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The Politics of Middle East Sports: A Conversation with Karim Zidan

James M. Dorsey

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Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Qatar dominate sports headlines, particularly when it comes to football and golf. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's sports ambitions seem to know no limits.

He's paying unprecedented sums of money to hire many of the world's top players, like Christiano Ronaldo and Neymar, in a bid to turn the Saudi Pro League into one of the world's top soccer competitions. Most recently, Saudi Arabia set eyes on Egyptian born top Liverpool player, Mohamed Saleh.

The buying spree follows the controversial acquisition in 2021 of Newcastle United by the Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund. Moreover, Mr. Bin Salman has muscled his way into golf with the merger of PGA Tour, the organiser of the sports top events, and the Saudi backed upstart, Live Gulf.

Not to be left behind, a member of the Qatari ruling family is bidding $9 billion to acquire Manchester United. If the sale goes through, it would turn the Manchester Derby into a dual between the Gulf State and the United Arab Emirates, long, a critic of Guty policies and the owner of Manchester City.

All of this raises a host of questions. Why are Gulf States willing to invest huge amounts in sports? Will Gulf money change sports like football? Should states be allowed to control sports clubs or are they vital parts of civil society that should be shielded from encroachment by the state? Should democracies make human rights a qualifying condition for club ownership would to do so be hypocritical at a time that European and US adherence to human rights is backsliding.

To discuss this and much more, I'm joined by Kareem Zidan, an acclaimed journalist whose Sports Politika Substack column covers the nexus of sports, politics and society.

Kareem, welcome back to the show.

Karim Zidan (02:35):

Well, thank you so much for that wonderful intro, James, and for having me back on the show. And might I say, despite the fact that I was just here just a few months ago, it feels like so much has changed that we're in for a whole new conversation now.

James M. Dorsey (02:48):

Great. Well, maybe we'll just start with that. You just landed in Cairo. What has changed?

Karim Zidan (02:57):

Well, right now it's just the exceptional heat here in Cairo. There's definitely a feeling in the air here that people aren't as comfortable with pretty much anything anymore right now when it comes to Cairo. There's so much of a debt crisis here. You can tell with the prices of everything, inflation has gone up dramatically. I come to Egypt twice a year or so, and every time I've come here recently I've seen the increase in prices. I'm seeing the valuation of the current, seeing people's lives and situations go from bad to worse, and at the same time, their willingness to even stay quiet about these certain topics as well has disappeared. You're much more likely to hear about the discontent that people are feeling much more openly in the streets. Well, just a few years ago, people were sort of whispering a bit more or actually still feeling a lot more positive about the government, so that's a significant change that's happened here and I mean we can tie Egypt back into everything we're seeing in the Gulf as well because we see (Egyptian President) Abdul Fatah (al-Sisi) is going regularly trying to solicit donations and funds from various countries, and a lot of that is to sort of stem the tension and the tide that's taking place here in Egypt right now to sort of fix the economic crisis that the country's facing.

So it's an interesting time and things are regularly changing here.

James M. Dorsey (04:27):

That leads me into something I really wanted to raise with you, but before I do that, just one comment. One of the things that struck me actually this week was that countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia had essentially told the Egyptians, “We're no longer going to pour money into a black hole. If you want aid, you need to start reforming your economy in line with what the International Monetary Fund requires.” And yet the UAE this month agreed to fund Egyptian wheat purchases. Egypt is one of the largest wheat importers in the world to the tune of $500 million over the next five years, and there were no conditions of economic reform attached to that, which leads me into the whole issue of the role of sports and particularly soccer in the last century in the development of the Middle East. This month was the 10th anniversary of the Rabaa Square massacre in Cairo when some 800 protestors opposed to the military coup in Egypt a month earlier were killed.

Many of them were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The coup toppled Egypt's first and only democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood. The massacre signalled the end of an era in which militant football fans played a key role in Middle Eastern protests like in the 2011 popular Arab uprisings. It strikes me that the role of fans is in suspension and could at any moment reemerge as we see new protests in Bahrain and Syria erupt. Yet, we're also seeing with the Gulf splurge on sports a shift from the grassroots politics of sports to an elite takeover. What do you think?

Karim Zidan (06:24):

I think you raised some very, very interesting points there. To speak of it from an Egyptian perspective, I have friends and family even who have been members of the Ultras in Egypt, which is the sort of hardcore football fan groups that were so prevalent during the revolution and were shortly snuffed out thereafter by the Egyptian government and turned into now a terrorist organisation. Not that they are terrorists, but they're referred to by the government as a terrorist organisation and attempt to keep them disbanded. That's how much the Egyptian government fears the strength and capabilities of the youth gathering in a non-politicised force. That's the thing that the government absolutely fears. It's the reason to this day that our stadiums aren't full regularly during the Egyptian Football League, even though the Egyptian Football Federation and the various major clubs here in Egypt have been lobbying to restore it and the Egyptian government still to this day, despite we are now more than 10 years past the revolution,

James M. Dorsey (07:30):

Let me just interrupt you just for everybody. Basically, Egypt closed its stadiums on the 25th of January, 2011 when the popular Arab revolt broke out that finally in February toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and as Karim was just saying, they have never fully reopened. Sorry to interrupt you, Karim.

