The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer
Soccer figures prominently in the life of the Middle East and North Africa. The pitch is often the indicator of things to come. Just think of the key role militant soccer fans played in the years building up to the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and in the subsequent messy years of transition and the protests against the regime of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, as well as in the protests in 2013 against then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Or the fact that the first unprecedented criticism of ruling families in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan occurred in the arena and ongoing protests against Algeria’s military autocrats in the country’s stadiums. For years, many in autocratic regimes viewed the weekly league match as their sole release valve, so much so that disruption of meagre family budgets by male expenditure by husbands on tickets for games sparked a sharp increase of the divorce rate in Egypt. Conversely, across the Middle East and North Africa in autocratic nations and countries that have witnessed popular revolts, women often see the stadium as an important venue to assert their rights in defiance of conservative clergymen and a traditionally-minded society.
The importance of sports in general and soccer in particular notwithstanding, sports studies have focused on all corners of the globe but the Middle East while Middle East studies have researched all aspects of the region but sports. “The study of sports, and football in particular, arguably the most popular form of cultural performance in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East, has much to add to our current understanding of the social, political and cultural history of the region,” said the historian Shaun Lopez in a journal article lamenting the failure of Middle East scholars to include sports in their research. Lopez argued that the lack of research into sports was all the more stunning given “the seminal importance of football and other sports in the region or the central role athletics plays in the formation of national identity in most Middle Eastern and North African countries.”
About the Author:
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wuerzburg. An award-winning journalist and scholar, James has covered and written about the Middle East for more than forty years. James has been based in ten countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. His book, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, is being published in April. A second book co-authored with Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Lost in Transition – Comparative Political Transitions in Southeast Asia and the Middle East is also being published in April.
Co-organised by RSIS and Middle East Institute, NUS