Abdullah Al-Arian (ed.), Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game (UK: Hurst Publishers, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you edit this book?
Abdullah Al-Arian (AA): This book is the product of a two-year research initiative supported by the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University in Qatar. The stated aim of the project at the time was “to provide original academic insight on the political, economic, and social dynamics of football within the region.” In other words, this project offered an exciting avenue by which scholars could come together to explore not only how football has impacted the states and societies of the Middle East, but also how the game reflects broader processes at work in the region, from political contestation and popular mobilization to significant shifts in mass consumerism and modes of cultural expression. As a powerful and universal cultural force that has captured the popular imagination, driven state policy, and shaped the relations between nations, football in the Middle East has long been deserving of greater scholarly treatment than it has traditionally received. As a massive football fan myself, working on this volume was an absolute joy, allowing me to learn much from the leading scholars in this budding field and to offer a deeper look into the game we love and its place in the region.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AA: Naturally, the fact that Qatar was selected to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup has helped to spur scholarly interest in exploring football’s impact in the Middle East (and vice versa). Nonetheless, it is important to note that football has a rich legacy that long predates the recent emergence of wealthy Gulf states as major players that have shaken up the global footballing landscape.
Historically, the game held a significant place in the colonial experience, played a part in national identity formation, and was cemented as a powerful cultural force with the rise of post-colonial regimes. Football has since developed as a significant site of political contestation and the pursuit of economic interests. The chapters in this volume explore the various elements of football’s heritage and current place across the Middle East. Using the early-twentieth-century formation of the Egyptian league as a case, the opening chapter shows how the development of the game of football was intertwined with broader power politics within Egypt’s governing institutions as they wrested control from colonial rule. Subsequent chapters build upon the theme of football as a site of political contestation, at once examining how states from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates have relied on their footballing interests to legitimize authoritarian rule and in turn how football culture was invoked in the course of popular mobilizations such as the Hirak movement in Algeria.
Football also provides a useful lens by which to examine collective experiences of populations throughout the Middle East. The volume includes chapters that discuss the major obstacles facing women’s football in Turkey and the marginalization of Palestinian footballers in Lebanon. Others look at the impact (or lack thereof) of football-themed state, club, and NGO programs in confronting the region’s refugee crisis, as well as football’s place in the BDS movement for Palestinian rights.
Of course, with the first World Cup to be staged in the Middle East set for later this year, several scholars contributed chapters that speak directly to this momentous event. As the Qatar national team has enjoyed much recent competitive success, one chapter challenges conventional wisdom regarding national identity performance by looking at the multiple layers of identity at work in the Qatar national team. Another author engages the prevailing literature on fan engagement by calling for a new approach to how football fandom is assessed in the context of Gulf states.
Much of the scrutiny directed toward the 2022 FIFA World Cup has centered on Qatar’s treatment of its migrant labor force, without whom the massive infrastructure projects necessary to host the games would have been impossible. A chapter dedicated to the questions raised by this issue examines both the global campaign for migrant workers’ rights and the Qatari state’s response, with far-reaching implications for labor conditions across the Gulf region well beyond this year’s tournament. Similarly, another chapter chronicles how Qatar’s major investment in football has extended into the realm of broadcast rights, with the state-owned BeIN Sports network emerging as a point of contention during the blockade of Qatar by several of its neighbors beginning in 2017. A Saudi-based pirated channel threatened to upend the regional sports broadcasting landscape during one of the most volatile conflicts in GCC history. On the subject of media, the volume also includes a chapter on how journalistic coverage has shaped narratives surrounding women’s attendance at football matches in Iran. Together, all of the chapters included in this book reflect the belief that football represents a powerful force that has much to tell us about the lived experiences of people in the region.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AA: Much of my prior work has been dedicated to the study of the rise and evolution of Islamic social movements in the Arab region. In fact, one can identify some compelling parallels between the assumptions that animate that work and the growing interest in football’s impact in the Middle East. Once we strip away the essentializing components regarding Islam that hinder so much of the scholarship around Islamic activism, we can begin to see that language, symbols, historical experiences, and other significant markers can form a powerful force around which social movements can coalesce and mobilize.
