Saudi and Iranian sports have politics in their DNA.
A little over a decade ago, Saudi Arabia has fielded three expatriate Saudi athletes at the 2012 London Olympics to avoid a participation ban from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The IOC had made sending female athletes a condition for Saudi male athletes, alongside the Qataris and Bruneians, to be able to participate in the tournament. At the time, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were the three countries that had never included women on their Olympic teams.
Today, women’s sport is a tool in Saudi Arabia’s efforts to consolidate its position as a global player and leader of the Muslim world, defender of Muslim rights and arbiter of what constitutes “moderate” Islam.
In the latest step by the kingdom, the Riyadh-based Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation (ISSF) warned that the ban on French athletes wearing a hijab, or head covering, during the Olympic Games in Paris next year “sends a message of exclusion”.
The Federation brings together representatives from 39 predominantly Muslim national Olympic committees and government youth and sports organizations. It is headed by Saudi Sports Minister Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, a member of the kingdom’s ruling family and a former racing driver.
Last week, the IOC insisted hijabs would be allowed inside the athletes’ village at next year’s Olympics, but did not apply the rule to the French team.
The IOC said it was in contact with the French Olympic Committee “to better understand the situation of French athletes.”
Earlier, French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castera told France 3 television that no member of the French delegation would be allowed to wear the hijab to support the “strict secularism” of France.
In a statement, the ISSF said the ban “contradicts the principles of equality, inclusion and respect for cultural diversity that the Olympic Games uphold.” The hijab is part of the identity of many Muslim women and must be respected.”
The ISSF said: “This ban not only infringes on the religious freedom of French Muslim athletes, but could also deny them the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games, represent their country and inspire others. »
Olympic ban follows the ban on the abaya in Augustor complete coverage of women’s bodies, in French schools.
By defending a Muslim majority in favor of women’s right to wear the hijab, Saudi Arabia, the dominant force within the ISSF, is brandishing its religious credentials at a time when it has lifted several restrictions imposed on women in the kingdom, notably in sport, eased gender segregation, sought to reduce the role of religion in public life, and introduced Western-style entertainment.
It also comes as many suspect Saudi Arabia is compromising on Palestinian rights as part of a U.S.-led effort to get the kingdom to recognize Israel. In a first, two Israeli ministers visited Saudi Arabia the last week to attend international conferences.
Politics also played an important role when The Saudi club Al-Ittihad FC refused this week to play an Asian Champions League match in Isfahan against the Iranian Sepahan. because of the busts of the controversial assassinated Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani at the entrance to the grounds.
Iranian media reported that the busts had been in place for three years and that Al Ittihad had trained in the stadium earlier this week without making any figures.
This match would have been one of the first since 2016 where Saudi and Iranian clubs would face each other at home.
In a similar incident in June, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, in Tehran for the first time from Saudi Arabia. Saudi and Iran restored diplomatic ties, demanded change of venue for press conference with his Iranian counterpart because the room initially planned had a photo of Mr. Soleimani on the wall.
China negotiated the restoration of relations in March. Saudi Arabia severed ties in 2016 after Iranians ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions to protest the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric.
Mr. Soleimani was killed near Baghdad airport in a US drone strike in January 2020. Saudi Arabia had designated Mr. Soleimani and his Al Quds Brigade, the Guards Corps unit, as terrorists. the Islamic Revolution (IRGC) operating outside Iran.
Iranian authorities celebrate Mr. Soleimani as a national hero.
Saudi Arabia says the brigade and Mr. Soleimani have been involved in Iranian attacks on Gulf shipping and oil installations and support Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shiite Muslim militias in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
Some 60,000 spectators waited in vain this week at Isfahan’s Naghsh-e Jahn stadium as Al-Iitihad refused to leave the locker room if Mr. Soleimani’s busts remained in place.
Although spectators were disappointed not to have the opportunity to see stars N’Golo Kante and Fabinho play, videos circulating on social media appear to show angry Iranian fans chanting that politics must be excluded from beautiful football. N’Golo Kante and Fabinho transferred to Al-Ittihad earlier this year.
Some posts suggested that Sepahan players were applauding the fans.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the continent’s soccer body, said it was investigating the incident. The AFC could penalize both clubs.
Sepahan could be fined and lose points for placing political symbols in the stadium in violation of football regulators’ fictional claim that sport and politics are separate, while Al-Ittihad could be punished for refusing to play a match.
Two weeks ago, Saudi club Al-Nassr played Iran’s Persepolis in Tehran’s empty Azadi Stadium after the AFC imposed a spectator ban on a match due to fans’ behavior.
The demonstration at the Isfahan stadium follows a repression after months of demonstrations sparked a year ago by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in Iran’s public decency custody.
Security forces killed more than 500 protesters and arrested 20,000 others, including footballers, journalists and movie stars.
Seven protesters were sentenced to death and executed in what the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, called “arbitrary, summary and sham trials tainted by allegations of torture. »
This week hospitalization of a 16-year-old girl in Tehran put Iran back on track. Activists claimed the girl was beaten on a train and put into a coma by morality police for failing to follow Iran’s rules on compulsory hijab wearing.
State media claimed the girl fainted because her blood pressure dropped and she hit the side of the train car.
Al-Iitihad’s refusal to play against Sepahan highlights the limits of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two countries seek to cooperate on economic and other issues without attempting to resolve the fundamental differences symbolized by Mr. Soleimani’s legacy.
Mr. Soleimani’s fall sent a message that Iran was unlikely to change the policy fiercely opposed by Saudi Arabia following the restoration of diplomatic ties. These policies include Iran’s support for the militias of various Arab countries and its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
As a result, the Al-Ittihad incident casts a shadow over Saudi and Iranian efforts to manage their differences to prevent them from spiraling out of control.
Relations could further deteriorate if the kingdom enters into a legally binding security agreement with the United States as part of a deal involving Saudi recognition of Israel.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Muslim ambassadors this week that normalizing relations with Israel amounted to a “game of chance” “doomed to failure”.
He warned that countries that establish relations with the Jewish state would be “in danger.”
Also addressing the gathering, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian added: “We welcome the new page in relations with our regional brothers, but we should also… act decisively to reject legitimacy of the Zionist regime and renounce normalization with it.
Al-Ittihad’s refusal underlines, on the one hand, the fragility of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.
On the other hand, much like support for French Muslim female athletes, it reinforces the kingdom’s positioning as an authoritarian but socially more liberal and moderate Muslim power, opposed to religious militancy, including aggressive militant Islam of the ‘Iran.