations like Saudi Arabia that have rallied the wagons to fend off the waves of anti-government protests sweeping the region. That is however proving to be difficult when it comes to football. Fan pressure forced Prince Nawaf bin Feisal to resign earlier this year as head of the Saudi Football Association, following Australia’s defeat of the kingdom in a 2014 World Cup qualifier. Prince Nawaf was succeeded for the first time by a commoner, Ahmed Eid Saad al-Harbi, a lanky former Saudi football midfielder and proponent of women’s football, tasked with organizing the body’s first ever election.
His resignation broke the mould in a nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that sees control of football as a key tool in preventing the pitch from becoming a venue for anti-government protests, distracting attention from widespread grievances and manipulating national emotions. It also marked the first time that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a national team’s failure as a risk to be avoided, rather than one best dealt with by firing the coach or - in extreme cases like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Gadhafi’s Libya - brutally punishing players.
Al-Harbi hopes to incorporate new standards of governance into the statutes of his reorganized federation, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to emerge as a beacon of good governance. The ruling al-Saud family retains its grip on sports, with Prince Nawaf staying on as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and as the senior official responsible for youth welfare, on which the SFA depends alongside television broadcast rights for funding. Moreover, major football clubs continue to be the playground of princes who at times micro manage matches by phoning their team’s coaches mid-game with instructions on which players to replace.
In addition, sports remains a male prerogative in the arch-conservative kingdom, despite the nominal announcement on the eve of the 2012 London Olympics that Saudi Arabia would be allowing women to compete for the first time ever. The announcement was made immediately after a woman with a chance to compete, equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, was disqualified by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI).