A surprise victory against Argentina, an outpouring of supporters in the streets of Doha… Saudi Arabia has been surprising since the start of this World Cup. Admittedly, with six participations on the clock, the kingdom is not at its first World Cup. And he hopes to snatch the second qualification in the round of 16 in its history (after 1994) against Mexico this Wednesday, November 30, at 8 p.m. A consecration for the Saudi soft power strategy? Sport geopolitical scientist Raphaël Le Magoariec, co-author of the book “The Empire of Qatar: the new master of the game? » (Les Points sur les i, 2022), gives some elements of explanation to « the Obs ».
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Concretely, it goes through various investments with world football institutions such as the Spanish Liga. or the Italian Serie A. There are also investments in various annual rally circuits, such as the Dakar, or cycling. The goal: to promote a new image while benefiting its economy.
But the Saudi strategy is recent compared to neighboring countries. Qatar and Dubai have been developing it since the 1990s and 2000s. And many Gulf statesmen are educated in Britain and infused with British sports culture. At that time, Saudi Arabia operated a retreat on the opening to the world, unlike the countries of the region. She remains closed in on herself.
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Saudi Arabia was astonishing for its entry into the competition (victory against Argentina, crowd of supporters, etc.). Is the kingdom also looking to develop football within the country?
Sport has always been part of Saudi culture. Since the 1920s, the city of football has been Jeddah. It is the city of access to Mecca, it is in contact with Egypt, Sudan and Yemen. These cultural flows helped the emergence of the Ittihad Football Club, created in 1927. This sporting culture then spread. Then, in the 1980s, the closure of other entertainment venues under pressure from religious groups, such as cinemas, benefited football stadiums.
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The growing political importance of Mohammed bin Salman, named crown prince in 2017, and the aspirations of Saudi youth who want access to entertainment are helping to develop football in the country. A sort of bubbling is setting in: today, the Saudi atmosphere has nothing to envy to the Italian atmospheres or other major football countries. However, the stadium remains the place of pure masculinity, although some stands are now open for women.
In clubs, extensions of the state, kops – also held by men close to power – abound. This is one of the reasons why the Saudis impressed with their organization of supporters during this World Cup.
If Saudi Arabia wins against Mexico this Wednesday evening, can we talk about the consecration of this strategy?
It will be built like that in terms of communication. King Salman Ben Abdelaziz Al-Saud will be able to shape the national romance. What he has already started to do: after the victory against Argentina, he declared a public holiday in the kingdom.
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On the other side, there is also the message that we send back to the forefront of the world scene: you have to be a country that asserts itself. Saudi football has always benefited from the country’s large demographics, and football technicians also say that Saudi Arabia is a gold mine. The problem is the stability of the system at the level of players and sports projects, which has been regulated since the arrival of French coach Hervé Renard. Mohammed Ben Salmane, who seeks this stability, wants to legitimize his country in the eyes of world authorities. The kingdom has the ambition to have its flagship sporting event… like a World Cup in 2030 for example.