Soccer privatization: A template for Saudi reform

By James M. Dorsey

Saudi Arabia has approved the privatization of state-owned sports clubs as part
of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to streamline bureaucracy,
curb public spending, diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, and
upgrade its autocracy.

The effort to clean up the sports sector follows the rare admission earlier this
year of a match-fixing scandal as well as a financial crisis that offered a
glimpse of the daunting task and pitfalls involved in Prince Mohammed’s reform

The kingdom’s Council of Economic and Development Affairs (CEDA) headed by
Prince Mohammed earlier this month ordered sports authorities to create a fund
that would provide loans to financially troubled clubs. The council said the
fund would create 40,000 new jobs but offered no further detail.

Similarly, few details were provided about how the clubs, some of which are
controlled by members of the ruling Al Saud family, would be privatized beyond a
statement saying that the council of ministers chaired by King Salman had
decided to turn them into commercial ventures.

Cleaning up soccer, the kingdom’s most popular sport, serves to achieve Prince
Mohammed’s goals of greater international competitiveness as well as
engagement of Saudis in exercise that were spelled out in his Vision 2030, a
framework for economic and social reform announced last April.

Privatization of sports clubs, particularly those that have premier league
soccer teams, is however where political risk and economic necessity meet in
Prince Mohammed’s effort to introduce economic and social reform while
ensuring that his ruling Al Saud family retains tight political control.

The clean-up of Saudi soccer constitutes a microcosm of how the government and
the Al Sauds hope to root out corruption, introduce some degree of transparency,
and cater to the aspirations of a young population without surrendering absolute
political control.

The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) sought to demonstrate the
government’s sincerity by relegating in July Al Majma’ah-based premier
league club Al Mujjazel to the second division for having fixed a match with
rival Al Jeel Club. Match fixing had helped Al Mujjazel graduate from the 3rd to
the 1st League in a mere two years.

The punishment of Al Mujjazel followed the relegation three years ago of two
handball teams, Al Safa FC and Mudhar HC, the first ever in the kingdom’s
sports history. The relegations constituted a clear message in a country in
which members of the ruling family often interfered with referees and management
when clubs were not performing to their liking.

The relegation also followed publication earlier this year of a schedule for
clubs to pay off their debts and the imposition of a ban on the hiring of
foreign players.

Included in the schedule were Al Ahli Saudi FC which is linked to Prince Faisal
bin Khaled bin Abdullah, Al Hilal FC that is headed by Prince Nawaf bin Saad, Al
Shabab FC that falls under the auspices of Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, and Al
Nasser FC which is controlled by Prince Faisal bin Turki bin Nasser.

Sources close to the federation noted that the schedule listed for Al Nasser
only $453,400 in debts to the soccer association even though the club’s total
debt is asserted to be approximately $70 million. If correct, it would make Al
Nasser Saud Arabia’s most indebted club after Al Ittihad FC, which owes $76
million. Al Ahli’s total debt was listed at $40 million, Al Hilal’s at $36.5
million and Al Shabab at $19.4 million.

“The game of football played by all sports clubs in Saudi Arabia is just like
the competition between the business enterprises in which each football club
tries to become the best team in the country and hence gain name, fame and
superiority over other clubs, or rather say superiority over other princes who
are behind the rival clubs,” wrote Sharaf Sabri in a book published more than
a decade ago, The House of Saud in Commerce: A Study of Royal Entrepreneurship
in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Sabri put his finger on the problem the federation is likely to have in
cleaning up the kingdom’s premier soccer league, a problem Prince Mohammed
will encounter across the board with members of the ruling family having a
finger in many pies and not wanting to see their perks compromised.

If that were not difficult enough, the government will also want to ensure that
privatization does not weaken its control of sports in general and of soccer in
particular given the pitch’s proven potential of serving as a rallying point
for anti-government sentiment in a region governed by regimes that seek to
tightly control all public space.

Saudi Arabia has long had a complex relationship with soccer because it evokes
passions similar to those sparked by religion. Saudi clerics rolled out mobile
mosques during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to persuade fans gathered in
cafes to watch matches to observe obligatory prayer times.

The government, in the development in recent years of the kingdom’s first
national sports plan, initially considered emphasizing individual rather than
team sports because of soccer’s political volatility, but was forced to drop
the idea given the game’s enormous popularity.

The risks involved in a loss of control of soccer were evident in 2013 when a
Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution demanded the resignation of Prince
Faisal, a burly nephew of the late King Abdullah who sports a moustache and chin
hair, as head of Al Nasser. A You Tube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly
being pelted and chanted against as he rushed off the soccer pitch after rudely
shoving a security official aside.

The campaign against Prince Faisal followed the unprecedented resignation a year
earlier of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the SAFF, the first Gulf royal to
be persuaded by public pressure to step down. Prince Nawaf’s resignation led
to the election of a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid Alharbi, who is
widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women’s soccer in a country in
which women struggle to secure the right to physical exercise and education and
participation in sports.

“The Saudis are extremely worried. Soccer clubs rather than the mosque are
likely to be the centre of any revolution. Kids go more to stadiums than to
mosques. They are not religious, they are not ruled by religious dogma,” said
Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad, who heads the Gulf Institute.

Mr. Al-Ahmad was referring to the power of clerics preaching Wahhabism, the
puritan interpretation of Islam developed by 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn
Abdul Al-Wahhab. Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family established the kingdom
with the help of the Wahhabis who in return were granted the right to ensure
that their views would dominate public life.

In a recent, unpublished survey by a Saudi scholar half of the young Saudi men
interviewed said their priority was to have fun, go on a date, enjoy mixed
gender parties, dress freely, and drive fast.

Recognizing the ambitions of Saudi youth, who account for much of the
population, Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 acknowledged that ”we are well
aware that the cultural and entertainment opportunities currently available do
not reflect the rising aspirations of our citizens and residents, nor are they
in harmony with our prosperous economy.”

Countering corruption and sanitizing soccer financially serves that purpose. It
also could serve as a template for how Prince Mohammed introduces transparency
and accountability in an economy in which members of the ruling family have long
felt entitled and able to act with impunity.

Dr. 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, a recently published book
with the same title, and also just published Comparative Political Transitions
between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa
/dp/B01ION7610> , co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario.