Saudis break taboo of opposing royals after soccer row

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

Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
Loyal fans: Supporters cheered for the Saudi national team at the 19th Gulf Cup tournament in Oman on Jan. 17.
Courtesty of Faisal Abu ThNain
Critic: Faisal Abu Thnain was a Saudi player.

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.

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.

"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.

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."

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