Football has certainly offered such a collection of cultural reference points and rallying cries that have been increasingly visible over time, most recently in the prominent participation of football ultras in the Arab uprisings. And like the role of religion in the context of most states, so too have states attempted to instrumentalize their proximity to football in the advancement of regime interests. My chapter in the volume focuses on precisely this phenomenon, contending that “soft power” is insufficient in describing how authoritarian rulers deploy football to prop up their regimes. The similarities are apparently not lost on these states either. After the regime aggressively coopted the Egyptian national team’s appearance at the 2018 World Cup in Russia to legitimize Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s deeply unpopular rule, the head of the Egyptian football association inexplicably blamed Islamists for the team’s disastrous performance in its group stage matches.
Football also presents a number of questions that have been explored in other contexts (including the study of Islam in society), such as the challenge of preserving authenticity in the face of increased commodification, or locating avenues for empowerment and unity where the potential for conflict and division also exists. In fact, studying football in society may have much to tell us about broader political and socioeconomic phenomena. Football as religion is a widely used cliché, but religion as football may have something to it as well.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AA: This book speaks to multiple audiences. On the one hand, it pushes forward a subfield within the literature on sports and society in the Middle East, challenging conventional theoretical frameworks and sharing groundbreaking field research that is certain to help shape scholarly discussions on these topics in the years to come. On the other hand, all of the chapter authors have tapped into the passion that makes football the most popular sport in the world, offering fans everywhere a view of the game as it exists in this part of the world. As football fans around the globe set their sights on the first World Cup to come to the region, I hope they will find in this volume a useful guide to the multiplicity of experiences that define the beautiful game in the Middle East.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AA: I am currently working on a follow-up to my first book that chronicled the revival of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 1970s. This second project is far more ambitious in both scope and scale, examining the twentieth-century diffusion of the Muslim Brotherhood mission from its home in Egypt across the Arab region. The book explores the various tensions and congruences between Islamism and nationalism by tracing the localization and nationalization of Islamic activism in six Arab states. My hope is that this book will offer both a corrective to some of the prevailing views regarding the history of Islamism as it relates to nationalism, as well as provide a useful comparative study of the Islamist experience, from Tunisia to Kuwait.
Separately, I am co-leading a new CIRS research initiative on “the global histories and practices of Islamophobia.” The project, which we expect to result in an edited volume, is bringing together specialists to examine the historical roots of anti-Muslim animus in a wide array of geographic contexts and track their manifestations into the contemporary setting. We expect that the comparative element of this project will yield a far deeper understanding of a universal phenomenon that nonetheless has exhibited unique features everywhere it has appeared. With increasingly worrying developments in the United States and Europe, China, Russia, India, and even within the Middle East, we believe that the need to study the roots of Islamophobia is as urgent as ever.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-6)
Far and away the most popular sport in the world, football has a special place in the states and societies of the Middle East. The beautiful game has a rich and vibrant history in the region and continues to be the single most unifying cultural force in the realm of sports. Football brings together families as they pass down their support for clubs from one generation to the next. The sport brings cities out in full force to celebrate their local team’s most memorable victories. It mobilizes entire nations beneath the badge of their country on football’s largest stage, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup. Football fandom has also been channeled in the course of popular revolutions, while authoritarian rulers have relied on it to bolster support for their regimes. It has been invoked in the relations between states, both in times of cooperation and in times of conflict. As the brief sketches below demonstrate, the story of football in the Middle East is inseparable from the broader experiences of the region and the destinies of its people.
Against all odds, the Iraqi national football team defeated the likes of Australia and South Korea to reach the 2007 final match of the Asian Cup, where it would face perennial favorite and three-time winner of the tournament Saudi Arabia. Even under ideal conditions, reaching a first-ever final would be an impressive feat for Iraq, but in this moment, the cup final matchup represented what one writer observed as “the side without a country, against the most well-funded national side in the world.” Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States, which followed more than a decade of debilitating economic sanctions, the Iraqi national team had faced perilous conditions that tempered any footballing ambitions the country may have held. In the leadup to the tournament, the team was forced to train in neighboring Jordan to escape the ravages of military occupation and sectarian violence back home. Then, on the eve of the opening group stage match, the team’s physiotherapist was killed by a car bomb in Baghdad while attempting to rejoin the squad.
