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Can “Soccer Diplomacy” Mend Fences Between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Sport as a tool for international cooperation dates from the 1970s, when American and Chinese leaders began to use “ping-pong” diplomacy to strengthen ties between their two nations. While soccer is very different from ping-pong, it can be used for the same purpose, especially between teams from states with adversarial political ties. Sport as a tool in favor of cultural diplomacy has already recorded many successes, both at the regional and international levels.

This has been the case in the Middle East as well. Iran and Iraq, for instance, fought a horrific war for eight years in the 1980s, but shortly after the UN-brokered ceasefire, their national teams faced off on the pitch for the first time since the beginning of the war in the “Peace and Friendship Cup” in Kuwait. The former foes resumed direct diplomatic relations and reopened embassies in respective capitals in 1990, one year after their match. Similarly, Saudi Arabia embraced soccer diplomacy to help restore its relations with neighboring Iraq in 2018.

A Rapprochement is Possible

The White House’s diplomatic about-face following the ignominious departure of Donald Trump has led to serious adjustments in Saudi foreign policy, helping open a narrow window of opportunity for renewed diplomatic efforts in favor of easing regional tensions. So far, Riyadh has reconciled with Qatar, offered a truce to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, and opened direct talks with Iran, intending to stabilize its relations with Tehran. This, along with a series of symbolic public gestures by sports bodies and officials in both countries, has raised hopes among some experts and sports enthusiasts in Iran that the perennial regional and denominational rivals could finally move toward rapprochement.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been tense for decades, oscillating between periods of overt hostility and détente. These rocky relations, which are mainly rooted in competing interests across the region, suffered a serious blow after mobs protesting the execution of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric by Riyadh stormed Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad in 2016. In reaction to this incident, Saudi Arabia swiftly severed ties with Iran, and some allies of the Saudi kingdom later followed suit. Political tensions even poured onto the pitch, as the Saudi soccer federation decided not to send champion league clubs to Iran; in the years since then, matches between Saudi and Iranian teams have been held in neutral venues, as required by an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) ruling.

In March, the AFC named Saudi Arabia as the host for three Champions League 2021 group stages between April 14 and 30, citing travel restrictions and quarantine challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this binding decision, and despite initial protests by two Iranian clubs, Foolad Khuzestan and Esteghlal Tehran, they flew to Saudi Arabia for the first time in five years. For senior Iranian sports officials, this was a difficult and costly decision, as they faced extensive criticism at home for failing to protect Iran’s “inherent right” to host these games. Critics even blamed the administration of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, particularly the foreign ministry, for its diplomatic laxness on the issue.

A Surprising Welcome

Many in Iran were concerned about their homeland permanently losing its privilege to host future Asian League matches, because they believed if the Saudis did not reciprocate Iran’s move, it would turn into a major embarrassment for Iranian soccer.

Another concern among Iranian sports officials was the possibility that the Saudis might seek to obstruct Iranian teams’ performance and create problems for them. To their surprise, the Saudis welcomed Iranian soccer players with flowers and sweets at the airport and provided them with proper facilities during their matches. This caused some media outlets in Tehran to speculate whether the Saudis had signaled their desire to resume ties with such “floral diplomacy”. The CEO of the Foolad Khuzestan club wrote on social media that “he was astonished by the unexpected respectful manner of the Saudis,” noting that it reminded him of the “famed ping-pong diplomacy.”

Just days later, the Saudis presented another Iranian club, Esteghlal Tehran in Jeddah, with a celebration cake at their hotel after the club’s ascendancy in the AFC Champions League. These gestures were received positively back in Iran, with a popular newspaper running an editorial under the title, “Souvenir Photo with Friendship Cake”; others expressed hope that these gestures could herald an end to “hate-mongering” among the two nations. The conservative Tabnak news website described the move as “a peace message on the part of the Saudis” in the sports field “that could be extended to political and military affairs”. At the same time, though, the Saudis turned down a request by the Esteghlal club to visit Mecca and perform the Umrah.

