By James M. Dorsey
Unable to persuade Qatari leaders to drop their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, Saudi Arabia appears determined to deprive its tiny neighbour of its regional soccer supremacy.
A recent decision to build 11 stadia under the auspices of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco), one of the country’s most efficient, forward-looking institutions, constitutes an effort to rival Qatar that is developing at least eight of the Middle East and North Africa’s most advanced facilities in advance of its hosting of the 2022 World Cup. It also signals the end to a debate in the kingdom on whether to emphasize individual rather than team sports in its five-year national sports plan in a bid to prevent soccer pitches from becoming venues of protest as elsewhere in the region.
The Saudi decision to battle Qatar on the soccer pitch followed the withdrawal five months ago of the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain from Doha. It came as Gulf rulers acknowledged that deep-seated differences notwithstanding, they needed to cooperate in confronting the most significant threat facing them: the rise of the Islamic State, a militant jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq with a population larger than that of several of the wealthy, oil-rich sheikdoms.
A crisis meeting in Jeddah this weekend of Gulf leaders focused on countering the Islamic State threat avoided mention of the rift with Qatar, one of the most serious crisis in the almost three-decade old history of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which groups Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. A flurry of meetings in recent weeks including a visit by Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to Saudi King Abdullah and talks last week in Doha between Tamim and a Saudi delegation that included Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, intelligence chief Prince Khaled bin Bandar, and Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef failed to narrow the Qatari-Saudi gap.
The decision to build the stadia and the significance attributed to it by assigning the task to Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer, which has been tasked in the past with key projects such as the development of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a research focused institution that is not bound by gender segregation and other religious restrictions, highlighted the deep-seated roots of soccer in the kingdom.
It also signalled the fact that Saudi rulers afraid in the wake of the role that militant soccer fans played in the 2011 toppling of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as well as the 2012 resignation of Prince Nawaf bin Faisal as head of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation (SAFF) and his replacement this year as head of the Saudi Youth Welfare Presidency accepted that seeking to de-emphasize soccer in favour of sports that evoked less deep-seated emotions was politically too risky.
The plans for the new stadia made no mention of including facilities for women spectators, an indication that efforts by more progressive elements of the political hierarchy and soccer establishment have so far failed to make the game more inclusive. Similarly, the national sports plan is being designed for men only, reinforcing the notion that the kingdom and the Islamic State draw their inspiration from a shared puritan interpretation of religious texts despite the fact that Saudi rulers view the group as one, if not the most serious threat they are confronting.
The announcement of plans for new stadia followed a number of trial balloons floated by the kingdom in the past year testing the waters for a greater role in world sports. Some reports suggested that the kingdom was considering bidding for international sports events, which risk putting it under the international spotlight and exposing it to criticism like happened with Qatar’s handling of foreign workers.
Equally unlikely are suggestions that the kingdom would field a credible candidate for next year’s election of a president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Saudi Arabia is more likely to support the re-election of Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a national of Bahrain, which is closely aligned with the kingdom. Salman last year defeated hands down among others a Saudi national in an interim AFC election.
Challenging Qatar’s lead role as not only the region’s soccer hub but as an increasingly important node in global soccer will take more than matching it in infrastructure. While Qatar hardly ranks among the world’s most transparent and accountable nations, it has less domestic soccer-related transparency issues than the kingdom does.
Prominent Saudi businessmen, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a prominent member of the Saudi ruling family and one of the world’s wealthiest men, and soccer officials recently grumbled over government guidance in the awarding by SAFF of soccer broadcast rights to Middle East Broadcasting Center Group (MBC) in a deal worth 3.6 billion Saudi riyals or $960 million.
The deal with MBC, which is chaired by Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim Al Brahim, an in-law of Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family, was rushed through in an effort to pre-empt a possible bid by beIN Sports, the sports channel of the Qatari state-owned Al Jazeera network. MBC’s flagship, Al Arabiya, was founded as a counterweight to Al Jazeera. SAFF president Ahmed Eid Al Harbi justified the decision as having been taken in consultation with senior government officials because there were national issues involved that were “larger than soccer.”
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.