The Iraq team lifted the cup in Jakarta, following a narrow 1–0 win over Saudi Arabia in the final. The victory, however, had been overshadowed by the news from home, as a series of bombings killed fifty Iraqi fans while they celebrated their team’s semi-final win over South Korea. Subsequent news reports juxtaposed the team’s remarkable achievement with the adversity it faced. The blending of the two produced narratives about the unity displayed “across Iraq’s sectarian divide” and “the healing power of sport.”
Three years later, in 2010, world football’s governing body, FIFA, would declare that it had accepted Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The announcement was at once met with jubilation and incredulity. Qatar would become the smallest country to ever host a World Cup and the first in the Middle East to do so. Buoyed by the country’s natural gas wealth, Qatar’s leaders positioned their nation as a technically advanced site to host a tournament that “created new concepts” and “pushed the boundaries,” while also pledging to be more inclusive than conventional tournaments—“a World Cup for everyone,” according to the chairman of the Qatar bid, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani. Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the wife of the country’s ruling emir at the time, added, “this is an opportunity to eradicate misconceptions, not just about Qatar, but about the wider Islamic and Arab world.”
Elsewhere, FIFA’s announcement elicited considerable outcry. Critics questioned every facet of the decision, from Qatar’s lack of a strong footballing pedigree, to concerns over climate conditions during the desert country’s intensely hot summer months (in which the games are traditionally played). Others expressed skepticism toward Qatar’s ability to pull off the logistical feat of constructing new stadiums, training facilities, hotels, and a public transit system, among other infrastructure requirements, even with the tournament being twelve years away. Cultural arguments advanced the notion that a Muslim country that limited the sale of alcohol could not possibly host a global event in which alcohol consumption was a central feature of the fan experience. Some even questioned the integrity of the process itself in which “an unlikely nation” was awarded the World Cup, amid allegations of vote-buying and corruption within FIFA. Most of all, however, Qatar would face intense scrutiny over the conditions of its migrant labor force, which formed the backbone of the country’s ability to build the infrastructure vital to the delivery of the games. In light of persistent accusations that it was practicing “modern-day slavery,” Qatar faced intense pressure to reform its labor system to bring it in line with international human rights standards.
Only a few months after Qatar’s successful World Cup bid made headlines, a wave of popular uprisings swept the Middle East and North Africa. As one authoritarian regime after another faced the prospect of being overthrown in favor of a more representative political order, observers shifted their focus to examining the various social movements that mobilized in opposition to deeply entrenched dictatorships. In Egypt, which saw the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak upended by an eighteen-day mass protest, the role of football Ultras was noted for defending protesters confronted by state violence. In their storied past, devoted fan groups such as the Al-Ahlawy Ultras (of Al-Ahly Sporting Club) were no strangers to repressive crackdowns. As one member of Al-Ahlawy recounted, “it wasn’t just supporting a team; you were fighting a system and the country as a whole. We were fighting the police, fighting the government, fighting for our rights.” That experience proved valuable when Mubarak sent both police forces and plain-clothed gangs to disperse the protesters at Tahrir Square in Cairo and elsewhere across the country. The Ultras repelled attacks by government forces, protected civilian protesters, and maintained the pressure on the regime that ultimately led to Mubarak’s removal.
During the transitional period that followed, the Ultras continued to be a fixture at the mass protests objecting to the military’s domination of the political process. Then, following a match at Port Said Stadium in February 2012, seventy-four Al-Ahly supporters were killed in attacks by armed thugs as police stood by and did nothing. The assault was likely premediated—retribution for the Ultras’ anti-regime activism. The massacre was by far the largest instance of violence in Egyptian football history. In the words of one observer, the Port Said tragedy “transformed a football fan club of revolutionaries into a political entity.” The Ultras’ efforts to seek justice for the victims through Egyptian courts were denied. Instead, the government issued a ban on all fans in football stadiums that was only partially lifted in 2018. As for the Ultras, the revived authoritarian regime led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi outlawed all organized fan groups as part of its broader efforts to suppress independent political currents within Egyptian society.
