Saudi and Iranian sports have politics written into their DNA.
Little more than a decade ago, Saudi Arabia fielded three expatriate Saudi women athletes at the 2012 London Olympics to avoid an International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban on participation.
The IOC had made fielding women athletes a condition for Saudi male athletes, alongside Qataris and Bruneians, for competing in the tournament. At the time, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei were the three countries that had never included women in their Olympic teams.
Today, women’s sports is a tool in Saudi Arabia’s effort to cement its position as a global player and leader of the Muslim world, defender of Muslim rights, and arbitrator of what constitutes ‘moderate’ Islam.
In the kingdom’s latest move, the Riyadh-based Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation (ISSF) warned that a ban on French women athletes wearing a hijab, or headcover, at next year’s Paris Olympics “send(s) a message of exclusion.”
The Federation groups representatives of 39 Muslim-majority National Olympic Committees and governmental youth and sports organisations. It is headed by Saudi sports minister Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, a member of the kingdom’s ruling family and former racing driver.
Last week, the IOC insisted hijabs would be allowed inside the athletes’ village at next year’s Olympics but stopped short of applying the rule to the French squad.
The IOC said it was in touch with the French Olympic Committee “to further understand the situation regarding the French athletes.”
Earlier, French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera told France 3 television that no French delegation member would be allowed to wear the hijab to support France’s “strict secularism.”
In a statement, the ISSF asserted the ban “contradicts the principles of equality, inclusivity, and respect for cultural diversity that the Olympics stand for. The hijab is an aspect of many Muslim women’s identity and should be respected.”
The ISSF said, “This ban not only infringes upon the religious freedom of French Muslim athletes but could also deny them the opportunity to participate in the Olympics, representing their country and inspiring others.”
The Olympic ban follows the August banning of the abaya, or women’s whole body cover, in French schools.
By defending a Muslim majority view in favour of a woman’s right to wear a hijab, Saudi Arabia, a dominant force in the ISSF, brandishes its religious credentials at a time when it has lifted several restrictions on women in the kingdom, including in sports, eased gender segregation, sought to reduce the role of religion in public life, and introduced Western-style entertainment.
It also comes as many suspect Saudi Arabia may compromise on Palestinian rights as part of a US-led effort to get the kingdom to recognize Israel. In a first, two Israeli ministers visited Saudi Arabia in the last week to attend international conferences.
Politics also loomed large when Saudi club Al-Ittihad FC refused this week to play an Asian Champions League match in Isfahan against Iran’s Sepahan because of busts of controversial assassinated Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani at the entrance to the pitch.
Iranian media reported that the busts had been in place for three years and that Al Ittihad practiced in the stadium earlier this week without making an issue of the figures.
The match would have been one of the first since 2016 that Saudi and Iranian clubs would have played games against one another on home soil.
In a similar incident in June, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, in Tehran for the first time since Saudi Arabia and Iran reestablished diplomatic relations, demanded a change of venue for a news conference with his Iranian counterpart because the initially scheduled room featured a photo of Mr. Soleimani on the wall.
China mediated the restoration of relations in March. Saudi Arabia severed ties in 2016 after Iranians ransacked Saudi diplomatic missions in protest against the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric.
Mr. Soleimani was killed near Baghdad airport in a United States drone strike in January 2020. Saudi Arabia had designated as terrorists Mr. Soleimani and his Al Quds Brigade, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) unit operating outside Iran.
Iranian authorities celebrate Mr. Soleimani as a national hero.
Saudi Arabia asserts the brigade and Mr. Soleimani were involved in Iranian attacks on Gulf shipping and Saudi oil installations and support Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shiite Muslim militias in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.
Some 60,000 spectators waited in vain this week in Isfahan’s Naghsh-e Jahn Stadium as Al-Iitihad refused to leave the dressing room if Mr. Soleimani’s busts remained in place.
Although spectators were disappointed at being deprived of the opportunity to see stars N’Golo Kante and Fabinho play, videos circulating on social media appeared to show angry Iranian fans chanting that politics should be kept out of the beautiful game. N’Golo Kante and Fabinho transferred to Al-Ittihad earlier this year.
Some postings suggested that Sepahan players applauded the fans.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the continent’s soccer body, said it was looking into the incident. The AFC could penalize both clubs.
Sepahan could be fined and lose points for putting political symbols in the stadium in violation of the fictitious assertion by football regulators that sports and politics are separate, while Al-Ittihad could be punished for refusing to play a match.
Two weeks ago, Saudi club Al-Nassr played Iran’s Persepolis in Tehran’s empty Azadi Stadium after the AFC imposed a one-game spectator ban because of fan behaviour.
The Isfahan stadium protest follows a crackdown on months of protests sparked a year ago by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in Iran’s morality price custody.
Security forces killed more than 500 protesters and detained 20,000 others, including footballers, journalists, and film stars.
Seven protesters were sentenced to death and executed in what the United Nations UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran Javaid Rehman called “arbitrary, summary and sham trials marred by torture allegations.”
This week’s hospitalisation of a 16-year-old girl in Tehran has put Iran back on edge. Activists alleged the girl was beaten on a train into a coma by the morality police for not complying with Iran’s mandatory hijab rules.
State-run media asserted the girl had fainted because her blood pressure dropped and had hit the side of the train carriage.
Al-Iitihad’s refusal to play Sepahan highlights limits to Saudi Arabia and Iran’s rapprochement. The two countries seek to cooperate on economic and other issues without attempting to resolve fundamental differences symbolized by Mr. Soleimani’s legacy.
Mr. Soleimani’s bust sent a message that Iran was unlikely to modify policies bitterly opposed by Saudi Arabia as a result of the restoration of diplomatic relations. These policies include Iran’s support for militias in various Arab countries and its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
As a result, the Al-Ittihad incident casts a shadow over Saudi and Iranian efforts to manage their differences to prevent them from spinning out of control.
Relations could further sour if the kingdom concludes a legally binding security deal with the United States as part of an agreement involving Saudi recognition of Israel.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Muslim ambassadors this week that normalisation of relations with Israel amounted to “gambling” that was “doomed to failure.”
He warned that countries that establish relations with the Jewish state would be “in harm’s way.”
Also addressing the gathering, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian added, “We do welcome the new page in ties with our regional brothers, yet we should also … move decisively to reject the Zionist regime’s legitimacy and forgo normalization with it.”
Al-Ittihad’s refusal, on the one hand, highlights the fragility of the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement.
On the other hand, like the support for French Muslim women athletes, it reinforces the kingdom’s positioning as an authoritarian yet socially more liberal and moderate Muslim power opposed to religious militancy, including Iran’s brand of aggressive militant Islam.