Saudis debate societal merits of football

Saudis debate societal merits of football

James M. Dorsey
Saudis debate societal merits of football

Saudi Arabia’s Sultan al-Bishi (L) dribbles past Palestine’s Imad Zaatara during a match in the West Asia Football Federation (WAFF) championship in Doha. AFP photo

Saudi parents have joined the country’s clergy in debating the societal merits of football in a deeply religious and fundamentalist country, which has long been ambiguous toward what is the kingdom’s most popular sport out of concern that it poses a serious challenge to Islam.

The broadening of the debate on social media, increasingly the only public space where Saudis can engage in discussions and express dissenting views, was sparked by a father’s decision not to send his 10-year-old son to school for several days after his son’s team, al-Hilal FC (The Crescent), lost a derby to its arch rival, al-Nasr FC, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. The father said he wanted to spare his son heckling by classmates who support al-Nasr, whose 2-1 victory over al-Hilal ended the latter’s six-year winning streak.

The online debate constitutes one more example of the growing importance of social media in an autocratic country with the world’s largest proportion of Internet users. Increasing online criticism of the kingdom’s ruling al-Saud family could potentially alter the relationship between the monarchy and its subjects. It has already forced rulers to respond in a bid to prevent widespread discontent from festering further. As a result, social media have emerged as the one space where Saudis can express dissent despite new anti-terrorism legislation that significantly curtails already severely restricted freedom of speech.

The debate on football came on the heels of Saudis responding online critically to government plans to provide affordable housing. It also followed a YouTube video in which Saudi cleric Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zobaydi warned in response to the derby between al-Hilal and al-Nasr that football “fanaticism” threatened to destroy Saudi society. Some 700,000 people viewed the video that focused on a Twitter hashtag adopted by al-Nasr fans that included the words: my team has taken the lead. “The true leader is the one who competes to memorize the book of Allah,” al-Zobaydi said.

In a country in which ultra-conservative and militant clerics have long viewed football as a distraction from religious obligations, a nationalist threat to pan-Islamic ideals, and a game of the infidels, Saudis commenting on YouTube and Twitter on al-Zobaydi’s remarks appeared split on the clerics view. While hard core al-Nasr fans accused him of defaming their club, many expressed the kingdom’s ambivalent attitude toward the game.

“Sports fanaticism is one of the illnesses of the modern age,” said one tweet. In an interview with the BBC, sports photographer Fahad Almarri defended football “as long as it doesn’t cross red lines,” a reference to religious and family values.

Rare opportunities

Perceptions of football fanaticism have increasingly become a subject of clerical debate in Saudi Arabia, a country that provides few sporting opportunities for women and bans women’s football, with religious and political leaders increasingly concerned that the sport could rival Islam, a key pillar of the al-Saud family’s control in alliance with religious leaders.

Concern about the role of football even among those religious leaders who support the game in line with the Prophet Muhammad’s advocacy for sport as a means of maintaining a healthy body was evident during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Clerics parked mobile mosques on the back of flatbed trucks and rolled out carpets in front of coffee shops to persuade men to pray at the appropriate time while watching the tournament’s matches on screens.

The clerical debate about football also reflects concern that football, alongside minority Shiite Muslims and relatives of imprisoned government critics, could emerge as a focal point of dissent in a kingdom that despite a ban on demonstrations, has been struggling to fend off the waves of change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

Concern about football was fuelled by a series of assertions of fan activism in recent years. A Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution demanded last year the resignation of Prince Faisal bin Turki, the owner of al-Nasr and a burly nephew of King Abdullah, who sports a moustache and chin hair. A YouTube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly being pelted last year and chanted against as he rushed off the football pitch after rudely shoving a security official aside.

The campaign against Prince Faisal followed the unprecedented resignation in 2012 of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF), the first royal to be persuaded by public pressure to step down in a region where monarchical control of the sport is seen as a political sine qua non.

Clubs, not mosques

Prince Nawaf’s resignation led to the election of a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid al-Harbi, 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 were significant 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.

In his letter to the school, the Saudi father suggested that the school would understand his decision to keep his son at home for several days because it was concerned about the well-being of his son.

In response, Gulf newspapers quoted an unidentified student counselor as warning that growing sports fanaticism could cause educational problems and psychological difficulties. The counselor said the risk was enhanced by teachers supporting or opposing clubs in class and encouraging debate among students about matches.

Online, Saudis lined up for and against the father’s decision. “We should not blame the father as he is keen on the well-being of his son and on avoiding him getting bullied,” said Ahmad. Al-Anzi countered that “by supporting this negative attitude, the father is teaching his son how to dodge reality and how to look for excuses whenever there is a situation. This is really terrible and family values are being eroded through sports.”