Saudi parents have joined the country's clergy in debating the societal merits of soccer in a deeply religious and fundamentalist country, which has long been ambiguous towards what is the kingdom's most popular sport out of concern that it poses a serious challenge to Islam.
The broadening of the debate on social media, increasingly the only public space where Saudis can engage in discussions and express dissenting views, was sparked by a father's decision not to send his 10-year old son to school for several days after his son's team, Al Hilal FC (The Crescent), lost a derby with its arch rival, Al Nasr FC, in the Saudi capital of Riyadh. The father said he wanted to spare his son heckling by classmates who support Al Nasr. Al Nasr's 2:1 defeat of Al Hilal ended Al Hilal's six year winning streak.
The online debate constitutes one more example of the growing importance of social media in an autocratic country with the world's largest proportion of Internet users. Increasing online criticism of the kingdom's ruling Al-Saud family potentially could alter the relationship between the monarchy and its subjects. It has already forced rulers to respond in a bid to prevent widespread discontent from festering further. As a result, social media have emerged as the one space where Saudis can express dissent despite new anti-terrorism legislation that significantly curtails already severely restricted freedom of speech.
The debate on soccer came on the heels of Saudis responding online critically to government plans to provide affordable housing. It also followed a You Tube video in which Saudi cleric Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zobaydi in response to the Al Hilal-Al Nasr derby warned that soccer 'fanaticism' threatened to destroy Saudi society. Some 700,000 people viewed the video that focused on a Twitter hashtag adopted by Al Nasr fans that included the words: my team has taken the lead. "The true leader is the one who competes to memorise the book of Allah," Sheikh Al-Zobaydi said.
In a country in which ultra-conservative and militant clerics have long viewed soccer as a distraction from religious obligations, a nationalist threat to pan-Islamic ideals, and a game of the infidels, Saudis commenting on You Tube and Twitter on Sheikh Al-Zobaydi's remarks appeared split on the clerics view. While hard core Al Nasr fans accused him of defaming their club, many expressed the kingdom's ambivalent attitude towards the game.
"Sports fanaticism is one of the illnesses of the modern age," said one tweet. In an interview with the BBC, sports photographer Fahad Almarri defended soccer "as long as it doesn't cross red lines," a reference to religious and family values.
Perceptions of soccer fanaticism have increasingly become a subject of clerical debate in Saudi Arabia, a country that provides few sporting opportunities for women and bans women's soccer, with religious and political leaders increasingly concerned that the sport could rival Islam, a key pillar of the Al Saud family's control in alliance with religious leaders.
Concern about the role of soccer even among those religious leaders who support the game in line with the Prophet Mohammed's advocacy for sport as a means of maintaining a healthy body was evident during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Clerics parked mobile mosques on the back of flatbed trucks and rolled out carpets in front of coffee shops to persuade men to pray at the appropriate time while watching the tournament's matches on screens.
The clerical debate about soccer also reflects concern that soccer alongside minority Shiite Muslims and relatives of imprisoned government critics could emerge as a focal point of dissent in a kingdom that despite a ban on demonstrations has been struggling to fend off the waves of change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Concern about soccer was fuelled by a series of assertions of fan activism in recent years. A Facebook page entitled Nasrawi Revolution demanded last year the resignation of Prince Faisal bin Turki, the owner of Al Nasr and a burly nephew of King Abdullah, who sports a moustache and chin hair. A You Tube video captured Prince Faisal seemingly being pelted last year 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 to step down in a region where monarchical control of the sport is seen as a political sine qua non.
Prince Nawaf's resignation led to the election of a commoner, storied former player Ahmed Eid Alharbi widely viewed as a reformer and proponent of women's soccer, in a country that views free and fair polling as a Western concept that is inappropriate for the kingdom. Prince Nawaf retained his position as head of the Saudi Olympic Committee and the senior official responsible for youth welfare that effectively controls the SFF.
Nevertheless, the resignation of Prince Nawaf and the campaign against Prince Faisal were significant 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 prepare for a gradual generational transition.
"The Saudis are extremely worried. Soccer clubs rather than the mosque are likely to be the centre of the revolution. Kids go more to stadiums than to mosques. They are not religious, they are ruled by religious dogma," said Washington-based Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmad, who heads the Gulf Institute.
As a result, authorities in the soccer-crazy kingdom were seeking to reduce soccer's popularity by emphasizing other sports like athletics and handball in policy and fund-raising, according to sources involved in sports policy.
"They are identifying what talent is available in the kingdom. Football is a participatory sport. They want to emphasize the social aspects of other sports. Football won only one medal in the last Asian Games. They think they can score better in other sports. There are parallel agendas with competition about who gets the visibility," one source said.
In his letter to the school, the Saudi father suggested that the school would understand his decision to keep his son at home for several days because it was concerned about the well-being of his son.
In response, Gulf newspapers quoted an unidentified student counsellor as warning that growing sports fanaticism could cause educational problems and psychological difficulties. The counsellor said the risk was enhanced by teachers supporting or opposing clubs in class and encouraging debate among students about matches.
Online, Saudis lined up for and against the father's decision. "We should not blame the father as he is keen on the wellbeing of his son and on avoiding him getting bullied," said Ahmad. Al Anzi countered that "by supporting this negative attitude, the father is teaching his son how to dodge reality and how to look for excuses whenever there is a situation. This is really terrible and family values are being eroded through sports."
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also 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 forthcoming book with the same title.