At least three of the five Middle Eastern teams competing in this year’s World Cup in Russia promise to bring the region’s convoluted and messy politics with them.
Disputes and/or controversies involving Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt are making their mark even before the World Cup has kicked off, while Morocco and Tunisia fade into the background.
Moreover, feuds between Saudi Arabia and Iran and Qatar coupled with mounting concern about Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record raise questions about world soccer body FIFA’s commitment to its own principles of keeping politics and sports separate and upholding basic rights.
Middle Eastern drama could take centre stage if Saudi Arabia and Iran both progress from the group stage to the semi-finals and clash on the pitch. Granted, getting out of the group stage is likely to constitute a challenge for both squads.
But even if they don’t, their mere presence is certain to shine a spotlight on the covert war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as a related dispute with 2022 World Cup host Qatar, who did not qualify for this year’s tournament. It will also focus attention on the brutal repression in Egypt that has put tens of thousands behind bars.
The sports arena under construction in Qatar ahead of the 2022 tournament.
Saudi Arabia is attempting to control Middle Eastern and Asian governance of the sport, at the expense of Iran. Together with the United Arab Emirates, it is challenging Qatar’s 2022 World Cup hosting rights, and seeking to break the Gulf state’s grip on regional broadcasting rights.
Gulf fans are feeling the impact, with uncertainty over whether Saudi Arabia will allow broadcasts of matches by BeIN, the sports subsidiary of Qatar’s state-controlled Al Jazeera television network that owns the broadcasting rights.
One of the conditions of a year-old economic and diplomat boycott of Qatar, imposed by a Saudi-led alliance that includes Egypt and the UAE, is the shuttering of Al Jazeera, or at least the curbing of its freewheeling reporting and talk shows that often challenge the kingdom’s policies.
This is not the first time that World Cup coverage has been restricted: in 2010, these men watched from a coffee shop in Kuwait City after Al-Jazeera confirmed reports that coverage of the tournament was jammed from Jordan.
As a matter of principle, BeIN has been blocked in the boycotting states for the past year. While Saudi Arabia has sought to ignore Qatar’s rights by creating beOutQ, a 10-channel bootlegging operation based in the kingdom, the UAE has backed down from its initial blockage of BeIN broadcasts but maintained its jamming of Al Jazeera.
Unable to challenge the Saudi action in Saudi courts, Qatar has urged FIFA to take action against what it described as Saudi pirate broadcasters.
Qatar’s broadcasting rights are but one soccer battlefield on which the Gulf dispute is being fought.
Saudi and UAE media together with UK tabloid The Sun exploited the recent London launch of the Foundation for Sports Integrity by Jamie Fuller, a prominent Australian campaigner for a clean-up of global soccer governance.
The launch involved a reiteration of assertions of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful World Cup bid made by Abu Dhabi’s The National and Saudi Arabia’s Al Arabiya to pressure FIFA into depriving Qatar of its hosting rights.
Saudi-owned Ash-Sharq Al Awsat newspaper reported that this month’s FIFA Congress may hold a re-vote on the hosting of the 2022 World Cup. There was no independent indication of such a move.
In a further bid to complicate life for Qatar, Saudi Arabia has backed a proposal to speed up the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams from 32 – currently scheduled for 2026 – to make it applicable to the 2022 World Cup.
If adopted, Qatar could be forced to share the hosting of the 2022 tournament with others in the region. Iran has already offered to help Qatar.
The Saudi–UAE moves come on the back of a two-pronged Saudi effort to gain a measure of control of global soccer governance.
Global tech investor Softbank, which counts Saudi Arabia and the UAE among its largest investors, is believed to be behind a $25 billion proposal embraced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino to revamp the FIFA Club World Cup and launch a Global Nations League tournament. If approved, the proposal would give Saudi Arabia a significant voice in global soccer governance.
Softbank, among others, meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman back in October 2017.
Complimenting the Saudi FIFA bid is a Saudi effort to undermine the position of the 47-nation Asian Football Confederation (AFC), headed by Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahrain ruling family and one of the most powerful men in global soccer.
To do so, Saudi Arabia has unilaterally launched a new regional bloc, the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), a potential violation of FIFA and AFC rules.
The federation would be made up of members of both the AFC and the Amman-based West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups all Middle Eastern nations except for Israel and is headed by Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a prominent advocate of soccer governance reform.
SWAFF will be based in Jeddah, with Saudi football federation president Adel Ezzat as its head and Saudi sports czar Turki al-Sheikh, a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as its honorary president.
The likelihood of SWAFF taking off would effectively weaken the AFC, of which Iran is a prominent member. Iran is unlikely to want to join SWAFF given the chance that Saudi Arabia would probably veto Iranian membership.
As a result, Saudi Arabia’s bid for regional soccer hegemony runs parallel to US President Donald J. Trump’s vow to isolate Iran, and makes a mockery of global sports governance’s insistence that sports and politics are separate.
The joker in the Saudi bid are East Asian nations – with China, Japan and South Korea in the lead – that are powerhouses within the AFC and maintain close economic and diplomatic ties to the kingdom, but have studiously remained on the side lines of its struggle with Iran. East Asian nations are unlikely to want to be sucked into Saudi Arabia’s battles.
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 co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a blog with the same title.
by James M. Dorsey
Paperback • April 2016 • £20.00 • 9781849043311 • 360pp
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