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Soccer: A Flashpoint for Deepening Cleavages in Jordanian Society

By James M. Dorsey

A look at boiling unrest and discontent in Jordan through the lens of soccer opens an interesting perspective on regional dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa at a time of rare, if not unprecedented, protests against economic and political mismanagement as well as widespread corruption that taints the beautiful game as much as it does other sectors of society. It is a perspective that dampens the hopes of many that the Arab world may be on the eve of a sea change that will introduce greater prosperity and freedom and raises the spectre of deepening social cleavages.

Soccer factored in recent protests in Jordan in ways it didn’t in protests that last week toppled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, forced Algeria to roll back hikes in commodity prices and prompted the governments of Morocco and Libya as well as Jordan’s King Abdullah to step on the break of increasing prices of staple goods and services.

While Jordanians watched closely as Tunisians defied violent government repression over the past month, North Africa like the Gulf is to many of them disconnected, faraway parts of world with which they share some cultural traits. To Jordanians, North Africa is the Maghreb and the Gulf the Khaleej, while their most immediate world is the Mashreq or what non-Arabs refer to as the Levant or the Fertile Crescent. As a result, Jordanians cheered last Thursday when their national team knocked Saudi Arabia out of the Asian Cup in Qatar. Less than 24 hours later thousands of those fans hit the streets of Jordanian cities to protest against the government’s economic policies and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Samir Rifai.

Paradoxically, the newly-appointed international face of Jordanian soccer and half-brother of King Abdullah, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who also heads the Jordanian Football Association as well as the 13-nation West Asian Football Federation, successfully campaigned to become vice president of FIFA on a platform that called for the very kind of reforms of soccer’s world body that the protesters in Jordanian cities want to see across all sectors of society. Prince Ali campaign promised greater FIFA transparency and accountability, more involvement of soccer’s grassroots, youth development and the furthering of women’s soccer as a tool of socio-economic empowerment.

Last Friday’s mass protests in Jordan cut across the very dividing line between East Bank Jordanians of Bedouin stock and urbanized, more affluent Jordanians of Palestinian origin that last month pitted the two groups against one another in soccer riots. The riots erupted after a match between arch rivals Al-Wahdat and Al-Faisali and left 250 people, including 30 police officers, injured.

Al Faisali is widely seen as an East Bank team while Al Wahdat symbolizes both urbanized Palestinians as well as some 1. 8 million Palestinians that live as refugees in the kingdom, often in camps like Al Wahdat to which the soccer club traces its origins. Al Wahdat President and well-known businessman Tareq Khouri was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison barely two weeks after the riots for insulting a police officer during a an earlier Al Wahdat-Al Faisali match in March of last year.

The fact that the divisions that sparked the soccer riots are so far conspicuously absent from the socio-economic protests contains a double-edged message: discontent is rampant across social classes but potentially could exasperate other cleavages in Jordanian society. Such cleavages include a widespread sense among Palestinians that they suffer discrimination when it comes to employment in the public sector employment and the military and that the electoral system for the lower house of parliament favours East Bank representation. Khouri, who according to a US diplomatic cable, “bought” his seat on Al Wahdat’s board, voiced those complaints in his November 2009 election campaign that failed to return him to parliament.

The cable from the US embassy in Amman disclosed by Wikileaks underlines the threat to Jordanian stability posed by tension between East Bankers and Palestinians. The cable describes anti-Palestinian hooliganism and Al Faisali slogans denigrating the Palestinian origins of Queen Rania and Crown Prince Hussein bin Al Abdullah that prompted the mid-game cancellation of a July 2009 match between Al Wahdat and Al Faisali as “a new low” in the often violent rivalry between the two clubs.

Al Faisali owes its name to the Hashemite King Faisal who was first king of Syria and then of Iraq in the 1920s and 1930. The club is controlled, according to the embassy, by the prominent East Bank Udwan tribe but has many Palestinians among its players.

Slogans shouted at Al Wahdat-Al Faisali matches “have over time become a popular barometer of tensions between East Bankers and Palestinians. The slogans and cheers on the Faisali side during the July 17 match were particularly divisive and controversial, as they were directed at members of the royal family for the first time,” the cable reported.

It quoted an embassy contact as describing “the ‘increasingly explicit and provocative’ Faisali slogans as proof that status quo-oriented East Bankers are uncomfortable with the increasing pressures for reform that will inevitably lessen their near-monopoly on political and social power.”

Mounting tension in Jordan is unlikely any time soon to produce the same result as the protests in Tunisia, but promises to make soccer an increasing flashpoint and raises the question how long social-economic discontent will remain immune to friction between East Bankers and Jordanians that could threaten the very fibre of the kingdom.

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