Saudi Arabia is to receive a new sports channel to celebrate the return to the kingdom of King Abdullah from a two month-absence for medical treatment in much the same way that a father brings gifts for his children when returning from a business trip. The announcement by Assistant Culture and Information Minister and supervisor general of Saudi Sports Channel Turki Bin Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz goes to the heart of the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that has already toppled two leaders, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, and has sparked a brutal crackdown by embattled Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi. It also highlights the use of sports, and particularly soccer, by authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes whose rulers position themselves as father figures and address their subjects as sons and daughters. Soccer is par excellence the tool the Middle East’s authoritarian leaders use in their attempts to divert attention from their countries’ political and economic problems. As a result, governments keep a tight grip on football associations in a bid to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming a rallying point for the expression of pent-up anger and frustration. Criticism of the government emerged in January after Saudi Arabia’s dismal performance in the Asian Cup in Qatar. The kingdom fired two coaches within as many weeks during the tournament. Saudi media blamed their team’s performance on the kingdom’s failure to nurture sport talent from a young age. Spanish club Real Madrid earlier this month announced the opening of the kingdom’s first soccer academy. To be sure, few analysts believe that discontent in Saudi Arabia will explode any time soon onto the streets of Saudi cities. The kingdom nonetheless has like much of the region high unemployment rates, especially among youths who constitute a majority of the population. Its puritan interpretation of Islam leaves little room for individual freedoms and provides equally few release valves. Turki’s announcement that Saudi Sports 2 will start broadcasting on Wednesday positioned the initiative as part of gradual reforms being introduced in the kingdom but packaged it as a continuation of policies that have failed elsewhere in the region and ultimately prompted the current wave of protests. King Abdullah, who has been absent from the kingdom since having a back operation in New York in December, is widely credited with efforts to slight loosen the government’s tight reign, liberalize the economy and create job opportunities. Turki said the new sports station was part of the contribution of the media to the “program of reform and modernization taken up by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, the Crown Prince, and the Second Deputy Prime Minister,” a reference to King Abdullah and two of his brothers, Prince Sultan and Prince Nayef. “The Saudi media has to be a partner in bringing about this historic phase, and invest the input of support and backing which it enjoys from our leadership,” Turki said. “That is what lies behind the qualitative transition which the media is currently going through in terms of both quantity and quality.” The Saudi media, to be fair, although government-controlled has experienced in recent years a greater if still restricted degree of freedom with issues that once were taboo being openly discussed and criticism of the government being tolerated as long as it does not involve the royal family and its grip on power.
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