Karim Zidan (07:54):

No, by all means, I should have noted that myself, but the truth is, the Egyptian state still fears the gatherings of young Egyptian men in such force and in such masses. They know what they've been capable of in the past and they really don't want to see a repeat of that despite the strength of the military at this point. This leads us definitely into what's going on in Saudi Arabia. I think, James, because while there are consistently arguments being made that Saudi's push and investment in sports is sports washing as we've discussed in the past, I really think that that's a crude term that doesn't fully encapsulate the entirety of Saudi Arabia's aims. And while we've discussed a lot of them in the past, I think it's worth mentioning some of them includes between reputation laundering and building a global hub for tourism and developing alternative economic sectors.

But one that was rarely discussed is that by really creating this football feeding frenzy that Saudi has taken parts in right now and bringing in this wealth of stars and elevating the top four teams, the Public investment Fund has purchased 75% of majority stake in all the four major teams in the Saudi Pro League and is also slightly funding some other teams as well to bring in all these stars. I think that this is an example of bread and circuses. At the end of the day, this is an distraction for the local Saudi youth. When you think about another Arab country here with a vast majority of its population being young men, the youth in general, most of Saudi's population or significant percentage of Saudi's population is under the age of 35. Distracting them through leisure activities, sports and entertainment is a great way to keep them, I guess, sedated in satisfaction for lack of a different phrase right now. But I think it's something worth considering when we see the contrast here in Egypt. Egypt, because of its lack of resources has much fewer options when it comes to distracting its youth. So as much as it also would love to host a World Cup or more football tournaments, it hosted the African Cup of nations not too long ago, shortly before the Coronavirus pandemic, Egypt does not have the finances to host the type of games and circuses, the levels of entertainment distraction that Saudi Arabia is capable of, and I think that's worth factoring in.

James M. Dorsey (10:13):

Absolutely, and I want to come back to Egypt in a second, but one thing about the Saudi sports blitz, which is really fascinating, is that it's a complete turnaround from what the Saudis were trying to do just a few years ago when they hired a Spanish consultancy to develop the kingdom's first ever national sports plan and that sports plan, one was for men only, and obviously since then Saudi Arabia is encouraging women's sports, but more important to this issue is that the consultants were instructed to focus on individual sports, not on team sports, like football, for the very simple reason that they were afraid of what that could do in terms of bringing people together who may then feel the power of numbers and want to bring all kinds of issues or grievances they may have to the public.

Karim Zidan (11:19):

I mean, there's no doubt about it. I think Saudi Arabia's approach is very clear from the beginning that they had a very different intention. When you think of, I think back to Saudi's initial sports investments, some say from the point when they announced, say Vision 2030 and sports being a major facet of their Vision 2030 expansion plan and finding these alternative economic sectors to depend on rather than oil divestment from oil, I really think Saudi approached it from the perspective of really focusing, as you said, on individual sports. They started hosting individual boxing events and showdowns really focusing on bringing individual athletes. They made a deal with the WWE, which at the end of the day is mainly one-on-one wrestlers competing, and it's about these individual star power that you would bring. They started hosting these motor racing events before they were able to get to the Formula One.

They were hosting sort of lower tier motor racing events. Again, these individual type of sports they made, they attempted to start hosting. People forget now since people are hearing that the ATP and the WTA, which are the associations controlling men and women's tennis are willing to now make a deal with Saudi Arabia. People seem to think that this is a new thing. As a matter of fact, Saudi Arabia has been attempting to host exhibition matches, featuring the world's biggest stars for many years, and they have successfully hosted events with Novak Djokovic in it as well, these exhibitions, but we're not able to get stars like Roger Federer or Raphael Nadal who both decided that it wasn't in their best interest to go play in Saudi Arabia, a decision which now when you really think about it, puts them in the vast minority of what's athletes are willing to do.

I think though, that there was a significant change that happened, James, around 2018, and this is something I intend to write about in my Sports Politika newsletter soon, but I'd like to discuss it and bring it up at least here with you beforehand. Do you remember in late 2017 when one of Mohammed bin Salman's closest rivals, rivals, sorry, closest confidants

James M. Dorsey: Let me guess, Turki al-Sheikh

Karim Zidan: Exactly one of his closest confidants. Turki decided that he wanted a piece of Egypt's biggest football club, which is Al Ahli. So in 2017 he gets appointed as the honorary president of Al Ahli/ At this point, Al Ahli is about to head into a presidential election and is lacking funds significantly and needs to make some important structural infrastructural changes. So it is looking for funds at this point. Turki comes in with these big promises, of course, but he immediately oversteps his role, which is symbolic.

At the end of the day, he had no actual power, and what he starts to do is he starts poaching players who were slightly unhappy or questioning their position in Ahli and sending them to the Saudi Pro League, sending them back to the Saudi domestic league. He promised Ahli all sorts of transfers that he didn't end up doing. He promised them a manager that he ended up sending to another team. So really what he was doing was taking advantage of Ahli's name and believing that through his money, he was going to be able to control it. Unfortunately, he didn't factor for how stubborn Egyptian football fans can be, and within a matter of months, the few fans that were even allowed in football stadiums were chanting songs insulting his mother and really, really attacking him. So he got so upset that he ended up, and again, even Ahli's board of directors were at odds with him, so he ended up parting ways with Al Ahli starting up his own rival football club, he bought a club outside of Cairo that had its own fan base, moved it to Cairo, renamed it Pyramids FC, and started throwing massive figures at it, figures that we had never seen before in Africa.

