June 21, 2017 Special Dispatch No. 6970

Saudi National Football Team's Failure To Join Minute Of Silence For London Terror Victims Sparks Controversy In Gulf

June 21, 2017
Saudi Arabia, The Gulf | Special Dispatch No. 6970

On June 8, 2017, the Saudi national football team met the Australian national team for a match in Adelaide as part of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. The match began with a minute of silence for the victims of the LondonBridge terror attack on June 3, among whom were two Australians. However, while the members of the Australian team observed the minute of silence, the Saudi players appeared to ignore it and continued moving around the pitch.

The Saudi players' behavior sparked intense criticism in the Western and Arab media and social media. The day after the match, which was won by Australia, the Saudi Football Federation issued a statement that it "deeply regrets and unreservedly apologizes for any offence caused by the failure of some members of the representative team of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to formally observe the one minute's silence in memory of the victims of the London terrorist attack on 3 June 2017." The statement said further that "the players did not intend any disrespect to the memories of the victims or to cause upset to their families, friends or any individual affected by the atrocity."[i]The Australian Football Federation, for its part, clarified that the plan to observe a minute of silence had been coordinated before the game with the Saudi Football Federation. According to the Federation, it was initially agreed that both teams would observe the minute of silence; however, prior to the match senior Saudi team representatives announced that the Saudi players would not observe it since this custom is not in keeping with Saudi traditions, and that, instead, they would remain in their half of the field out of respect for Australian customs.[ii]

The incident was seized upon by Qatar, which in recent weeks has been in intense conflict with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, reflected inter alia by a mutual smear campaign in the Qatari and Saudi media.[iii] The Qatari media rushed to direct harsh criticism at the Saudi football players and even called them "terrorists." The Saudi media responded by lambasting the Qatari media, calling it "deceptive," "opportunistic" and "mercenary," and accusing it of using the incident to present Saudi Arabia as a supporter of terrorism, a charge that has recently been directed at Qatar itself. 

Saudi columnists also responded to the incident itself, taking various views. Some defended the members of the national team, stating that observing a minute of silence is not a Saudi custom and is inconsistent with the principles of Islam, and also noting that Western countries have never bothered to observe a minute of silence for the hundreds of thousands of terror victims in the Middle East. Others condemned the Saudi players' behavior, lamented the diplomatic damage caused to Saudi Arabia, and urged those in charge to prevent a recurrence of such incidents.

This report reviews Arab responses to the incident .     


The Saudi players during the minute of silence (Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, June 9, 2017)

Against Backdrop Of Intra-Gulf Crisis, Qatari Paper Calls Saudi Players "Terrorists"

As stated, the behavior of the Saudi players sparked harsh criticism in Qatar, which in recent weeks has been in intense conflict with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Qatar, which has been accused by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states of financing terror, took this opportunity to tar Saudi Arabia as the true supporter of terror. The sports section of the Qatari daily Al-Raya reported the incident under the headline "The Players of the Saudi Team Are Terrorists," claiming that, while Saudi Arabia purports to fight terrorism, its players became terrorists themselves when they refused to observe a minute's silence for terror victims.[iv]

The Al-Raya headline calling the Saudi players "terrorists"

The report evoked harsh responses in the Saudi press the following day, with papers castigating Al-Raya for its comments and claiming that the "lying" and "mercenary" Qatari press had described the Saudi players as "terrorists" in an attempt to disassociate Qatar from the terrorism it finances and exports.[v]

Headline in Saudi daily Al-Riyadh: "For the Mercenary [Qatari] Media – Standing Up for the Homeland Is an Absence of Values"

Diverse Responses In Saudi Media: Support For The Saudi Team's Decision, Alongside Criticism

Saudi Sports Columnist: Observing A Minute Of Silence Is Forbidden In Islam; Why Don't Westerners Pay Tribute To Arab Terror Victims?

