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How A Football Spat Nearly Derailed Saudi-Turkey Rapprochement

On December 29, 2023, Turkey’s most storied football teams, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, planned to play the Turkish Super Cup final at Al Awwal Park at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Cup occurs annually between the winners of the Süper Lig, Turkey’s most prestigious football cup, and the Turkish Cup. Because this year’s Super Cup took place between two fierce rivals and coincided with the 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Turkish Republic, the game was highly anticipated.

Saudi Arabia sought to host the game on its territory to increase its brand value and economic benefits. This would not be the first time for the Super Cup to occur abroad; the match was played in Germany from 2006 through 2008 and in Qatar in 2021. However, the match day saw unexpected tension within Saudi Arabia, eventually escalating to the match’s cancellation and the two teams’ return to Turkey.

Slogans Spawn Controversy

Soon before the match, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe supporters had planned to bring banners to the game that displayed quotes from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s modern founder, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the republic. Fenerbahçe planned to showcase the words “Peace at home, peace in the world,” while Galatasaray intended to present the quote, “How happy is he who can say, ‘I am a Turk.’” However, the Saudi authorities prevented supporters from carrying the banners into the stadium. Moreover, the players were forbidden from entering the pitch while wearing T-shirts bearing Atatürk’s image. Although the Saudi authorities accepted the singing of the Turkish national anthem and flying the Turkish flag, their apparent hostility to Atatürk, led both sides to publish a joint statement announcing the postponement of the game.

Atatürk’s statement, “Peace at home and peace in the world,” was interpreted by some observers as a reference to the conflict in Gaza. Though the meaning of the phrase in this context is ambiguous, it was reported that the Saudi organizers did not want to create the appearance of endorsing either side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, this slogan might not necessarily refer to Gaza at all, as some Kemalists use Atatürk’s statements simply to show their support for the founder of modern Turkey.

However, Saudi TV channels cited international rules and regulations as pretext for the ban. Riyadh Season, the organizing company, stated: “We were looking forward to holding the match on time in accordance with the international soccer rules and regulations that require the sport to be presented without any slogans outside its scope, especially since this was discussed with the Turkish Football Federation in the framework of the preparatory meetings for the match. Despite this agreement, it was unfortunate that the two teams did not adhere to what had been agreed upon, which led to the match not being held.”

Failing to Contain Controversy

Neither the Turkish public nor the media interpreted the banner ban as a silencing of support for Gaza and the Palestinians. Nor did they focus on the minutiae governing international football regulations. Instead, Turkish media, political figures, and the public honed in on Saudi Arabia’s refusal to display Atatürk’s image and his statements—presenting the Saudi reaction as an insult to Turkey’s founder himself. Indeed, a poll taken shortly after the incident showed that almost 55 percent of Turks believed that Saudi Arabia had intentionally disrespected Atatürk and Turkish national values. In some corners, this reaction predictably escalated to anti-Arab racism, including among the disgruntled crowd at the canceled game itself.

Some Turks also argued that the teams’ management hierarchies deserved a portion of the blame for the way that events had unfolded. Ali Koç, a member of Turkey’s wealthiest family and the chairman of Fenerbahçe, came under harsh criticism from some media outlets, which noted that his tenure as the club’s leader had been spectacularly unsuccessful. Critics have argued that the crisis amounted to a cheap and easy way for Koç to win favor with the public—and divert attention away from his own failures—as Atatürk remains revered by many Turks and is also protected by law. Koç’s appeal to Turkish patriotism during the incident may simply be a ploy to increase his popularity among the youthful fanbase of his club, rather than a genuine defense of Turkish values.

Regardless of how the Turks view the debacle, what  is clear is that Saudi Arabia has emerged as the biggest loser from the ordeal; through the unnecessarily strict enforcement of international football regulations, it spurned the chance to host a major sporting event in a Saudi stadium and caused a minor international incident in the process. Although Riyadh Season can convincingly argue that it was following the letter of the law in its decision, the incident will likely cause Saudi Arabia to reexamine its policy of hosting sports and mega-events, which is a major pillar of its economic diversification strategy. As one host country of the 2034 FIFA World Cup, Saudi Arabia will surely find itself at the center of many controversies in the future. Therefore, Saudi football authorities must find ways to deal with international criticism in a constructive way.

Football and the rivalries that grace the sport have long been tied to politics. This connection is likely to cause considerable discomfort to Saudi leaders in the years ahead. As Saudi Arabia hosts a growing number of international events, it will increasingly find itself dealing with uncomfortable political messages, including its regional and domestic policies. How the authorities react to criticism will prove a significant test for Riyadh; neighboring Qatar, which hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2022, faced opprobrium from around the world after it attempted to ban pro-LGBTQ messaging from its stadiums. Considering the potential for negative diplomatic fallout, the Saudis should have clear guidelines about how foreign players, teams, and audiences may avoid crossing the Kingdom’s red lines. However, Riyadh must also learn to cut its losses and accept some level of discomfort. In the instance of the messages that Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray wanted to broadcast at the stadium, it is clear that Saudi Arabia should tolerate them.

Cooler Heads Prevail

The Turkish authorities deserve credit for attempting to calm passions surrounding the incident and heading off a potential diplomatic crisis. To avoid a bilateral crisis, the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) announced that the match had been “postponed to a later date as a result of the joint decision we took with our Clubs due to some problems in the organization.” The TFF’s follow-up statement did not name Saudi Arabia by name, instead stating that: it “We would like to thank the Football Federation, relevant institutions and organizations of the host country for their efforts for the organization of the Super Cup so far.”

Of course, the TFF’s reserved statement follows important geopolitical developments. Saudi Arabia, of course, had only recently restored full diplomatic relations with Turkey. Nevertheless, Turkish institutions and media remained steadfast in their support for Atatürk. As they covered the crisis, Turkish media organizations published statements praising Turkey’s founder— condemning his detractors in the same breath. Saudi Arabia may be wise to consider this incident a wakeup call for future contingencies, in which appearing to demean another nation’s cherished historical figures could precipitate a far more serious international crisis.

While sports and mega events form an excellent way to diversify the Saudi economy and open the country to the outside world, the country’s leaders must not dismiss the potential ramifications from snafus like the Turkish Super Cup final. Considering Saudi Arabia’s unique domestic situation and its regional and global ambitions, new controversies are almost certain to arise as international attention is paid to the Kingdom. Athletics—especially such popular sports as football—cannot be divorced from politics. And while Turkey has largely allowed the tensions surrounding the match to dissipate, other governments may not be so benevolent.

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

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: KSA

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Hamdullah Baycar is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on the identity politics of the Gulf. His academic interests also include orientalism, colonialism, and post-colonialism.


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