As a matter of fact, he broke the transfer record for an African football team within a matter of months, and this team was immediately elevated to one of the top teams in the Egyptian Premier League. And I mean this story does sound a bit familiar, doesn't it, James? When we think of, for instance, Saudi Arabia's investments in golf, I mean, they had attempted to reach out to the PGA before they started LIV Golf. They just wanted a piece of the pie, and once they felt that they were slighted or insulted, that's when they say, all right, we're going to compete, dump all this money and make life hell for you. And this started with Al-Sheikh. I mean, this was really his approach from back in 2018 and something he did in Egypt. His time in Egypt, just to cut things short here, his time in Egypt wouldn't last.

He'd be out of the country by 2018. I think all his investments disappeared from the country by 2020 in the end. So let's just say his Egyptian experiments failed, but I think the country learned so much in terms of how to approach its investments from then on who to work with and how they can bypass certain barriers that they find in front of them. So I think the mistakes that occurred in Saudi's relationship with Egypt through football were not repeated in the future. Saudi definitely appears to me like a country that is learning from its mistakes and in trial and errors getting better and smarter and more cunning with its sports investments.

James M. Dorsey (16:45):

I think that's absolutely true, and I think it's sort of interesting. I also think there's a broader context here.

Turki has since moved on to be the czar of the Saudi entertainment sector, and he's actually done quite well there, and he hasn't ruffled really feathers. His period of czar of Saudi sports was a train wreckage and Egypt is only one example of it. His relationship with Morocco, particularly in terms of whether he would support the Moroccan bid for the 2026 World Cup and his failed attempt, for example, to establish a federation of South Asian and Middle Eastern football federations, national football federations, which fell apart within month. And so I think one, yes, they clearly have learned from those train wreckages and in some ways Turko Al Sheikh has learned from those wreckages as we're seeing in the entertainment sector. I want to turn to one other aspect or potential comparison if you wish, which is you recently wrote a piece about how Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban is exploiting politically the world athletic championships in Budapest that are at the moment ongoing. In other words, the Gulf states are not the only ones harnessing sports for geopolitical purposes, and I'm sort of curious how you would compare what Orban and what the Gulf States are doing.

Karim Zidan (18:27):

Oh, that's a really interesting question. I think much like, here's the truth, I believe that the vast majority of governments would take advantage of major sporting events that come to them. Another example that immediately comes to mind say, we're not even thinking of right-wing governments or conservative governments anymore as these two situations are. Australia, which just host was one of the co-hosts for the Women's World Cup right now, one of the documents that's absolutely available on their government website is a document massive PDF detailing the benefits of sports diplomacy, what they refer to as sports diplomacy and why it is important for Australia's politics and its economy and its general wellbeing that it hosts these major events, the benefits of bilateral relations that come from it, the domestic benefits that come from it, the societal benefits that come from it. Generally, this document could have been perceived as a shady document, but at the end of the day, it's an understanding of governments of the power of sports, how you intend to utilise it is a different story and the context of each government factors in here.

I tend to believe that governments, that all governments should approach it from a narrative of at least some value to human rights. For instance, I think Australia, as much as it promotes its sports diplomacy programme as one that's beneficial to women and one that will grow sports for women, as we're seeing for instance with the Women's World Cup, there's absolutely something to that with the success of the Matildas and the Australian Women's national team and the fervour that caused in the country are probably definitely going to be beneficial for women. But there absolutely has not been a discussion or a reckoning with the lack of Pacific Islanders and indigenous people in Australia and sports in general, and that's something that Australia doesn't want to discuss. So in many ways sports can distract from these major conversations. Australia actually is about to have a vote called the voice in the country debating what the role of indigenous people in parliament and in society.

These are major topics of conversation and sports is actually distracting from this right now in a place like that. So this is something worth considering, the intention that these governments have. Victor Orban, in the article I wrote about him, generally I wrote it not necessarily with criticism in mind or intending to sort of expose anything, but rather because I found it fascinating that Victor Orban saw on event coming like this a prestigious tournament such as the World Athletics Championship, as an opportunity to expand and improve bilateral relations with various countries. It just generally shows that we don't have to be talking about sports washing, but really devious and cunning displays of sports washing as it's referred to. For us to understand that there's an intersection between sports and politics. Victor Orban understands that his position in Hungary is tenuous because of the country's lack of natural gas resources, especially in the wake of the war.

So what does he choose to do? He knows that right now his major allies would be willing to support him are some of his Asian allies and not necessarily his allies in the West or any one part of NATO, which you could tell from the list of leaders that he chose to invite. It surprisingly did not include anyone from Western Europe or from generally the NATO alliance. Instead, he had the Emir of Qatar there. He had Erdogan from Turkey there, presidents of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, people who have impressive supplies of natural gas and oil, and immediately within the second or third day of the world athletic championships, he had signed multiple agreements for natural, for natural gas, thereby helping his country. If we just consider that, I think that there is little issue whatsoever with it. This is just generally what the government is going to do and utilise these opportunities, especially when it's displaying itself at a moment of strength, and that's what these events tend to do.

