January 6, 2016 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1219

Saudi-Iranian Tension Extends To Sports – Saudi Arabian Football Federation Announces: We Will Not Play In Iran

January 6, 2016 | By H. Varulkar*
Iran, Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1219

In light of the escalating tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as manifested by the torching of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and Saudi Arabia's subsequent severing of diplomatic relations with Iran,[1] Saudi soccer clubs have voiced apprehension about playing Iranian teams in Iran as part of the Asian Champion League games. Club spokesmen said that Saudi players have always encountered hostility in Iran, and that under current circumstances they even fear for their lives. In response, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) announced that it would file a request with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which organizes the Champion League games, to hold Saudi-Iranian matches outside Iran.  

Saudi Soccer Clubs Refuse To Play In Iran, Saying They Fear For The Players' Lives

Four Saudi soccer clubs - Al-Ahli, Al-Hilal, Al-Ittihad and Al-Nasr, which are representing Saudi Arabia at the 2016 Asian Champion League games - are to play against Iranian teams in Iran starting in February 2016. However, following the January 2, 2016 torching of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, spokesmen for these clubs said that they feared for the lives of the Saudi players, and asked that the matches against Iranian teams be held in a neutral country. For example, Prince 'Abd Al-Rahman bin Musa'id, former president of the Al-Hilal club, tweeted: "I say to the Saudi Arabian [Football] Federation and to our clubs that are participating in the Asian Champion League: [You should] demand that the games against Iranian teams be transferred to a neutral country. We don't want to go to them, and we don't want them to come to us." In another tweet, he called upon clubs in other Gulf countries to express solidarity with this Saudi request, "for we cannot guarantee the safety of our sons while in that enemy country [Iran]..."[2]

'Abd Al-Rahman bin Musa'id's tweets 

'Abdallah Al-Batterjee, vice president of the Al-Ahali club, also tweeted: "[Our] club's administration will ask the SAFF to request that the AFC transfer all [of the club's] planned matches against Persian teams to a neutral location."[3]   

'Abdallah Al-Batterjee's tweets

SAFF vice president Muhammad Al-Nuwaiser joined these calls, tweeting: "There is a crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If Iran is unable to protect embassies, how will it protect stadiums[?] We demand that the Saudi and Iranian teams play in a neutral country."[4]  

Muhammad Al-Nuwaiser's tweet 

Al-Nuwaiser made similar statements in an interview with the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "Iran does not respect [international] treaties and agreements that protect diplomatic representations, so it surely won't protect sports delegations in stadiums where thousands of fans are present."[5]  

SAFF: Redraw Lots For The Games - Or Hold Them In A Neutral Country

In a January 3, 2016 meeting, the SAFF agreed to submit a joint request to the AFC on behalf of the four football clubs asking that all their matches with Iranian teams be held in neutral countries, in order to ensure the safety of the Saudi players and of Saudi technical and administrative staff. The Saudi representative is expected to submit the request at an AFC meeting set for January 29.[6] The SAFF later proposed "redrawing lots for the AFC games so that the Saudi and Iranian teams do not play against each other," as stated by SAFF spokesman 'Adnan Al-Mu'aibed.[7] SAFF vice president Muhammad Al-Nuwaiser told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that if the proposal for a redrawing of lots is rejected, the federation will act to hold the Saudi-Iranian matches, both home and away, in neutral countries.[8]  

Saudi Sports Supplements In Newspapers: Soccer Clubs Refuse To Play Against "Iranian Terror"

The Saudi press reported on the soccer club's apprehensions regarding playing matches in Iran and their decision to request that the games be held in a neutral country. According to the daily Al-Sharq, soccer clubs in other Gulf states have made similar requests.[9] The reports' headlines, and accompanying photos, stressed that the Saudi soccer clubs had for years encountered unfair treatment and sensed "threats and terror" at Iranian soccer stadiums.

Al-Sharq January 4, 2016 sports supplement: "A Gulf Bloc Against the Iranian Terror at the Stadiums"

Al-Riyadh January 4, 2016 sports supplement: "Saudi Soccer Clubs Unite, Refuse to Play in Iran"

Al-Riyadh January 4, 2016 sports supplement: "Iranian Stadiums Have Been Arenas For Terrorizing [Rival] Teams"  

Claims In Saudi Arabia: Saudi Teams Were Always Badly Treated In Iran

As stated, in explaining their refusal to play in Iran, SAFF and Saudi soccer club representatives said that they had always encountered hostility there, and that now, given the crisis between the two countries, their fears are greater than ever. They stated that Saudi teams had always been badly treated, and never received even the minimum of hospitality customarily extended to guests, whether at the airport, at hotels, or when travelling to the stadium. During Saudi-Iranian matches, they said, "the stadiums become arenas of sectarian [conflict] having nothing to do with soccer."[10]

