Saudi-Iranian Diplomatic Row Moves to Soccer

Adel al-Jubeir


January 05, 2016 23:58 EDT

Saudi soccer clubs are embroiled in the diplomatic breakdown between Riyadh and Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, highlighting the domestic drivers of mounting tension that threatens to deepen sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, have taken their fierce tit-for-tat battle from the realm of traditional diplomacy to the world of public diplomacy. Following a dizzying sequence of events, including the Saudi execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr together with 46 others, the storming of the Saudi Embassy and the breakdown of diplomatic relations, Saudi Arabia and Iran have expanded their fight to the soccer pitch.

Several Saudi clubs, including Al-Ahli FC, Al-Hilal FC, Al-Ittihad FC and Al-Nasr FC, issued statements on their websites after the ransacking of the embassy demanding that they play Asian championship matches against Iranian squads at neutral venues. The clubs were expected to ask the Saudi Arabian Football Federation to officially request the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to move the games away from Iran.

Soccer pitches have long been flashpoints between Saudi Arabia and Iran on which not only tensions between the two countries, but also domestic issues related to their strained relations manifest themselves. Pitches have also served as barometers and early warning signs of mounting tensions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which by its very nature challenges the ruling Saud family because it constitutes an alternative form of Islamic governance that, despite being a theocracy, also recognizes some degree of popular sovereignty.

In April 2014, Iranian officials saw Saudi Arabia’s hand in clashes between soccer fans and security forces in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, which is home to Iran’s Arab minority and the capital of oil-rich but impoverished Khuzestan province. Ethnic Arabs have long complained that the government has failed to reinvest profits to raise the region’s standards of living. The Iranian assertions were fueled by Arab pundits who called for the liberation of the 5 million Arabs in Khuzestan. Some commentators described the Iranian province as “Arabistan.”

The Saudi soccer clubs’ demand for moving matches away from Iranian venues amounts to support for Riyadh’s escalating confrontation with Tehran. That comes hardly as a surprise, since two of the four Saudi clubs are headed by members of the kingdom’s ruling family. Prince Faisal bin Turki bin Nasser, a son-in-law of the late Saudi crown prince, presides over Al-Nasr, while Al-Hilal is managed by Prince Nawaf Bin Saad. The presidents of Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli have close ties to the ruling family.

Mehdi Taj, the head of Iran’s Premier League, said in response to the clubs’ statements that it would file a complaint with the AFC on the grounds that the kingdom was mixing sports and politics. “Articles 3 and 4 of AFC assert that political issues should not be extended to football,” he said. “This is not for the first time that Saudis take pretexts of this sort on their unethical pursuits … The best response is to play strong football on the field and to defeat Saudis on their own ground,” suggesting that in contrast to the Saudis, Iranian teams were willing to play matches in the kingdom.

On January 2, conservative Iranian websites called for protests at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in a bid to embarrass reformist President Hassan Rouhani ahead of elections in February.

Taj’s willingness was matched by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s statement that Saudi Arabia would continue to accept Iranian pilgrims, even though the kingdom was severing diplomatic and commercial ties and banning all flights and travel to the Islamic Republic.

Soccer and Politics

The extension of the Saudi-Iran conflict to the soccer pitch—Taj’s comments notwithstanding—demonstrates that soccer and politics are inextricably intertwined. Taj’s argument was effectively countered in December when the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) banned an appearance by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on a popular soccer television program. In fact, the ban, the assault on the Saudi Embassy and the execution of Nimr are all reflections of domestic power struggles in both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

On January 2, conservative Iranian websites called for protests at the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in a bid to embarrass reformist President Hassan Rouhani ahead of elections in February. “God willing very soon we will have a picture like this next to the White House. We will hit Haifa with missiles,” said one protester who posted a picture of the ransacked embassy on Telegram, a social media website.

Moreover, efforts to control soccer by hard-liners—with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in the lead—underline the importance of the pitch as a battleground in the struggle for Iran’s future.

Similarly, many analysts believe that the executions, which included those convicted of affiliation with al-Qaeda, were designed to whip up nationalist fervor at a time when Saudi Arabia faces multiple problems. These include a protracted war in Yemen; Iran’s nuclear success and its participation in Syrian peace talks; Saudi Arabia’s stalled efforts to forge a Sunni military alliance that would target the Islamic State; and forced budgeting as a result of reduced oil revenues that threaten to undermine the social contract that underwrites the House of Saud.

Whatever the case may be, the executions were intended to demonstrate that the Saudis will not brook any dissent. It was certainly the message the kingdom wanted to send to Iran. And it is a message Saudi soccer clubs appear more than willing to support.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: US Department of State

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