They add prestige to your country, especially when you built new stadiums for it and you're hosting major global events. Well, this is probably the time to have these discussions with your allies while you look good, right? So there's a lot of prestige that comes with sports events. So countries like Saudi Arabia also know this when it comes to Orban and the Gulf, though we have to consider these other factors. Orban has really made some changes in Hungary. He's definitely played the same game that's played in the United States. I actually think when I think of Victor Orban, honestly James, I compare him a lot more to the American right than necessarily the Gulf, which is why I thought your question was very, very interesting. He really is playing up the same type of polarisation of topics such as LGBTQ+ rights in Hungary, abortion rights, women's rights, migrant rights. These are the issues that are plaguing Hungary right now, and Orban is taking advantage of them. The problem is that when he utilises sports events and he's hosting things like football matches in Euro 2020 or taking part in the World Athletic Championships, apart from the fact that these are opportunities for bilateral relations, it's also an opportunity for him to sort of launder his reputation or distract from ongoing issues taking place in Hungary. So that's also worth considering.

James M. Dorsey (24:04):

Sure. I want to come back to one thing you said just at the very beginning of your last comment, and I don't know what the answer to is, but it did spark a question in my mind, which is you made the reference to sort of now is the time to insist on adherence to human rights, and I'm wondering whether rather than insisting on adherence to human rights, it would not be better to insist on independence of civil society of which sports clubs are part of.

Karim Zidan (24:40):

I think that's a great idea because I think if I understand this correctly, I think what you're asking is a barrier between the state and entities such as sports, so that sports and sports organisations do not operate as an extension of or as an arm of the government.

James M. Dorsey (24:58):

That's part of it. And civil society is a catchall phrase, and it's everything from activist groups to religious groups to people who have some sort of hobby and get together to sports associations or sports clubs. The civil society is only strong if it's independent, and therefore it's civil society. Ultimately, that stands up for human rights and which is why I'm wondering whether or not we should be focusing on ensuring the independence of civil society and sports as part of civil society rather than more narrowly on human rights.

Karim Zidan (25:46):

That's an interesting point, but it comes back to a discussion I had recently on a panel where we were trying to discuss the extent of what the government should and should not be able to do when it comes to regulating sports entities and trying to ensure at least that human rights are guaranteed at events. It came to a realisation that human rights extend beyond necessarily when we talk about LGBTQ+ rights, we're talking about even children's rights can count as part of this protecting children from sexual abuse in sports, for instance, which is a topic that as we're seeing everywhere, including in Canada where sexual abuse has clearly been rife and harassment has been rife across gymnastics, across athletics, across various sports with very little government's regulation. Unfortunately, the government has in many cases completely ignored the issues that have been taking place. This is a major issue here in Canada that still has not had its full reckoning yet despite multiple changes of ministers of sports so far recently.

So I think there is a role for governments regulation when it comes to some of these issues that will be very difficult to necessarily regulate independently, at least with the infrastructure that we have at the moment. But I do agree with you that there's absolutely an argument to be made for their independence, but in that scenario as well, the context does matter and we would still need the correct infrastructure available and the methodology to approach it so that various entities aren't warring together at the same time. The good thing about here's what a government can do in proper circumstances theoretically, is offer regulatory frameworks that can really be beneficial. The problem is, is that most governments come with their own agendas and their own interests, and that tends to surmount the actual framework. So I struggle with defending governments or encouraging more regulation because we've seen in reality what actually takes place. But you tell me, James, do we have examples of civil society and operating in independently in terms of oversight, especially with areas such as sports?

James M. Dorsey (28:03):

I'm not suggesting, okay, I'm not suggesting that civil society should be the regulator. I think that's government's role. The government's role is as a regulator with input for civil society. What I'm saying is that civil society is like the fifth state, if you wish, next to the executive, the judiciary, the legislative and the media. Civil society is the fifth state, and it it's a crucial part of a functioning democracy.

Karim Zidan (28:37):


James M. Dorsey (28:40):

And therefore its independence is crucial.

Karim Zidan (28:45):


James M. Dorsey (28:46):

And if you define sports clubs as part of civil society, then their independence from government, which is basically a FIFA principle.

Karim Zidan (28:59):

I absolutely agree there. When we think of labour movements, when we think of general women's rights, civil rights movements, when we think of all these are grassroots movements that come from the ground of, especially when I think of unions and labour and labour movements in particular in the Arab world and elsewhere, I mean labour movements in Egypt is what led to protest from 1919 onwards in Egypt. It was that ability, and that was one of the things that the government was able to

James M. Dorsey (29:28):

Together with football fans.

Karim Zidan (29:30):

There you go. And I think football ties in perfectly as example for this because when you really think of football clubs, they were not supposed to, at least the way we all envisioned them, they were not supposed to be owned by a single wealthy individual. These were supposed to be community owned, community controlled entities that represent the community on top of it. These are cultural assets more than they were supposed to be flat out businesses operating that way. So when we think of that independence, that would've been crucial, and I think the approach we take to football would've been different if each club truly was about representing its own community.

