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Groundbreaking Election of Saudi Soccer Chief Masks Arab Revolt Fears

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The recent election of former soccer player Ahmed Eid Alharbi as the first freely chosen head of the Saudi Football Federation (SFF) in a country that views polling as an alien Western concept masks regional fears of the impact of popular revolts that have swept the Middle East and North Africa. It also constitutes the first time that autocratic rulers have sought to reduce their identification with soccer in a break with a tradition that employs the beautiful game in a bid to polish their tarnished images.

"Words such as freedom of choice, equality, human rights, rational thinking, democracy and elections, are terms we came to view with high concern and suspicion. We treat them as alien ideas that are trying to sneak within our society from the outside world. But last week an amazing and irregular event took place, in one of our sporting landmarks. The members of the General Assembly of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) have elected through popular voting, their first president," wrote columnist Mohammed Alsaif for Arab News.

Mr. Alharbi, a former goalkeeper of Al Ahli SC, the soccer team of the Red Sea port of Jeddah, who is widely seen as a reformer and proponent of women's soccer in a country where women are fighting to gain the right to play football, narrowly won the election widely covered by Saudi media to become the Saudi federation's first-ever elected leader.

"Saudis were witnessing for the very first time in their lives a government official being elected through what they used to consider as a Western ballot system. People eagerly followed a televised presidential debate between the two candidates the previous day," Mr. Alsaif wrote.

The election took place at a time in which the need for political in addition to economic reform is increasingly being openly debated in the kingdom while the government is cracking down hard on its critics.

With unrest simmering among the predominantly Shiite population of Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province as well as among the families of political prisoners, the government has sought to fend off popular protest with a $130 billion program to shore up public services such as housing and create employment, particularly in the security sector.

In a commentary in Arab News, columnist Khaled al-Dakheel warned that economic reform and addressing social needs should "be followed by other steps of reform dealing with political issues, such as elections, representation, the separation of powers, activation of the Allegiance Commission, freedom of expression, the independence of the judiciary, and making all people equal before the law, etc. The necessity of political and constitutional reform is due to the fact that the positive impact in people's economic reforms, especially financial, is usually temporary because of the variable nature of their economic and social circumstances."

The writer laid out a program for political and constitutional reform in a country that identifies the Quran as its constitution. Mr. al-Dakheel's program included an overhaul of the country's bloated bureaucracy, ensuring that the longevity of long-serving officials, many of whom are members of the royal family, is based on merit rather than position, expansion of the powers of the country's toothless Shura or Advisory Council to gradually transform it into an elected legislature authority, tackling issues of unemployment, foreign workers' rights and corruption, and diversification of the economy.

In the meantime, authorities this week arrested prominent writer and critic Turki al-Hamad for criticizing Islamists in a series of tweets and calling for reform. Mr. Al-Hamad charges that the Islamists "have distracted us with nonsense that we forgot the important issues, compared Islamism to Nazism and effectively called for reform of Islam. "Our Prophet has come to rectify the faith of Abraham, and now is a time when we need someone to rectify the faith of Mohammed."

Activist and website designer Raif Badawi was arrested in June and is on trial for violating Islamic values, breaking Sharia law, blasphemy and mocking religious symbols on the Internet. Mr. Badawi allegedly insulted Islam by allowing debate on his website, Free Saudi Liberals, about the difference between popular and political Islam.

Fan pressure forced Prince Nawaf bin Faisal earlier this to resign as head of the SFF following Australia's defeat of the kingdom in a 2014 World Cup qualifier. His resignation broke the mold in a nation governed as an absolute monarchy and a region that sees control of soccer as a key tool in preventing the pitch from becoming a venue for anti-government protests, distracting attention from widespread grievances and manipulating national emotions. It also marked the first time that a member of the ruling elite saw association with a national team's failure as a risk to be avoided rather than one best dealt with by firing the coach or in extreme cases like Saddam Hussein's Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi's Libya brutally punishing players.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, autocratic leaders have associated themselves with soccer, the only institution in pre-revolt countries that traditionally evokes the same deep-seated passion as religion, in a bid to polish their tarnished image. Prince Nawaf's resignation constitutes the first time, an autocratic regime seeks to put the beautiful game at arm's length while maintaining control because of the Saudi national team's poor performance. Saudi Arabia has dropped to 126th place in the ranking of world soccer body FIFA.

The kingdom's ruling Al Saud family retained its grip on sports however with Prince Nawaf staying on as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the senior official responsible for youth welfare on which the SFF depends alongside television broadcast rights for funding. Major soccer clubs moreover continue to be the playground of princes who at times micromanage matches by phoning mid-game their team's coaches with instructions which players to replace.

In addition, sports remains a male prerogative in the arch-conservative kingdom. Saudi Arabia underlined its lack of intention to develop women's sports by last year engaging Spanish consultants to develop its first ever national sports plan -- for men only.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog