upa-admin 04 Ocak 2024 519 Okunma 0

Sports can be used in a way to enhance diplomatic relations and can help hostile nations to develop friendlier relations. In the past, during the Cold War, the Sino-American rapprochement began with the ping-pong diplomacy effort in 1971. It later led to President Nixon’s historic visit to China and the official initiation of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing in the coming years. Similarly, in the 2000s, Türkiye and Armenia tried to normalize their relations through forging a football diplomacy. However, due to the illegal Armenian occupation of Azerbaijan lands, in those years, normalization did not take place. The 2022 Qatar World Cup on the other hand helped this small Islamic country to embrace more modern and open ideas to satisfy international visitors and create a better image in the world. In that sense, what could be described as “the unique power of sport to bring people, nations, and communities closer together via a shared love of physical pursuits[1], sports diplomacy has become a crucially important part of modern diplomacy. However, recently, the cancellation of a planned Super Cup match between Türkiye’s two historic football clubs, Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, on the grounds of political reasons, exemplified a terrible case of sports (football) diplomacy. The event led to a diplomatic crisis between the two countries, although there is still hope that relations could be improved and a re-match could be organized in the coming weeks/months.

Turkish Football Federation (TFF), with the idea of increasing its revenues as well as helping football clubs under heavy debt to recover their economy and increase their international reputation, recently initiated a new practice and started to promote Turkish Super Cup final matches to be played in foreign countries. Following this plan, TFF made a pre-agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to organize Super Cup finals in this country for 5 years in exchange for millions of dollars[2]. Turkish football clubs Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe accepted the plan, a contract was signed between TFF and Saudi Arabia, and the teams went to the Saudi capital on December 29, to make the first final match. Millions of Turkish football fans were ready to watch the final match between Türkiye’s most popular football clubs having millions of fans. However, the match at Awal Park was canceled at the last minute. Turkish press reported that the Saudi Arabian Football Federation did not approve the request of Galatasaray players to warm up on the field wearing Atatürk shirts. Similarly, according to news in the Turkish press, the Saudi Football Federation did not allow Fenerbahçe club’s request to enter the field with a banner featuring Atatürk’s famous quote “Peace at home, peace in the world”.[3] TFF later announced that the organization was postponed with joint decision of clubs due to some problems in the organization.[4]

The problem is caused by the lack of detailed technical arrangements between the two sides and misunderstanding. The Saudi press wrote that the Riyadh regime interpreted two football clubs’ decision to wear Atatürk t-shirts as a political message or protest and insisted that there should not be any politics involved in sports games.[5] Saudi organizers also claimed that they allowed the playing of the Turkish national anthem and the displaying of Turkish flags in the stadium, but two Turkish clubs did not act per the agreement and insisted on wearing Atatürk t-shirts.[6]

Atatürk’s image was perceived as a political symbol by Saudi authorities

Analyzing the situation, the first thing to be said is that the TFF should have made a more detailed agreement by foreseeing a potential crisis. Next time, all details of the organization should be specified in the contract leaving no place for misunderstanding or abuse. Turkish football authorities now fiercely criticize TFF President Mehmet Büyükekşi, accusing him of incompetence. Secondly, Saudi perception of Atatürk as a political symbol or message seems exaggerated for an average Turkish citizen. Of course, politics should not be involved extensively in politics. However, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was Türkiye’s first President (1923-1938) and heroic wartime leader during the National Resistance (1919-1922). In that sense, we should not conceive of Atatürk only as the founder and first chair of the pro-secular and pro-Western Republican People’s Party (CHP), but as a great man who built modern Türkiye, a political figure above petty politics. Atatürk, in that sense, is not a political symbol representing some particular groups, but rather a symbol of the whole country. However, as an Islamic regime based on absolute monarchy rule, Saudi authorities’ approach to Atatürk was overwhelmingly negative. Thirdly, Saudi authorities seem to forget the fact that 2023 was Türkiye’s 100th anniversary, and it was very understandable that Turkish football clubs wanted to show their respect for the founder of the country. Thus, football diplomacy turned into a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or MBS in short

However, despite both sides’ mistakes, the match could be played in the coming weeks/months with a more detailed plan. Moreover, this could turn into an opportunity for the two states to improve their relations. It is a fact that the Saudi regime has some deficiencies in adapting itself to the secular, republican, militarist, and nationalist rhetoric of the Turkish State. However, Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts to modernize itself and open the country to the world should not undermined and on the contrary, should be supported. In line with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s 2030 Vision, the Saudi regime has been trying to curb Islamic radicalism/extremism in recent years.[7] Saudi regime recently allowed the opening of cinema theaters, allowing women to participate in (local) elections, drive their cars freely as well as go to stadiums to watch football matches. These reforms were supported by the Saudi Arabian Football League – Saudi Pro League’s efforts to bring world stars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema to rich Saudi football clubs including Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad. Saudi Arabia was also awarded as the host nation to organize the 2034 FIFA World Cup. Trying to make his holy country more secular, MBS also abolished the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue, replaced it with the Entertainment Authority, and allowed the holding of parties, promiscuous entertainment festivals, and socializing.[8] Although these reforms are often underrated, this is clear progress for Saudi citizens and especially for Saudi women. Reforms were so impressive for Christine Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, who believes that “it is not an exaggeration to say that Saudi Arabia has entered the post-Wahhabi era, although the precise religious lines of the state are still constantly changing”.[9] According to Diwan, “religion no longer has veto power over the economy, social life, and foreign policy” in Saudi Arabia.[10] British journalist Richard Quest also wrote a report about his experience in Saudi Arabia after his last visit there and claimed that “profound” changes that are occurring at “extreme” speed in the Islamic country.[11] He added in the article that the stereotype about Saudi Arabia, where women must be completely covered and there is no mixing between the sexes, and where there is an intolerant religious police force, has changed.[12] These are clear proofs of a real program of social change already initiated by the Saudi regime.

As a Muslim-dominated secular country, Türkiye can become a good role model for Saudi Arabia during this reform period. Riyadh’s regime can do much more to increase the satisfaction of its citizens and to fix its distorted image by providing more rights to women and political freedoms to its citizens by establishing a parliament similar to Atatürk’s Türkiye or contemporary Jordan. Saudi Arabian and Turkish regimes could be very different for the moment, but we should not forget the fact that, just a century ago, until the First World War, Saudi Arabia was part of the Turkish Empire known as the Ottomans. So, the shared history and some similar cultural values could help these two nations to follow a similar modernization path. In that sense, Saudi authorities should be informed that Atatürk is not a divisive political figure, but rather Türkiye’s only unifying political symbol, and the displaying of Atatürk’s name, images, and quotes are by no means any disrespect to the Saudi regime or current more Islamic government/President in Türkiye. In fact, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan always exalts Atatürk by calling him “Gazi Mustafa Kemal” as a great founding leader. So, Saudi authorities should not act techy or shy on that matter.

To conclude, the crisis could turn into a deeper cooperation between the two countries and could lead to a better cause. Türkiye needs Saudi and other Arab countries’ investments and tourists to recover its economy. Moreover, for Turkish artists, sports players, academics, and other professionals, Arab countries could be a good destination to increase their popularity, audience, and incomes. For all these reasons, I hope this Super Cup final match could be played in the coming weeks/months without any problem in Riyadh.

Cover Photo: Turkish Football Federation President Mehmet Büyükekşi, Fenerbahçe President Ali Koç, and Galatasaray President Dursun Özbek.

Assoc. Prof. Ozan ÖRMECİ














Leave A Response »

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.