James M. Dorsey (30:08):

Before we move on, just because of time reasons, I just want to sort of pick up on something that you said and elaborate on it. You noted 1919, in fact, the 1919 Egyptian revolution was plotted on the grounds of Al Ahli, one of Cairo's two major sporting clubs. And if you look at the history of football over the past century since it was introduced in the Middle East by the British, and to a lesser degree by the French, football clubs and football fans and football players were in the lead in the anti-colonial struggle. They were in the lead of social and economic struggles, struggles for national liberation as they were in the lead in the struggles that took place during the 2011 popular Arab revolts. So that independent function of football as part of civil society, I think is crucial, and if it's proven anywhere, it's proven in the Middle East.

But I want to come back just for time reasons, unfortunately, to some of the developments that we've been seeing with related to the Gulf, and one of those is, and that relates to the human rights issue in Europe and on so forth, is we've had some players and analysts suggest that religious affinity with the kingdom and anti-Muslim, anti-black sentiment in Europe and not just money, was the reason why so many soccer stars have accepted Saudi offers. And it raises the question why they didn't transfer to Saudi Arabia earlier when there was opportunity, but less money on the table. I mean, presumably one reason is that Saudi Arabia with Mohammed bin Salman's social reforms is a very different place compared to what it was before The Crown's Princess rise. How do you look at those sort of assertions of religiosity of racism?

Karim Zidan (32:15):

I found it such an interesting topic that I actually wrote about it in a piece and I couldn't,

James M. Dorsey (32:20):

As did I

Karim Zidan (32:21):

I know. I was very happy to see your piece as well, and I think we both showed the same sort of slight cynicism there when it came to the idea that, well, oh, I'm not transferred. I mean, Benzema was the first to come out and say, oh, I'm doing this because I want to finally live in a Muslim country, et cetera. There is a point there, I understand as a Muslim man living in the West, I do understand that point, this idea that especially in other countries, not necessarily Canada, this variety of places. I mean, you can live in France and face really, really, really terrible Islamophobia and racism, et cetera. I mean, there's a hijab ban in sports, for instance. For instance, we had a player wearing a hijab from Morocco at the Women's World Cup. Had this been the 2019 World Cup in France, she would not have been able to wear that hijab.

That's horrific. I can understand why Muslims would not be comfortable there and would want to live if they had the same resources, the same earning potential would want to live in the Middle East. I see it all the time when I see my cousins here in Egypt. They would rather go to Dubai than they would to Canada because of the closer cultural norms, and it wouldn't be necessarily as much of a shock to them. But it does raise that question of, okay, well that was your intention? Why did you not go before? I mean, there was always opportunities to play in the Saudi Pro, and if not in Saudi, there were opportunities elsewhere. But it's hard to not be cynical when you see the massive figures that are being offered, and you know that at the end of the day, it's the figures that are going to make the difference here.

But there is something to it because when I think back, I think one of the reasons, at least Messi publicly claimed that he was choosing not to join Saudi Arabia and instead chose to take the MLS’s offer and go with Inter Miami, was that his wife and kids weren't necessarily excited about living in Saudi Arabia. So they on the other hand saw the still a more conservative Saudi Arabia relative to the United States as less of an interesting offer or opportunity for them. So it works both ways. I think there's definitely something to that, and you cannot underestimate the significance of anti-black racism that takes place in the Islamophobia. But I do also want people to know, James, that it's not like us in the Middle East aren't racist either. That's the real problem here, and I see this more and more. It's extremely jarring. I mean, even I've seen it in the Middle East where I grew up and I was raised, was raised in Bahrain, and I've lived in Saudi Arabia as well, and I can say that I witnessed it with my own eyes.

The racism was really brutal, was really disgusting, and we're seeing this even in, I mean, Saudi Arabia right now is being accused of mass killing Ethiopian migrants attempting to cross the border from Yemen in a new Human Rights Watch report In many ways, one of the first things I thought of is, yeah, this doesn't surprise me that they'd be doing this to the black migrants coming into the country. I mean, that's just my perspective as someone who has grown up in the Middle East and has seen this type racism, and this is not to say that this does not exist in Egypt. We still have blackfaces in our TV shows here in Egypt, and it's normalised. When you ask people, you say, what the hell is this? They're like, oh, it's funny. I don't mean anything bad by it. They don't even see, they don't even understand the term racism or why what they're doing is racist. They just think it's funny. So there's a lack of education about this topic still, the treatment of the Sudanese migrants or the Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers coming across to Egypt, the treatment has been horrific, horrific. Some of them have been rejected and turned back at the border, some of them separated from their families. This is not stuff that's just happening in the West, unfortunately. This is stuff that we have to reckon with at home as well.

James M. Dorsey (36:19):

Absolutely. And countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia have seen racism in the stadia, so it's not a uniquely European phenomena. I want to come back to a moment for the role of the state, which, and it's interesting, Spain's La Liga, the country's top soccer competition has complained to the European Commission about alleged Qatari state support for Paris Saint-Germain, PSG, the Qatari owned French Club. La Liga is invoking new European regulations governing foreign subsidies, and, on the one hand, the complaint reeks of hypocrisy given that La Liga is sponsored by Visit Saudi, the Saudi campaign to encourage tourism to the kingdom. Yet, on the other hand, the hypocrisy doesn't take away from the merits of the complaint. How likely is the complaint to be successful and what would this mean for Gulf owned English Premier League clubs even if post-Brexit Britain is no longer bound by European rules and regulations?

