Saudi Arabia and Iran, highlighting the domestic drivers of mounting tension that threaten to deepen and complicate the sectarian and the multiple other regional conflicts, have taken their fierce tit-for-tat battle from the realm of traditional diplomacy to the world of public spectacle.
The past few days have seen a dizzying sequence of events that were prompted by the Saudi execution of Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others. Iranian protesters stormed Saudi diplomatic buildings in Iran and Saudi Arabia responded by ending diplomatic and economic ties with Iran. Now the two countries 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 official websites in the wake of the attacks on the diplomatic buildings demanding that matches between Saudi Arabian and Iranian clubs in Asian championship be moved to neutral venues.
The clubs were expected to deliver their official request for the change in venue to the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.
Soccer pitches have long been the site of flashpoints in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Pitches have also served as barometers and early warning signs of mounting tensions between the kingdom and the Islamic republic.
Last April, there were clashes between soccer fans and security forces in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, home to Iran’s Arab minority and the capital of the 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 fuelled by Arab pundits who called for the liberation of the five million Arabs in Khuzestan. Some pundits described the Iranian province as Arabistan.
The Saudi football clubs’ demand for moving matches away from Iranian venues in effect amounts to support for the government’s escalating confrontation with the Islamic republic. That does not come as a surprise since two of the four Saudi clubs that put forward the demand 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 Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, presides over Al-Nasr while Al-Hilal is managed by Prince Nawaf Bin Sa’ad. The presidents of Al-Ittihad and Al-Ahli have close ties to the ruling family.
Head of Iran’s Premier League Mehdi Taj responded to the clubs’ statements that it would file a complaint with AFC on the grounds that the kingdom was mixing sports and politics.
“Articles 3 and 4 of AFC asserted that political issues should not be extended to football; this is not the first time that Saudis have acted on pretexts of this sort … The best response is to play strong football on the field and to defeat Saudis on their own ground,” Taj said.
Taj’s willingness, despite the crisis, was matched by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubair’s statement that Saudi Arabia would continue to accept Iranian pilgrims to Mecca even though the kingdom was severing diplomatic and commercial ties and banning all flights and travel to the Islamic republic.
The Saudi extension of its political conflict with Iran onto the soccer pitch, Taj’s comments notwithstanding, demonstrated that soccer and politics are inextricably intertwined. Taj’s argument was effectively countered last month when the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the country’s broadcast authority, banned an appearance by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on a popular soccer television programme.
In fact, the ban, like this weekend’s assault on the Saudi diplomatic buildings and the kingdom’s as well as the execution of Al-Nimr, are all reflections of domestic power struggles and the geopolitical posturing of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Conservative Iranian websites called for protests this weekend at the Saudi embassy in Tehran in a bid to embarrass reformist President Hassan Rouhani in advance of next month’s elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body that elects Iran’s spiritual leaders.
“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.
Efforts to control football by hardliners within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) underline the importance of the pitch as a battleground in the struggle for public opinion over Iran’s future. In the wake of the nuclear agreement with the international community and the expected lifting of stringent UN sanctions that Western nations hope will boost Rouhani in the elections.
Similarly, many analysts believe the timing of the execution of Al-Nimr and the others was designed to whip up nationalist fervour at a time that the kingdom faces multiple problems. These include a protracted war in Yemen; Iranian 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 potentially Iran; and forced economic austerity measures as a result of reduced oil revenues that threaten to undermine the social contract that underwrites the Al-Saud’s rule.
Whatever the case may be, the executions including that of Al-Nimr, were intended to demonstrate that the Al-Sauds will not accept any dissent. It was certainly the message the kingdom, which accuses Iran of instigating unrest in Arab countries, wanted to send to Tehran. It is a message Saudi football clubs appear more than willing to support.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccerblog and a forthcoming book with the same title.