In fact, only seven months ago, in May 2015, the SAFF filed a harsh complaint with the AFC about the racist and hostile treatment encountered by Saudi players in Iran. The complaint focused on the "inconvenience [caused to] Saudi sports teams when [the Iranians] deliberately delay them for hours at the airport and fail to show the courtesy [customarily] extended to guests." It further stated that at games in Iran, spectators shouted "offensive slogans" at the Saudi players that "mixed political issues with sporting competition" and even "threw stones and empty [soft drink] cans at the [Saudi] players," without any intervention by the Iranian organizers.[11]  

Saudi Sports Magazine: Some Of The Actions By Iranian Spectators At Matches Must Be Investigated, And Penalties Must Be Leveled

A report in the Saudi sports magazine Al-Riadiyya accused the AFC of incompetence for its failure to take any measures whatsoever against Iran to date for these actions. The report stated that the AFC discipline committee (sic) had given "easily refuted excuses" for this failure - for instance, that the Saudi clubs had not filed their complaints on time. The report added that "some of the violations by the Iranian spectators require the launching of an official investigation and harsh penalties [against Iran], especially for the [chanting] of slogans and waving of banners of a political and sectarian nature, which is strictly forbidden by FIFA regulations..."[12]  

Pro-Iran political banner at an Iranian-Saudi soccer match (Al-Riadiyya, Saudi Arabia, January 4, 2016). 

Saudi Journalist: Our Players Encounter Hostility, Threats In Iran - And AFC Turns A Blind Eye

In a January 3, 2016 report in Al-Riadiyya, "We Don't Want Tehran," Saudi sports analyst Fahd Al-Roqi described the humiliation encountered by Saudi athletes in Iran, and expressed his support for the SAFF request to hold the matches in a neutral country instead. He wrote: "For many years we have been condemning and denouncing what Iran is doing by means of its [soccer] clubs in the [Asia] Champion League... The Iranians' actions and their treatment of the Saudi [soccer] clubs are not meant merely as [ordinary] taunting [that is acceptable at] sporting [events] [nor are they meant] to lead to a win rather than a loss. Rather, they are motivated by political and sectarian [considerations] that reflect a Persian-Safavid hatred of the Arabs, especially of the people of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf. As part of this enmity, Iran has made use of every dirty trick: threatening, warning, and terrorizing [Saudi players], beginning [with their arrival] at the airport [in Iran] and continuing on the streets and in the stadiums, and even at the hotels [where the players are staying]. [This enmity] was openly expressed at the stadiums, when [spectators] shouted political, sectarian, and religious slogans offensive to our religious leaders and our rulers... and also held [Shi'ite] religious rites, organized deliberately in advance, in the stands [at the stadium],.

"In light of this [Iranian] behavior, the AFC took a weak stance, [acting] as a [mere] observer...

"Each time, we thought that things would change and that the Persian host would honor his guests, cease [this behavior], and restrain his historic hostility [towards us], which has existed since the fire-worshiping Persian kingdom collapsed and was replaced by Islam. Alternatively, we thought that justice would be done and the AFC would implement its code [of ethics and punish Iran]... But all this was [just] a wish that could not be fulfilled...  

"Now we appeal to the president of the AFC, Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa, and remind him of Iran's blatant [interference] in the affairs of the Gulf and especially of Saudi Arabia, [though] he does not need reminding [of this]. The Persian insolence has reached the point where [Iranians] set fire to our embassy [in Tehran] and to the slogan of 'There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger' just because of purely domestic [Saudi] affairs. In light of what [Sheikh Al-Khalifa] has already seen, and [is still seeing] today, and because he is aware of the unsafe conditions and absence of means to guarantee the safety [of the Saudi players], we appeal to him [and] demand that [Iran-Saudi] matches be held on neutral ground, since we do not wish to go to Iran for our to play there, nor do we want to host their clubs [in Saudi Arabia]..."[13]    

*H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 1215, Unprecedented Tension Between Saudi Arabia, Iran Following Execution Of Shi'ite Cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, January 4, 2016.

[2], January 2, 2016.

[3], January 2, 2016.

[4], January 2, 2016.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 4, 2016.

[6] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 4, 2016.

[7] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), January 6, 2016.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 4, 2016.

[9] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), January 4, 2016.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 4, 2016; Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), January 5, 2016.

[11] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 22, 2016.

[12] Al-Riadiyya (Saudi Arabia), January 4, 2016.

[13] Al-Riadiyya (Saudi Arabia), January 3, 2016.

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