Karim Zidan (37:23):

Well, it would definitely set the precedent if it did succeed. That's what I find very interesting here. I don't know enough about the European regulation process to give you an honest answer of whether it would succeed or not succeed, James. But I think that hypothetically it does. It sets a very interesting precedence for how states in future can regulate entities such as, such as football clubs for instance, and the encroachment of state entities on sports. We're seeing a slightly different version of this taking place in the United States right now, which is really attempting to investigate at least a Senate subcommittee, bipartisan minds, you Senate subcommittees attempting to investigate the PGA and LIV merger right now and applying both potential. Goodness me, I've forgotten…

James M. Dorsey (38:30):

This touches exactly on where I wanted to go with my next comment, which is if the La Liga complaint succeeds, then it puts the Saudis particularly even in a more difficult position because they've tried to fudge the issue of state ownership. They've alleged that acquisitions by the PIF does not mean, does not amount to acquisitions by the state. Yet they've also rejected oversight of acquisitions by the PIF, for example, in the Congressional investigation that you mentioned because it's a state institution and its governor is a member of the Saudi cabinet, and the question really is how long can they keep up that it's a fiction? How long can they keep that up?

Karim Zidan (39:19):

It absolutely is. They cannot have it both ways. They can't have their cake and eat it too here. They're going to have to either double down and admit that, okay, this is state owned and we we're still demanding protection based on the fact that we represent the state diplomatic immunity here, or they're going to continue to attempt somehow to fabricate this sort of fake separation of church and state between the state of Saudi Arabia and these football clubs. The fact that we still tend to believe the lack of transparency from the Premier League suggesting that Newcastle and Saudi Arabia gave assurances of legally binding assurances that there is no connection, that this is not going to be state owned. It is crazy to think of when, how could you have possibly given such legally binding assurances and why have we not seen that paperwork? That's the real problem here. The lack of transparency from these entities is not going to make this any easier for us. Indeed,

James M. Dorsey (40:24):


Karim Zidan (40:25):

Overall. Yeah, overall, I think the Senate has an interesting opportunity here and is approaching it from multiple perspectives about both Saudi being state owned and from the monopolistic issues that come from Liv Gulf and P G A combining forces here. So it's really going to be interesting to see what happens.

James M. Dorsey (40:43):

Although I'm not sure that the monopolistic argument really works because PGA too was a monopoly before that

Karim Zidan (40:50):

And it was being sued on that basis by the Department of Justice, it's interesting

James M. Dorsey (40:57):

Coming back to the Saudis many who compare the Saudi player acquisition to this spree that we saw in China's failed attempt several years ago to boost Chinese soccer by investing in sport and buying foreign players. The Chinese effort sort of fizzled out what makes Mohamed bin Salman believe that he can succeed with Xi Jinping, a passionate soccer fan has failed.

Karim Zidan (41:24):

Okay, so I think there are a few differences. The first one that comes to mind is I don't recall China ever securing players that were as young as the ones Mohammed bin Salman has been able to secure. Mohammed bin Salman is not turning the Saudi Pro League into where the old retirees or soon to be put out to pasture football players go and play. He's hiring players who are still either in their prime or young. He's got Ruben Neves from Portugal playing right now. He's got really younger talents joining, which means that they are now investing their future, investing their interest in Saudi Arabia instead of going to the Premier League and becoming legends or whatnot. They're starting out young. In a place like Saudi that completely changes. That's a significant contrast from what was happening in China at the time, which was really filled with some of the older players.

China also did not have the resources that Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia has to invest in sports. I think that really factors in here. Saudi Arabia has also been smarter its approach overall. So it's not just connecting this to football and trying to reap that as an investment. It's connecting it to tourism, right? It's connecting it to various other sectors of the economy. Neymar has a deal where he's going to be promoting Saudi Arabia while also playing in Saudi Arabia. Now, despite the fact that Messi's playing in MLS, as I reported for the New York Times, he's still making 25 million over three years to promote Saudi Arabia as part of the deal with the tourism authority. So Saudi Arabia is not putting all its eggs in one basket. Same with the fact that it's not investing all its money in football, it's investing in a variety of sports, hedging, those bets, and even when it's investing in sports, it's got a multi-pronged strategy that's contemplating other various sectors that this could overlap with, whether it be entertainment and leisure, whether it be tourism, whether it be health and development of other businesses.

They're going to find a way to make these assets that have just arrived in their country even more beneficial to them. And again, we discussed earlier there, and there's the elements of the bread and circuses. I think just Saudi has been able to take this one facet, this football, this fascination with football and these massive investments, this blitz that they're taking parts in and actually make it a significant part of their overall strategy as a government, their overall political and just general strategy moving forward. I think that's really the difference here between Saudi Arabia and China's approach. I think of one more thing here. A question people ask me regularly is why all this effort for sports James and I want people to understand this. One thing here is that the public investment fund, which is the main fund investing in sports right now from Saudi Arabia chaired by Mohammad bin Salman, has 13 different strategic sectors that it's actually prioritising and investing in, right?

