London’s Saudi Super Cup Re-ignites Big Questions in Pursuit of Modern Saudi Arabia.
The afternoon of Wednesday the 12th of August may have just been another quiet midweek for football fans across England. Unless you’re a fan of one of the six clubs involved in League Cup football, that is. But for millions of football fans from a distant nation, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, London was either blue or yellow that afternoon. The Saudi Super Cup between Riyadh arch-rivals Al-Hilal & Al-Nassr was being played out at the unlikely scene that is Loftus Road.
However random it might sound at first mention, this was not only a telling sign of the ongoing globalization of football. It was also a well calculated move from the Saudi FF, as few as those are. Permanent home to some 34,000 Saudis and visited by another 100,000 annually, the majority of them during the summer holidays, London was by all measures an ideal setting to try out the first edition of the season curtain raising match to be played outside the country. The estimated attendance of 15,000 fans at the 18,000 QPR ground stood as testament to this decision. And while the number will undoubtedly be a source of pride among organizers & followers of Saudi football alike. It is the quiddity of those in presence that has reignited a heated debate as old as the kingdom itself. On Wednesday, as with very much every regular football match in England, thousands of men and women flocked to the stadium, many dressed in their team colours. Except this time, many of them were Saudis, more controversially, Saudi women.
A few weeks earlier, a video surfaced showing two women being harassed by a mob of younger men in the western Saudi city of Jeddah. And although the women in said video were veiled, many twitter users made a point of claiming the women were “dressed provocatively” and are thus to be blamed for the incident. The authorities for their part looked to identify and punish the men involved in the incident, but they also subscribed to this line of thought, with one official stating the women will be prosecuted too for “seducing & arousing” the men.
This was not the first time nor will it be the last in a long history of struggle for women’s position in Saudi society. A cause which continues to shape a big part of the question of Saudi identity. The 2015 Super Cup was but the next episode of this never-ending debate.
Under Saudi laws, women would not have been able to attend this match had it been played in its customary home in Riyadh. But holding the game in London gave them a unique opportunity to experience first-hand the passion & atmosphere of local football. This, however, was not to everyone’s liking back home. Saudi Twitter exploded with various hashtags, most notably (#فضيحه_السوبر_في_لندن) which roughly translates to #Supercup_Scandal_in_London. Over 250,000 tweets split between those commending the safe presence of women in the stadium amongst thousands of Saudi men as an example that should be replicated at home and others who called it an obscene ploy for westernization of Saudi Muslim youth.
Those advocating for the more liberal cause of allowing women in stadiums argue the match demonstrated that with the proper enforcement of anti-harassment laws such as those implemented in Britain, the presence of women in football matches (among other public areas, perhaps including women driving) would not lead to multiple incidents of sexual assault and public indecency. Something their opponents often cite as the main reason behind it “not being the right time” for women to be afforded more freedoms in the kingdom. On the other side of the argument are the more conservative Saudis who took to Twitter denouncing those ladies who attended the match and calling them “A disgrace to Saudi women” while the broadcasting Saudi private channel “MBC” received its share of criticism for repeatedly focusing the camera on unveiled women at the stands.
Gratned, Saudi Arabia is known to the world as an ultra-conservative country. Being the birthplace of Islam as well as the destination of the annual hajj journey undertaken by millions of Muslim, it is always going to be one of the most conservative places on earth. But as with any society, within its 30 million strong population, the kingdom is home to an array of various cultures, traditions and upbringings all seeking to coexist under the banner of one predominantly Arab Muslim state. And as the world’s second largest oil producer moves into the 21st century, the push and pull forces between modernity and conservativeness continue to shape the socio-political scene in the country with football at the heart of it.