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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.

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"Faisal Abu Thnain made history by being the first Saudi citizen to talk back to a prince ... live and on the air and for this, we celebrate him," reads a Facebook page honoring the player. Created shortly after the Jan. 17 incident, it has collected 2,927 fans.

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Someone else started a Facebook group – with 2,085 members so far – calling for the prince's dismissal. His picture is prominently displayed with the international 'No' sign over it.

Then the Saudi newspaper Al Medinah ran a cartoon showing the prince telling a microphone to "ignore these 'babbling' guys talking about things they know nothing about." The bubble over the silenced men reads: "Criticism. Opinions. The Truth. Points of View. Demands. Logical Analysis."

One long-time foreign resident here called the affair "unprecedented."

And Saudi sports columnist Abdulaziz A. Alghiama said that it underscored new attitudes toward a top official who belongs to the ruling family.

"It's completely changed because 10 years back, people were not doing that," says Mr. Alghiama, who writes for the Asharq al Awsat newspaper. While Alghiama conceded that Prince Sultan, who also serves as the country's sports minister, should not have used "insulting" words, he stood up for him.

"It was the first time that Saudi lost to Oman and for this reason, he was so devastated," he says. "Everyone makes mistakes and so there was so much pressure around. He's just a human being."

Abu Thnain said that he realized the prince was disappointed. But he was still "surprised" at his language, which "hurt my feelings, and my mother and father's feelings. They are very angry about that."

But "people are talking about this incident [because] sometimes there are not people who can say to a prince, 'you are wrong.' We are in 2009 and everyone has to accept the other's opinions," he adds. "Now, most of the population in Saudi are under 20 years and each one has a different opinion. If you don't accept them you will have problems in the future."

Some royals want to be more accessible to the public, even if this may dilute the deference once accorded the family.

For example, Princess Loulwa al-Faisal, daughter of late King Faisal, broke the taboo that princesses are not seen with uncovered faces in public and do not appear on television or in

newspapers when she was interviewed on "Good Morning America" in 2007. She covered her hair, but not her face.

Another princess recently created an even bigger stir. Amira al-Taweel, wife of Prince Waleed bin Talal, one of the family's most progressive members, was photographed without face veil, headscarf, or abaya – the black cloak worn by women in public – by Al Watan newspaper, which carried an extensive interview with the princess about all aspects of her life.

Unlike in the past, the paper was not sanctioned by the government.

Prince Sultan did not respond to questions and a request for comment faxed to his office. He did talk about the incident four days after it happened on the privately owned Saudi news channel Al Arabiya. He was in a calm mood, but did not apologize, saying that everyone makes mistakes and "may Allah guide us all."