Things such as real estate, transport, logistics, security, construction, technology, sports is just sports and entertainment actually are lumped together as one of those sectors, but just one of those 13 sectors. Yet then they're spending less on sports, way less by multitudes than they are spending on the development of these giga projects like Neom, but it's the sports one that get the most attention. So they're not even spending as much as they do on real estate, but it derives an insane amount of attention and prestige worldwide for months. Now all we're talking about is Saudi's football blitz and its hostile takeover of the PGA, and they did that by spending way less than they're doing on construction real estate right now. Hell, it's even less than what they've invested in venture capital entities in the United States. So this is still a drop in the bucket in their expenses in terms of Saudi's overall spending, but it is the one that hits the hardest and it's getting the most attention and probably the most bang for buck so far.

James M. Dorsey (45:31):

I agree with you by and large. I think the one thing where I disagree with you is that actually China invested more in football than Saudi Arabia has. The Chinese had $20 billion and they had this plan, sorry,

Karim Zidan (45:48):

Sorry, over how long, James, do you remember? Well,

James M. Dorsey (45:51):

They had committed $20 billion, which was supposed to create 50,000 grassroots academies, I think, but by and large, I do agree with you. What I do think is also different. First of all, Saudi Arabia is a relatively successful performer in football compared to China. Saudi Arabia has made it to several World Cups, hasn't always performed very well in those World Cups, although it beat Argentina in December at the Guty World Cup. China's never been there. Saudi Arabia has performed very well in regional Asian championships, and indeed, in contrast to China, what you were mentioning is that the sports effort, the soccer effort is embedded in a much broader economic diversification plan and therefore is also much more interconnected with what the Saudis are trying to do in other economic sectors. And that makes a major difference, sort of gives it a greater chance of success. On the other hand, it strikes me that some broadcasters seem to be cautious about Saudi Arabia's ability to attract eyeballs, even though it can boast stars at its soccer clubs, Qatar’s beIN sports broadcaster was not among those signing contracts with the Saudi Pro League recently. And in addition, the English Premier League has extended its contract with beIN, which means that Saudi-owned Newcastle United matches won't be legally broadcast in the kingdom. So does this suggest that the value of attracting soccer stars has limits?

Karim Zidan (47:41):

Well, it'll certainly, it is not going to get Saudi everything it wants necessarily, but I think it has. Saudi Arabia has secured some impressive deals for such a short transfer window and managed to secure some impressive deals. I think they hired IMG actually the agency to help them secure these broadcast deals, and I believe they got the zone for North America and Canada as their main streaming partner, and I think Sky Sports is going to be their partner in the United Kingdom, if I'm not mistaken. So the very fact that these entities, these major broadcasters are still considering even broadcasting the Saudi Pro League to begin with, I think is a win in itself. So this is a league that wasn't getting any eyeballs on it. Here in Egypt. You could stream the Saudi Pro League on an app, sort of a Netflix style Arabic app, and that's been there for a couple of years now and I think it's going to continue that way, but that's the Arab world, and that's because people would maybe wanted to watch and it was a Saudi entity anyway, so people would want to watch that.

But generally, these local leagues like the Egyptian Pro League, you're not really getting a chance to watch it anywhere else, right? The Egyptian Premier League is available here, and if you're outside, good luck trying to find an illegal stream or something. But Saudi Arabia is going to be one of the few leagues outside of the big five that you're going to be able to find easily now and has the opportunity to sort of wedge its way into the top five of sports season. So it's done that through this investment in, well, it's no longer a handful of players, but the ones who are bringing this attention are the handful of players. There's enough major stars now that some of these teams al and they're starting to look like serious teams and people are going to want to watch them. And it's looking to me now that even as a member of the media, I'm seeing media entities starting to cover them.

We're seeing The Guardian starting to write articles about the various matches taking place in the Saudi Pro League. That's not something I expected was ever going to happen. They mainly focus on the English Premier League. I'll tell you James, they've never once written about the Egyptian Premier League, so I think that's a win for Saudi so far, even if it doesn't, they're never going. I think that the English Premier League has far too many advantages in terms of time, in terms of brand recognition, its legacy, its length of existence. It was never going to be just money that was going to bring Saudi on one-to-one terms with the English Premier League. So I don't think that comparison really works, but I think when you think of where the Saudi Pro League was versus where it is now just before the start of its next season with one year or less of Christiana Ronaldo plus all these stars, no, they're definitely only up and up for sure, and I think they're winning here.

James M. Dorsey (50:30):

No, I think that's probably true. I think the key is going to be ultimately not so much the ability to buy players with big names, but the ability to build a domestic grassroots, basically talent pool, that's going to be their next really big challenge.

Karim Zidan (50:56):

I really agree with you there. I've been thinking the more they fill these major teams, I'm glad you really mentioned this because I've been thinking about this a lot. The more they think they fill these top four teams, which by the way are also cultural assets in a place like Saudi Arabia and really beloved by millions of fans, I really love these teams the way I love, for instance, maybe they don't want to see these stars, but now they're not going to see homegrown Saudi players on their teams like they used to. These talents that they grew up loving who were just like them, who looked like them, they're going to be missing from the team and their team are now going to have top scores from Portugal, from Senegal, from wherever else, and that's perfectly fine. Some level of diversity on these teams has always been normal.