In response to the criticism in the Qatari press and the branding of the Saudi players as "terrorists," 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Daghaithir, a sports columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, called for punishing all those who had made accusations against the Saudi team. He noted that while the Saudis were expected to observe a minute's silence in memory of the London victims, Westerners have never paid tribute to the victims of terrorism in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Bahrain. He also explained that observing a minute's silence is a foreign custom without basis in the shari'a and is therefore considered a forbidden innovation in Islam. He wrote:

"I cannot find a single justification... for the criticism and accusations that have been hurled at the Saudi team and its members for failing to observe a minute of silence... This [custom] is totally foreign to us, is not accepted [among us] and is not anchored in [our] principles or faith, and therefore [observing a minute of silence as a display of] mourning is effectively prohibited... Nor is this [custom] anchored in international norms or protocol, otherwise we would have asked the world's [sports] teams to observe not just one minute of silence, but rather a minute of silence each day in memory of the people who are killed every day in various terrorist attacks all over the world.

"Why have we never heard of anyone observing [a minute's silence] for the victims of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia? Why doesn't anyone make high-flown declarations and demand to observe a minute's silence for those killed every day in terrorist attacks in Iraq? Why don't the Asian teams, at least, stand in memory of the victims of terror in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain [that are also part of Asia]? Are the London attacks 'five-star attacks,' while all other attacks are of lesser [importance]...?

"Do not be swayed by those who make unilateral decisions and try to impose their will on us even though we have nothing to do with them, because we... oppose fake customs and innovations for which no basis exists in [the religion] handed down by Allah. Even if this were not the case, the Saudi team should never have been described in terms and ways that breach the boundaries of [civilized] criticism. Sports tournaments are confined to the playing field, and [rivalry] should never be taken beyond it in order to cover for the failings of those who are unable to gain honor on the playing field [apparently a reference to Qatar]. [It is wrong to] make unfounded accusations and blame [a rival] for various violations that did not actually take place...

"Therefore, all those who hurled imprudent accusations [at the Saudi team] must be punished and held to account... We are now seeing claims and accusations [made against us] by people who until recently praised our principles, values and customs and our accommodating religion. No matter how intense [our] disagreements and disputes have become, the principle of showing respect and appreciation must continue to be cherished and observed, but this is understood only by those who are and will continue to be truly honorable..."[vi]

Another Saudi Sports Columnist: Observing A Minute Of Silence Is Alien To Our Culture; There Are Other Ways To Denounce Terror

Another Al-Jazirah sports columnist, Ibrahim Al-Duhaish, also condemned the coverage of the incident in the Qatari press. He argued that FIFA regulations do not oblige players to observe a minute of silence, and that the Saudi players behaved as they did because they preferred to denounce terrorism in other ways. He wrote: "Faced with the fact that their masters finance and support terrorism, the mercenary [Qatari] press and media found no other way to defend themselves except by [accusing] us of failing to observe the minute of silence. These money-laden opportunists ignored the fact that our failure to do so does not in any way indicate that we support terrorism or fail to share the Londoners' grief over the tragedy that befell them, and that we did this out of a deep belief that it is possible to denounce and condemn all terrorism in other ways – not [only] by observing a minute's silence, which is foreign to our customs and culture that are anchored in our Islamic heritage. Furthermore, no FIFA regulation or rule obliges the Saudi team to observe a minute of silence.

"Far from cheap extremist slogans, history itself shows that Saudi Arabia is [always] the first to condemn terrorist attacks everywhere, since it bears the banner of Islam that calls for peace and love...

"[Even] if, for the sake of the argument, we concede to the logic of this custom [of observing a minute's silence], we are still entitled to ask: Why don't they [the Westerners] and the world perform this custom of theirs when it comes to us [Saudis], who have suffered for years and are still suffering from the violence and tragedies of terrorism and have paid dearly in wealth and in the blood of our sons...?

"However, it seems that the firm policy of [our] unwavering king – which came after [we] exhausted every option of [showing] patience and restraint and disregarding [Qatar's behavior] – caused the supporters of terror to lose their minds, and they resorted to inventions and fabrications and to publishing [condemnations of this sort] due to their wretchedness and the wretched state of their media..."[vii]

Saudi Columnist: Years Of Diplomatic Efforts Went Down The Drain In One Minute; Why Do We Fail To Adapt Ourselves To Others?

A different viewpoint on the Saudi players' behavior was taken by Idris Al-Daris, a columnist for the official Saudi daily 'Okaz, who wrote that their failure to join the minute of silence had caused a diplomatic crisis for no good reason. He condemned the disregard of other countries' customs, which comes at a high cost, and urged the Saudi delegation and sports authorities to draw the lessons, rebuke those responsible for the incident, and prevent its recurrence.

