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Saudis break taboo of opposing royals after soccer row

The incident highlights a shift from unquestioned deference toward the royal family.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / February 20, 2009

Loyal fans: Supporters cheered for the Saudi national team at the 19th Gulf Cup tournament in Oman on Jan. 17.

Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

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RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

It had been a bad day for the kingdom, and three soccer commentators were trying to make sense of the national tragedy on a live TV talk show.

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Saudi Arabia's national team had lost the 19th Arabian Gulf Cup to Oman, 6-5, because the players were underperforming. There was discord on the team. The coach had made bad moves. Their complaints went on and on. And no one could say that the three – a coach and two former national team players – were unqualified to assess the damage.

Suddenly, word came that a VIP was calling in, demanding to talk with the critics. Prince Sultan bin Fahd, son of the late king, and head of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, had vowed to bring this year's Cup back from Oman.

What happened over the next few minutes, and in the days that followed, became a chart-topper when Saudis gathered to chat. For the episode is one of those moments when a nation instantly recognizes how it has changed. And in this case, that involves the slipping away of unconditional deference to royals.

Most royal family members are still held in high esteem. But economic, political, and demographic forces, as well as new forms of communication, are contributing to changing perceptions about how much unquestioning submission is due the royal sector.

Not least among these forces of change are those issuing from the head of the royal family itself, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Just days ago, the king announced an overhaul of the country's religious and political leadership aimed at speeding up implementation of reforms, particularly in education and the legal system. The king's agenda also includes a slow expansion of responsibilities for the Shura Council, an appointed advisory body.

As the reforms proceed, they will affect the relationship between rulers and ruled, forcing royal family members to increasingly contend with the verdicts of public opinion – as last month's soccer commentary show demonstrated.

Prince Sultan started out calmly, but grew increasingly agitated. Addressing each of the three commentators in turn, he chastised them for being disrespectful and not knowing what they were talking about. "You are all ignorant!" he shouted.

He accused former coach Jassim al-Harbi of saying "awful things" about the team manager, asking sarcastically: "You're evaluating managerial competencies now too, Jasim, you and your likes?"

Unable to get a word in edgewise, the three squirmed in their chairs – a scene viewed thousands of times on YouTube.

Then the prince turned to former player Faisal Abu Thnain. "We work day and night and you just sit here blabbering away on television ... I do not want to hear this talk again. I have tolerated you long enough. You must exercise self-restraint. And you must behave... If you have not been raised properly, we can certainly raise you ourselves."

It was this last sentence that shocked the viewing audience, for to accuse someone of not being well brought up is a deep insult in Saudi culture, on par with shoe-throwing in Iraq.

Mr. Abu Thnain did not let the prince's comment pass. "No, thank God, we have all been raised well and we know our limits and the repercussions of our actions," he retorted before the prince hung up.

Now, the audience was cheering – or at least it would a few days later.