Egyptian teams aren't all Egyptians as players from all over, but at the end of the day, it's a grassroots movement. Our various teams have players who grew up in this system with occasionally one or two players brought in from the Premier League, and we recognise them. We followed these players throughout their careers in Saudi Arabia. We're going to lose that. They're going to lose that. It's a shame because there had clearly been developments in Saudi football, as we've seen from their performances in the World Cup. Egypt used to pride itself on being sort of the strongest Arab country in Africa and just generally the most successful footballing nation in the Middle East, barring, barring Morocco and sometimes Algeria. Morocco has absolutely surpassed Egypt now, and Saudi Arabia, trounced Egypt in the 2018 World Cup and now has managed to beat the World Cup champions in the same tournament in 2022. So that's significant improvements that I fear might start collapsing if Saudi does not focus on its domestic league and actually bringing in the correct scouts, bringing in talents to actually be able to nurture these teams from a very, very young age, the way we see happen in Spain and in the United Kingdom, et cetera, and in the United States with the women's women's football team as well.

James M. Dorsey (52:55):

And in Saudi Arabia, that's particularly important because Saudi Arabia has Johnny come lately to allowing foreign players to play in Saudi teams and to allow, by the way Saudis to play abroad. So this is a real sea change, which is, as you pointed out, also cultural because Saudis were used to Saudi players in clubs that they loved. So this has in some ways greater ramifications than it would have in a lot of other countries. We're unfortunately coming to the end of this, but I want us end where we started, if you wish, which is in Egypt. And I'm wondering how do clubs like Ahli and Zamalek, two of the Arab world's most popular and successful soccer clubs with perhaps even the largest fan bases in the Arab world, how are they looking at Saudi teams potentially emerging as potential regional competitors, and how are they looking at, for example, the possible transfer of Egyptian born Mohamed Salleh to the kingdom?

Karim Zidan (54:13):

I can say just from a handful of days I've been here, I've had this conversation with a wide range of people, believe it or not. So this is a topic on a lot of people's minds and from a variety of walks of life too. So it's not, I'm just saying some of my closest friends were having this conversation. I was having this conversation with a taxi driver when I was just going across to Alek recently, and I can tell you they're looking at this with both a bit of jealousy and a bit of sort of disgust because Egyptians as well are aware that Saudi has been buying up its own country. So seeing them, the idea that Saudi could buy Hamad Sah, that's the word that's on everybody's tongue. Do you see that they want Hamad Sah? Do you see that? They want to take Hamad Sah, and it's not like Hamad Sah is in Egypt right now, even playing. We were fine with him playing in the United Kingdom because this meant, well, he's about to, he is making a name for himself as an Egyptian on the grandest stage there is for football, for club football, and that was bringing that prestige and pride back to us as Egyptians. Him going to Saudi Arabia feels like yet another example of Saudi buying up Egypt or sort of paying, which

James M. Dorsey (55:22):

Is a longstanding Egyptian attitude towards the Gulf and the Saudis in particular.

Karim Zidan (55:26):

Exactly. We don't really like what the government just goes hat in hand begging, begging Saudi royalty and just Gulf royalty in general for money. And this feels like yet another one of those situations where Egypt wants this cultural and historic asset in the region. Once this leading powerful geopolitical figure has been reduced to almost nothing now that we can just be picked apart at the pleasure of Saudi and Emirati royalty, really, and that's really, really frustrating and it's frustrating everybody apart, not just me. It does frustrate me watching this happen in my country, but I can see it on everybody else right now, especially with Sala. Alah meant so much to us because he was the biggest Muslim star, biggest Muslim athlete in the world at that point. He was Egyptian, he was one of us. He played like Egypt, he loved Egypt. He came back regularly.

He spoke like an Egyptian, he was us, and we finally had someone representing us on the global stage. That's why the 2018 World Cup meant so much to Egyptian, and you could see it from the looks on their face. You could see when he scored that winning gold that sent Egyptians to the World Cup, the celebrations for a country that's been so sad for more than 10 years now, since the end of the revolution, the country has been through so much. One of the few things that derives joy for people is football. Muhammad Sah was a big proponent of that, and now it feels like Saudi's taking both that joy and our last bit of hope. So yeah, it's not looking good there. As for Al and Zael, I have to say that they're probably thinking of it as the same thing, but for Al, I do wonder if there's a little bit of jealousy over that story I was telling you earlier about tur and maybe things could have been very different for Al had he stuck around.

James M. Dorsey (57:17):

Indeed. Kareem, we've just started and we've already been an hour at this and we could easily go on for at least another hour, if not more. Unfortunately, I think we should not be boring our readers too long. Our listeners, thank you very much for this conversation. I thought it was really insightful and I learned a lot from you during the conversation. It's something we should maybe even try and institutionalise and think about and do on a regular basis, but for today, I'm afraid we've hit the end of the road. Thank you for joining me. It really was a pleasure. Thank you.

Karim Zidan (58:00):

The pleasure is all mine. James, truly, thank you so much for having me on. It's always a wonderful discussion. I myself learn so much from you every time I read one of your articles, and it's a pleasure to be here having some discussions with you where I learn even more. Thank

James M. Dorsey (58:13):

You. All the best.

Karim Zidan (58:15):

You too. Take care.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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Daniel Shaw
16 oct. 2023

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