By James M. Dorsey
Palestine is a headache Saudi King Salman doesn’t need as he confronts rare demands from members of his ruling family that he and his son be removed from power, growing unease about a seven-month old devastating military campaign in Yemen that has caused devastation and mounting civilian casualties, widespread criticism of the kingdom’s handling of the Haj in the wake of a deadly stampede, and concern about the financial and economic management of the kingdom against the backdrop of dropping oil prices.
Palestine emerged as a problem that threatened to escalate already high emotions in the kingdom with Saudi Arabia’s national soccer team scheduled to play a 2018 World Cup qualifier against Palestine in the Faisal al-Husseini International Stadium in Al-Ram, a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Travelling to Al-Ram would have meant that the Saudi squad would pass through Israeli security, passport and customs controls when it entered the West Bank from Jordan.
Doing so would have without doubt fuelled criticism of Mr. Salman’s nine-month old reign; infuriated a deeply conservative, anti-Israeli clergy as well as public opinion that sees the Jewish state as an enemy; and raised further questions about his management that has produced few tangible successes, exposed the kingdom to increased international criticism, and positioned his young, untested son whom many have nicknamed “Reckless” as a powerful defence and economic policy overlord as well as the king’s potential successor.
A Saudi soccer team crossing the King Hussein Bridge from Jordan to the West Bank would have been one step to many despite greater Saudi willingness to acknowledge that Israel and the kingdom despite having no diplomatic relations share common interests, particularly with regard to the rise of Iran with international sanctions likely to be lifted as a result of the resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis. The agreement with Iran has further cemented concern about the reliability of the United States as the kingdom’s foremost ally.
The Saudi reluctance to allow its national soccer team to cross an Israeli-controlled border was further complicated by the fact that the United Arab Emirates had no such qualms to allow its team earlier this month to play a World Cup qualifier in Al-Ram, the first such match on Palestinian territory involving a squad from a country with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. The Saudi hesitancy further threatened to undermine Palestinian efforts to use soccer as a way to raise Palestine’s status internationally and project itself as an independent state.
World soccer body FIFA, a long-standing pillar of autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa, had no misgivings about resolving Mr. Salman’s dilemma. In a letter to the Saudi and Palestinian soccer associations dated September 28, FIFA ordered the Saudi-Palestinian match because of “force majeure” to be moved from Al Ram to a neutral venue.
FIFA offered no explanation of what force majeure Saudi Arabia was facing that the UAE did not confront in allowing its soccer team to play in Palestine. In doing so, it appeared to be attempting to spare King Salman, already fighting battles on multiple fronts, a further potentially explosive headache. The FIFA decision was one more marker of the global soccer body’s mockery of its assertion that politics and sports are unrelated. That mockery is evident with just a glimpse of the issues Mr. Salman is dealing with.
In an unprecedented move, a senior Saudi prince, a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, this month, called in two letters that have gone viral on the Web for the replacement of Mr. Salman, and his son, deputy crown prince, defence minister and chairman of the Council for Economic and Development Affairs, Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud.
“The king is not in a stable condition and in reality the son of the king [Mohammed bin Salman] is ruling the kingdom. So four or possibly five of my uncles will meet soon to discuss the letters. They are making a plan with a lot of nephews and that will open the door. A lot of the second generation is very anxious. The public are also pushing this very hard, all kinds of people, tribal leaders. They say you have to do this or the country will go to disaster,” the prince who has not been named publicly told The Guardian.
The threat to Messrs. Salman and Mohammed was heightened by the king’s refusal to hold anyone accountable for this month’s stampede during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in which more than 700 people were killed. Angry Saudis have asserted on social media that the incident was the result of rampant corruption in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family derive their legitimacy from being the custodians of Islam’s two most holy cities, Mecca and Medina. A Saudi soccer squad playing on the edge of Jerusalem at a time of Israeli-Palestinian clashes around the Al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third most holy site, would have further put that legitimacy in doubt.
Saudis, including many of those in regions bordering Yemen who have tribal and family ties to the war-torn country, are increasingly disgusted at the pictures of the Middle East’s wealthiest country armed to the teeth with sophisticated weaponry reducing the Arab world’s poorest nation to a heap of ruins in a military campaign that has made progress in retaking southern Yemen from Houthi rebels but shows no sign of securing outright victory and producing a viable, unifying Yemeni government. Saudis also criticize what they see as a lack of a military or exit strategy.
“This is a war against the Yemeni nation and against Yemen becoming independent. It has no legitimate political foundation and it is not what the people want. Ninety per cent of people in Saudi Arabia don’t want this to happen, exactly the opposite of what the media shows,” said Sgt Maj Dakheel bin Naser Al Qahtani, a former head of air force operations at King Abdulaziz airbase, Dhahran, who defected from the Saudi armed forces last year.
With oil trading below $50 a barrel, Saudi Arabia is being forced to borrow and according to the Financial Times has withdrawn some $70 billion from overseas investments. Saudi Arabia’s stock market index has dropped 30 percent in the last year. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted Saudi Arabia would next year have a budget deficit of at least $107 billion.
Saudi Arabia’s budget is based on a $90 a barrel oil price. The kingdom is believed to need a $110 a barrel price to balance its budget given the costs of the wars in Yemen, Syria and against the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq.
Pictures of Saudi soccer players subjecting themselves to Israeli controls potentially could have been the cinder that put the House of Saud on fire where it not for the willingness of Sepp Blatter’s FIFA fire brigade to come to Mr. Salman’s rescue on what can only be opportunistic political grounds.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.