EIU Democracy Rank: 159/167
Saudi Arabia’s qualification began with a 3-2 win against Palestine on June 11th 2015 at Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium in Dammam. In a larger sense though it began in 1744 when Mohammed bin Saud formed an alliance with religious leader Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab and started the Saudi dynasty. bin Abdul-Wahhab is the founder of Wahhabism, a strict fundamentalist form of Islam that insists upon a literal interpretation of the Koran. Wahhabism is the religious ideology of terrorist groups like ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram. It is the alliance between the Saudi family and Wahhabist religious leaders that continues to define the power structure of Saudi Arabia to this day.
During the late 1800s the Saudis fell on tough times. In 1891 the Saudi family were driven into exile in Kuwait by the rival Rashidi dynasty. They remained there until 1902 when Abdulaziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Ibn Faisal Ibn Turki Ibn Abdullah Ibn Muhammad Al Saud (or just Ibn Saud for the sake of brevity) re-conquered his family’s ancestral home of Riyadh. Ibn Saud conquered the kingdoms of Najd and Hejaz in the 1920s and united them to form modern day Saudi Arabia.
In 1938 oil reserves were discovered in Saudi Arabia. This made the kingdom extremely wealthy. To this day no taxes are collected in Saudi Arabia because oil revenues fund all of the nation’s projects. This has been used to exclude the people of Saudi Arabia from politics.
When Ibn Saud died there was a question of who would succeed him. Ibn Saud had numerous wives and fathered 45 sons, 36 of which made it to adulthood (this is why there are so many Saudi princes kicking about) so there was no shortage of potential successors. Eventually prince Saud ascended to the throne under a system of agnatic seniority. That is to say that when Saud died, his next eligible brother would take the throne, not his next eligible son. Eventually six of Ibn Saud’s sons would become king (Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd, Abdullah, and Salmen). The system of agnatic seniority led to a lot of short reigns and limited the possibility of long term stable leadership. The brothers were all similar ages and thus weren’t in a position for a lengthy reign when they took the throne. In 2017 though King Salman broke this cycle by declaring his son, Mohammad bin Salman, his successor. This decision rocked Saudi Arabia to its core. It opened the door for Ibn Saud’s other grandchildren to make a claim to the throne.
When bin Salman takes the throne he will have a number of challenges to navigate. It is believed that he is already very much involved in the running of the state, beyond his official government positions. He has already gone some way to dealing with challengers from within. In late 2017, in his role as head of Saudi Arabia’s anti corruption commission, he arrested 500 people including 11 princes and Billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal. Bin Salman’s biggest challenge though will most likely be foreign policy and diplomatic relations. Public perception of Saudi Arabia around the world is not exactly positive. They are obscenely wealthy, have a torrid human rights record and share a religious ideology with major terrorist groups. They are not exactly a sympathetic lot. Saudi Arabia maintains positive relations with countries like the United States and Canada in large part to the kingdom’s oil reserves and immense wealth, but the oil won’t last forever. So what bin Salmen must achieve is to improve Saudi Arabia’s image in order to insure the long term stability of the kingdom. This is where football comes in.
bin Salman recently unveiled vision 2030, a plan to diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy and modernize the country. Development of sport is a big part of this plan. bin Salman and his father have clearly recognized the value of sport when it comes to diplomacy. King Salman, for example, agreed to build the world’s biggest stadium in Iraq. It is thought that this was in part to increase Saudi Arabia’s influence in Iraq and woo them away from the influence of their international rivals Iran. Interestingly it is technically possible for Saudi Arabia and Iran to play each other at Russia 2018, so watch out for that. The Saudis have also offered to gift a plot of land in Mecca to Liverpool and Egypt star Mohamed Salah. For Saudi Arabia to associate themselves with a beloved star from the Middle East could be effective propaganda. Remember that foreign perception of the regime is almost more important than domestic perception, as long as Saudi Arabia continues to have the money to support a government without taxing its people.
The Saudis also have an interesting project in partnership with La Liga. In January of 2018 nine Saudi players were loaned to Spanish sides (though only Fahd Al Muwallad actually saw the field) . This has some footballing value. It allows members of the Saudi national team (almost all of whom play in the domestic league) to gain some experience at a high level. It also allows Spanish clubs to expand their appeal to Middle Eastern audiences. But this arrangement is also a step towards Saudi Arabia improving their relations with other countries and slowly improving how people view them.
Initially it looked as though bin Salman would be a modernizing force. For example, he granted women the right to drive. But shortly before women were allowed to take to the road for the first time, seven prominent women’s rights activists were arrested. It is believed this was done so they could not use the event as a platform to discuss Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws which state that women need the permission of a male guardian to do things like work or even leave the country. Saudi Arabia is still far from a free country. A lot of this is down to Saudi Arabia’s relationship with radical Islam. The Saudi king is the head of state but he relies on the support of Wahhabist religious leaders to stay in power. Wahhabism is still the official religious ideology of Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism teaches that pretty much everyone other than Wahhabi Muslims are going to hell. This line of thinking is naturally going to lead to extremists being created. Saudi Arabia does quite a bit to export this ideology by funding Wahabbist schools and mosques around the world. It would not be a good thing for a team that represents a country that follows this ideology to become successful. Football is watched by pretty much everyone and a successful Saudi team could be a good way to spread propaganda. However, there has already been some ideological weirdness around Saudi football in the past year. The team refused to acknowledge a moment of silence for victims of the London terror attack, which was perpetrated by a Wahhabi extremist. The Saudi FA apologized for this afterwards but it still seems odd. The argument has been made that moments of silence aren’t really a thing in Saudi culture but they’ve recognized moments of silence in the past so this argument doesn’t make much sense. Saudi club Al Hilal also did not recognize a moment of silence, this one for the victims of an Iranian plane crash, in an Asian champions league match. Clearly there is a political element to the way that Saudi teams conduct themselves when on the international stage and the politics of Saudi Arabia aren’t pretty. It would not be a good thing for the ideology of Saudi Arabia to spread and an impressive performance on the international stage could be a platform for just that to happen. Thus we must hope that doesn’t happen.