Soccer and Detained Shiite Cleric Fuel Iranian-Saudi Tensions

Tensions over Saudi Arabia’s handling of a visiting Iranian soccer team and the arrest in the kingdom of a prominent Shiite cleric have sparked a Saudi-Iranian war of words with Iran warning against a crackdown on Saud Arabia’s Shiite majority in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

The warning constituted the first Iranian threat again Saudi Arabia in several years despite long-standing tense relations between the two countries as a result of Iran’s nuclear program. It comes at a time of concern that anti-government protests in predominantly Shiite Bahrain could spill over into the Eastern Province, a 45-minute drive across the causeway from Bahrain.

Similarly, weeks 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.

As a result, the Iranian threat is likely to fuel mounting debate on how immune Saudi Arabia is to the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that has already toppled two Arab presidents, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine Abedine Ben Ali.

The escalation started with a demand by Saudi immigration authorities last week demanding 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 Saudi Arabia’s 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 with the arrest of a Saudi cleric, Shaikh Tawfiq al-‘Amir to Hofuf in the al-Ahsa, after he called for converting Saudi Arabia into a constitutional monarch in a Friday prayer sermon in Al Ahsa in the Eastern Province.

Already spooked by the wind of change sweeping the region that has started to engulf the Gulf with protests not only in Bahrain and Yemen but also in Oman and Kuwait, Al-Amir’s arrest was likely designed to fend off Shiite protests in the Eastern Province that in turn could potentially tap into widespread discontent among Sunni Muslims in the rest of the kingdom. Saudi Shiites have long complained about perceived discrimination.

Saudi King Abdullah returned last week from three months abroad for medical treatment bearing gifts designed to insulate the kingdom from the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. For Abdullah's return, the government announced hand outs worth $37 billion, intended to placate Saudis of modest means and squash bubbling discontent.

In a further clear indication of the royal family’s failure to understand the sea change in popular attitudes toward government in the region, the kingdom also celebrated Abdullah’s return by announcing the launch of a new government-owned sports television channel in much the same way that a father brings gifts for his children when returning from a business trip.

The announcement highlighted the increasingly failing use of sports, and particularly soccer, by authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes whose rulers position themselves as father figures and address their subjects as sons and daughters. Soccer par excellence served as a tool for the Middle East’s authoritarian leaders to divert attention from their countries’ political and economic problems. As a result, governments traditionally kept a tight grip on football associations in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for the expression of pent-up anger and frustration.

That approach has begun to falter as various governments in the region have indefinitely suspended professional league matches to prevent the soccer pitch from become yet another rallying point for protesters. Saudi media in January took the government to task for the kingdom’s dismal performance in the Asian Cup in Qatar. The kingdom fired two coaches within as many weeks during the tournament. Saudi media blamed their team’s performance on the kingdom’s failure to nurture sport talent from a young age. As a result, the government trumpeted the opening last month by Spanish club Real Madrid of the kingdom’s first soccer academy.

Most probably inadvertently, Saudi Arabia fuelled with its inept arrest of Al-‘Amir the Islamic republic’s soccer ire and offered Tehran to jump onto the right side of the protest bandwagon as it has tried to do throughout the crisis. The Saudi leadership “should know that the Saudi people have become vigilant and do not allow the rulers of the country to commit any possible crime against them," Iranian parliamentarian Mohammed Dehqan, widely regarded as an ally of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, said in response to the cleric’s arrest, according to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency.

Dehqan warned that Iran would hold the Saudi government accountable for what he termed its “crimes” against both Shiites and Sunnis. "Saudi Arabia should account for the suppressions of the Shi'ite and Sunni people in the country for numerous years," Dehqan said, hinting that the kingdom may prove less immune to the regional wave of protests than anticipated. "Considering that the developments in Bahrain and Yemen affect the situation in Saudi Arabia, the country feels grave danger and interferes in the internal affairs of these states," Dehqan charged.

The Saudi government, by arresting Al-‘Amir, may have walked into a trap. The cleric departed with his call for a constitutional monarchy from his record of usually limiting his demands to calls for greater religious freedom. In doing so, he may well have been seeking arrest as a way to spark protests in the kingdom. His sermon echoed calls for protests in the kingdom later this month by Saudi intellectuals demanding a constitutional monarchy in email petitions and on Facebook.

That demand builds on similar calls in the wake of the 1990 Gulf war against Iraq by a disparate coalition of Wahhabi clerics, liberal and religious academics, and Shiites that prompted then King Fahd to issue a Basic Law — Saudi Arabia’s first-ever written equivalent of a constitution -- and create a Consultative Assembly whose members are appointed by the king.


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