The Saudi gestures of friendship sparked cautious optimism about the start of a new “soccer diplomacy” and the possibility that the upcoming months could see Tehran hosting Saudi clubs for future contests. In the same vein, the president of the Iranian National Olympic Committee told reporters in mid-June that he and his colleagues were pursuing sports diplomacy with Saudi Arabia, in full agreement with senior state officials. Those remarks were the first reaction by a senior Iranian sports official for a long time about efforts by the Iranian government to resolve the dispute between the two nations over the venue of the games.

Shift in Tone But Not in Substance

Alas, these optimistic forecasts were short-lived. The Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) reportedly declined to give a positive response to a recent letter sent by the Iranian side calling for an end to the practice of holding club-level matches in neutral venues and a return to the previous “home-and-away arrangement” after Iranian teams demonstrated “good faith” by traveling to Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the AFC later poured cold water on the expectations about an imminent end to the dispute, informing Esteghlal that its upcoming match against the Saudi club Al-Hilal “will be held at a neutral stadium.”

In the traditional sense where diplomacy is the ‘dialogue between states’, sports diplomacy is often associated with states exploiting sporting events for public diplomacy opportunities, helping to cool tensions in troubling diplomatic relationships and testing the waters for possible policy changes.

However, the problem with Iran-Saudi matches is that competitions between Iranian national teams and their Saudi counterparts, even club-level matches, have often given rise to brawls between Iranian and Saudi hooligans hurling reciprocal religious and national insults at each other. Contrary to the general belief that soccer and politics should be kept separate from one another, the Iran-Saudi sectarian divide and its associated political developments have deeply affected soccer matches. As in other nations, sport competitions have been used as a tool to criticize each other’s Middle East policies, for example the Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain in 2011 or the War in Yemen, among other disputes which in some cases have triggered fanatical behavior among soccer fans on both sides.

The limited direct knowledge and contacts between Iranians and Saudis has compounded this situation, giving rise to further suspicion and misconceptions among the people of the two countries. Therefore, creating bridges between the people of two countries in such a toxic environment has become very difficult and challenging.

The future of the Saudi-Iranian soccer dispute remains ambiguous, particularly in view of Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts to impose its will on Asian soccer – for instance, leading a failed 2018 bid to form a breakaway league, the so-called “South West Asian Football Federation” (SWAFF), which excluded Iran, Jordan, and Qatar. COVID-related restrictions, and the insistence by Saudi clubs and fans on not going to Iran, have added to the complications. Therefore, optimism about any thaw in Tehran-Riyadh ties in the near future appears undue.

When the AFC has waded into the dispute, it has inflamed tensions rather than resolving them. The federation’s management has banned Iran from hosting international matches on Iranian soil, including qualifying matches for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. After its objections were unresolved, Iran had to send its national squad to Bahrain to contest the World Cup matches.

Against this backdrop, given Iran’s ongoing talks with Saudi Arabia, there seems to be a shift in tone but not in substance. The Saudi leadership is waiting “to judge” the incoming Iranian administration, while President-elect Ebrahim Raisi has hinted at Tehran’s readiness to restore ties with Riyadh.

While it is too early to be optimistic, if the current small window of opportunity is managed carefully, it might lead to building trust and create the political will necessary for dialogue. Riyadh and Tehran should each realize that softening their policies in sports will not harm their prestige. On the contrary, doing so would send a positive signal for rapprochement. With gradual success in these areas, they could expand the scope of reconciliation to other critical issues and overcome rivalries and divides. This will undoubtedly be a long process, but it could eventually pay significant dividends for both sides.

Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist, researcher and media consultant based in Tehran.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Mohammad Hashemi is a journalist, researcher and media consultant based in Tehran. Formerly he was the chief editor and producer at PressTV website, the Iranian state-owned English news, and documentary network (2015-2019). He was also a political editor at the Financial Tribune (2014-2015) and the Tehran Times (2010-2014). Hashemi is an alumnus of the ‘Heinz- Kühn Foundation’ in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. His work and commentary have been featured in Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, the Middle East Eye, The Wire as well as Iranian media outlets, among others.

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