Football in the Middle East Through the Decades
In the shadow of these and other developments, it is no surprise that over the course of the past decade, football in the Middle East has emerged as the subject of both impassioned political and cultural expression as well as academic study. Historian Rashid Khalidi identified the problems in defining the “Middle East” as a self-contained unit of analysis, owing to the lack of precision in determining its physical boundaries, the colonial origins of the term, and its continued political uses in the service of neo-imperial interests. He also noted the failure to account for economic, social, and political processes that transcend regional confines, and called upon scholars to seek the connective tissue between phenomena with roots in the region and their manifestations beyond narrowly defined geographies. There are few developments in the modern era that rise to this call more than football, a sport that originated elsewhere, and has captured the imaginations of populations across all continents, but nevertheless developed deep political, cultural, and social roots in the Middle East. The studies presented here reflect an understanding of the region as a porous unit of analysis with processes that can be traced to regions beyond, observed in part through the universality and permeability that football offers.
This volume aims to build upon the recent surge in interest in football as the leading sport in the Middle East, while also highlighting its longstanding presence as a political and cultural force for over a century. To be sure, the beautiful game has roots in the region that date back to the era of European colonial rule, state- building, and modernization. The introduction of football as a leisure activity and an organized sport was part and parcel of broader efforts by officials to transform colonized subjects into “properly obedient individuals” whose physical conditioning formed an integral part of colonial educational. Local elites internalized discourses on organized sports as a mark of cultural and civilizational advancement.
Egyptian nationalists believed their country’s participation in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games represented Egypt’s arrival as a full-fledged member of the global community of nations. In mandate Palestine, organized football matches were alternately used by colonial officials “to pacify the anger of the Arab population who opposed the pro-Zionist British policy,” as well as by Zionist settlers and indigenous Palestinians to assert competing nationalist claims. The establishment of an annual football tournament in the mid-1940s aided the Hashemite monarchy in its consolidation of Jordanian national identity, while in Sudan, college graduates’ assumption of leadership in the national football association represented “an early exercise in mass politics and popular government.”
As scholars have noted, football’s central place in public life across the Middle East and North Africa continued well into the era of anti-colonial revolution and radical politics. As part of its revolutionary struggle against France, the Front de Liberation (FLN) assembled a football team to advocate on behalf of Algerian independence while competing internationally. Upon leading the military’s overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy, Gamal Abdel Nasser went to great lengths to enlist the Egyptian Football Association in mobilizing mass support for the newly established republic, using it to empower the armed forces and legitimize the dominant role it came to play in governance. So too was football considered a liability to more pressing political demands. In the aftermath of Egypt’s defeat in the June 1967 war with Israel, Nasser suspended the Egyptian league, labeling it a “distraction” from the goal of national liberation. Similarly, in the lead-up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, opponents of the ruling monarch argued that the national obsession with football represented a deliberate attempt by the Pahlavi regime to subdue the population into quiet obedience in the face of government corruption and repression.
By the late 1990s, amid emerging discourses on the impact of globalization on local societies, football was frequently invoked as a device to understand international relations, neoliberal economics, and the homogenization of popular culture. “Football as peacemaking” became a frequent refrain, with the United Nations establishing a series of programs promoting football as a tool for conflict resolution and economic development. More than just another game, the group stage match between the United States and Iran at the 1998 World Cup carried the weight of nearly twenty years of hostile relations between the two states. The drama surrounding the match, which Iran won 2–1, played out in the realm of global public opinion and in conciliatory statements by the heads of state of both nations. Emboldened by the perceived political opening posed by the globalization of football, one prominent writer envisaged a “football revolution” in the Middle East that would displace the forces of political Islam and anti-Americanism.