Soccer in Saudi Arabia also about religion

The recent soccer player-buying spree by Saudi Arabia also involves both geopolitical and religious dimensions, writes James M. Dorsey in his Substack newsletter The Turbulent World (August 5). There is no doubt that salaries motivate high-profile players—some of them Muslim, but not all—to move to Saudi Arabia, but religious affinities with a country that is at the heart of Islam should not be ignored, especially as “European clubs have a mixed record of accommodating Muslim players’ religious needs, such as fasting during Ramadan and daily prayer times.” The ambition of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is to turn the Saudi Professional League into one of the world’s top five leagues, Dorsey remarks. This has to do not only with economic diversification but with efforts to support the Kingdom “in a competition for religious soft power in the Muslim world.” Saudi Arabia hopes to shape its image as “leader of the Muslim world and beacon of moderate, tolerant Islam,” Dorsey writes in another article (August 21).

Match scene of Lebanon vs Saudi Arabia (Asian Cup 2019) (© 2019 El Loko Foto | Wikimedia Commons).

Karim Zidan, an Egyptian-Canadian journalist interviewed by Dorsey in the August 29 issue of the newsletter, said that one should also be aware of the “bread and circus” aspect of the current sports investments by Saudia Arabia, which help to distract its youth and keep them “sedated in satisfaction.” Saudi Arabia had already made attempts to play the soccer card and to buy some top players from Brazil in 1978. But the current efforts are part of a much broader overhaul in the country. “Politics and sports, particularly soccer, are inseparable Siamese twins with domestic and geopolitical connotations, nowhere more so than in the Middle East,” Zidan said. Besides Saudia Arabia, Qatar has also been prominent in the area of sports, willing to pay huge amounts for acquiring famous soccer clubs.

(The Turbulent World,