He wrote: "An imprudent and ill-calculated mistake completely upset the balance, which was in our favor, and offered up our country to the global media machine, to be presented as tainted with partisan extremism, ISIS-ism, Wahhabism and terror. The circle of haters expanded, ink was spilled, and [condemning] words were hurled at us in Australia, England and among all [our] opponents... Everyone who had taken a neutral stance towards us turned against us, and all the efforts that the government, the ministers and the officials had made – in reception ceremonies, in hosting [guests] and in farewell [ceremonies] and [related] events – to improve [Saudi Arabia's] reputation went down the drain in a minute...

"Did you imagine that what had taken us years to create could be destroyed in one minute [of silence], ruining all the plans to build up and improve [Saudi Arabia's] reputation? We failed to observe a minute of silence, but after that they wouldn't stop cursing us, bashing us and hurling the ugliest possible epithets at us, for hours. [And the thing is that] there was no good reason to avoid observing [the minute of silence], except that it is not part of our culture. We were [guests] in their country and we should have overcome this impediment… Why are such issues beyond our comprehension? Why do we not learn how others think and act to adapt ourselves to them in ways that do not violate the principles and tenets of our faith?...

"The question now… is how to avoid repeating this mistake in the future. What was said to the Saudi football team that represented us in Australia upon its return [to the country]? What was said to the managers, the players and the head of the [Saudi] delegation? What measures [were taken] to punish or reprimand those who had made this mistake? And why was no clarification or apology issued by the General Sports Authority and circulated as widely as possible, inside and outside [Saudi Arabia]?..."[viii]

Another Saudi Columnist: The Refusal To Participate In The Gesture Creates The Impression We Support Terror

'Abdallah Al-'Aqil, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Watan, likewise condemned the Saudi team's behavior. In an article published the day after the match, he said that the players' failure to observe the minute of silence caused the world to misunderstand Saudi Arabia, and that, had the Saudis asked the Australians to pay tribute to Saudi victims, the Australians would have agreed without hesitation.

He wrote: "I don't know why it is a problem [for us] to join the world in human [gestures] and honor its victims, especially while the Muslim world is being accused of terrorism and while we make efforts to refute the association commonly made between terrorism and Islam. The [custom] of observing a minute's silence in honor of the dead is common all over the world and is not associated with any particular religion or sect... Refusing to honor it in public forums causes the world to misunderstand us and to describe us as condoning the terror attacks and the death of the victims.

"Sadly, make intensive [efforts to] justify [the team's behavior,] asking why [Westerners do not make similar gestures] when it comes to victims in Syria and Iraq. This disregards the fact that Australia is part of the British commonwealth and that the attack took place in Britain. More importantly, what [would have happened] if Saudi Arabia had asked to observe a minute of silence in memory of its victims? Would the Australians have hesitated? Or would they have respected our will and stood with us in tribute to our dead?"[ix]

Diverse Reactions On Twitter: Support For Saudi Players, Alongside Criticism

The incident also sparked reactions from Arab football fans on social media, with some supporting the Saudi team's decision and some condemning it. For example, Algerian Twitter user Radouan Karchi expressed satisfaction at the Saudi team's behavior, writing: "The truth is that the behavior of the Saudi players before the match between Saudi Arabia and Australia pleased me, because observing a minute of silence has nothing to do with Islam."[x]

Radouan Karchi's tweet

Conversely, Iraqi Twitter user Ra'ed Al-Sulaiti implied that this claim is hypocritical, saying: "They say [observing] a minute's silence is an innovation that deviates from the [Islamic] heritage – [as if] the dance [Saudi] King Salman danced with [U.S. President] Trump is a tradition going back to the Prophet [Muhammad]."[xi]

Ra'ed Al-Sulaiti's tweet

[i], June 9, 2017.

[ii] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 9, 2017.

[iii] On the events that led to the present crisis, as part of which Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain have severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No.1315, Uproar In The Gulf Following Alleged Statements By Qatari Emir Condemning Gulf States, Praising Iran, Hizbullah, Muslim Brotherhood And Hamas, May 25, 2017.

[iv] Al-Raya (Qatar), June 10, 2017.

[v] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 11, 2017.

[vi] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), June 16, 2017.

[vii] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), June 16, 2017.

[viii] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 19, 2017.

[ix] Al-Watan, June 9, 2017.

[x], June 8, 2017.

[xi], June 9, 2017.

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