Soccer is becoming the latest flashpoint in an escalating cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is being fuelled by anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa and assertions that Iran is meddling in the internal affairs of oil-rich Gulf states.
Saudi officials and media are calling on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to move Asian championship matches in Iran of four Saudi teams to a neutral third country after Iranian demonstrations in front of Saudi diplomatic missions in the Islamic republic against the kingdom’s dispatch of troops to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia has denied Iranian claims that its troops were involved in the crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bahrain.
The Saudi Football Federation raised the kingdom’s security concerns in a letter to the AFC. At the same time, Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer called on Iran to protect its diplomats. “We hope that these continuous violations will not lead us to take other positions,” Prince Turki was quoted by Al Watan as saying.
Iran last month warned Saudi Arabia against cracking down on its own Shiite majority in its oil-rich Eastern Province, a 45-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain.
Similarly, months of protests in Yemen demanding the departure of embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh potentially could spark unrest among Ismailis in Saudi Arabia’s south-western Jizan and Najran provinces. Saleh and Saudi Arabia have in the past accused Iran of supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen’s north.
The soccer tensions first erupted last month when Saudi immigration authorities demanded that Tehran’s Persepolis FC soccer team, Asia’s most popular club, be finger printed and iris scanned upon its arrival at Jeddah airport for an Asian championship match against Al Iittihad. The Persepolis team refused what is standard procedure for all visitors to the kingdom and was held at the airport for eight hours.
The Persepolis incident sparked dismay in Tehran because of the kingdom’s refusal to acknowledge repeated Iranian demands that Saudi Arabia exempt Iranians from finger printing and iris scanning. In response, Iran threatened retaliation and Iranian legislator Seyed Hossein Naqavi, a member of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said Al Ittihad would be subjected to the same treatment at Tehran airport when it arrived for its return match against Persepolis.
"As regards the fingerprinting of Persepolis in the Jeddah airport, we will retaliate and fingerprint al-Ittihad of Saudi Arabia. We believe the fingerprinting of Persepolis athletes is a disrespectful act and the move will not remain unanswered," Naqavi said.
What started as storm in a tea cup has however since escalated into a mounting crisis that has further spooked stock exchanges and contributed to oil price hikes.