By James M. Dorsey
A match fixing scandal and a financial crisis in Saudi soccer provide a microcosm of the daunting task and pitfalls involved in Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's plans to reform and diversify the kingdom's oil dependent economy, streamline its governance, and upgrade its autocracy.
The Saud Arabian Football Federation's handling of the scandal and the crisis offer a glimpse of how the government and the ruling Al Saud family hope to root out corruption, introduce a degree of transparency, and cater to the aspirations of a young population without surrendering absolute political control.
Cleaning up soccer, the kingdom's most popular sport, further serves to achieve the goals of greater international competitiveness and engagement by Saudis in exercise that were spelled out in Prince Mohammed's Vision 2030, a framework for economic and social reform announced last April.
Sources close to the federation say 1st League soccer club Al Mojze FC could become the first team in Saudi football history to be relegated as a result of match fixing. Based in the city of Al-Majma'ah, Al Mojze, which graduated from the 3rd to the 1st League in a mere two years, is suspected of having achieved its success through match fixing.
"Something is wrong. They have no experience and no important players. They have no super talent," said a source close to the federation.
The relegation would nullify Al Mojze's graduation to the Saudi Professional or Abdul Latif Jameel League, the country's top division, as a result of its winning of the 1st League. It would follow the relegation three years ago of two handball teams, Al Safa FC and Mudhar HC, the first ever in the kingdom's sports history.
It would also send a message that the kingdom is serious about enhancing competitiveness and fighting corruption in a soccer sector in which members of the ruling family allegedly would interfere with referees and management when clubs were not performing to their liking.
Acting firmly against Al Mojze was made easier by the fact that the club is neither owned nor sponsored by a member of the ruling Al Saud family.
To its credit, the federation did not spare clubs associated with the family when it recently published in advance of the new soccer season a schedule for clubs to pay off their debts. The federation also imposed a ban on the hiring of foreign players.
Included in the schedule were Al Ahli Saudi FC which is linked to Prince Faisal bin Khaled bin Abdullah, Al Hilal FC that is headed by Prince Nawaf bin Saad, Al Shabab FC that falls under the auspices of Prince Khaled Bin Sultan and Al Nasser FC which is headed by Prince Faisal bin Turki bin Nasser.
Sources close to the federation noted that the schedule listed for Al Nasser only $453,400 in debts to the soccer association even though the club's total debt is asserted to be approximately $70 million. If correct, it would make Al Nasser Saud Arabia's most indebted club after Al Ittihad FC, which owes $76 million. Al Ahli's total debt was listed at $40 million, Al Hilal's at $36.5 million and Al Shabab at $19.4 million.
"The game of football played by all sports clubs in Saudi Arabia is just like the competition between the business enterprises in which each football club tries to become the best team in the country and hence gain name, fame and superiority over other clubs, or rather say superiority over other princes who are behind the rival clubs," wrote Sharaf Sabri in a book published more than a decade ago, The House of Saud in Commerce: A Study of Royal Entrepreneurship in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Sabri put his finger on the problem the federation is likely to have in cleaning up the kingdom's premier soccer league. It is a problem Crown Prince Mohammed is likely to encounter in restructuring an economy in which members of the ruling family have a finger in many pies and may not want to see their perks compromised.
A Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution demanded in 2013 the resignation as head of Al Nasser of Prince Faisal, a burly nephew of the late King Abdullah who sports a moustache and chin hair. A You Tube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly being pelted and chanted against as he rushed off the soccer pitch after rudely shoving a security official aside.
The campaign against Prince Faisal followed the unprecedented resignation in 2012 of Prince Nawaf bin Feisal as head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF), the first royal to be persuaded by public pressure step down in a region where monarchical control of the sport is seen as politically important.
Prince Nawaf's resignation led to the election of a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid Alharbi, who is widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women's soccer.
The resignation of Prince Nawaf and the campaign against Prince Faisal gained added significance in a nation in which the results of premier league clubs associated with various members of the kingdom's secretive royal family are seen as a barometer of their relative status, particularly at a time that its septuagenarian and octogenarian leaders have initiated a generational transition and are seeking to restructure the economy and recast the social contract without granting political concessions.
"The Saudis are extremely worried. Soccer clubs rather than the mosque are likely to be the centre of any revolution. Kids go more to stadiums than to mosques. They are not religious, they are not ruled by religious dogma," said Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad, who heads the Gulf Institute.
Mr. Al-Ahmad was referring to the power of clerics preaching Wahhabism, the puritan interpretation of Islam developed by 18th century preacher Mohammed ibn Abdul Al-Wahhab. Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud family established the kingdom with the help of the Wahhabis who in return were granted the right to ensure that their views would dominate public life.
Similarly, the federation's ban on the hiring of foreign talent came as Prince Mohammed was seeking to force employers to replace foreign labour with Saudi nationals. The effort that predates last year's accession to the throne of King Salman and the instalment of Prince Mohammed as one of the kingdom's most powerful men provoked soccer opposition already in late 2014.
Clubs resisted the application of a quota system to soccer and warned that it would put them at a disadvantage in international competitions. The problem of Saudi clubs was compounded by the kingdom's reluctance to encourage Saudi players to garner experience by playing abroad for foreign clubs.
Saudi Arabia has long had a complex relationship with soccer because it evokes passions similar to those sparked by religion. Saudi clerics rolled out mobile mosques during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in an effort to persuade fans gathered in cafes to watch matches to observe obligatory prayer times.
A senior Saudi soccer executive highlighted a key Saudi soccer problem, saying that "we are funded by the government to serve the country." With oil prices strongly reduced, Saudi Arabia, like other countries is seeking to cut costs and control spending, making less money available to soccer clubs.
Equally importantly, serving the country in Saudi Arabia means the government's desire to control soccer because it provides popular entertainment and often deviates attention from more political concerns, yet constitutes a potentially powerful venue for the expression of dissent.
To achieve Vision 2030's goals of greater Saudi competitiveness and transparency, Prince Mohammed and the federation will have to square those goals with dealing with the corrosive effect of political interference in the sport, particularly by members of the ruling family. Dealing publicly with match fixing and debt suggests the government and the federation may have taken a first step.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.
This post was corrected. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is Deputy Crown Prince not Crown Prince