Spanish Super Cup: Saudi Arabia's rancid gold

Two years after a first edition in Jeddah, the Supercopa returns to Saudi Arabia, this time to Riyadh. The Spanish federation sent FC Barcelona, ​​Real Madrid, Atlético and Athletic 4000 kilometers from home, convinced by strong arguments. A new opportunity for the Gulf monarchy to show itself in a favorable light, by pushing under the carpet the subjects which disturb it.

Just thinking about it, the Saudi regime is rubbing its hands. Much of the footballing world will be eyeing the King Fahd International Stadium on Wednesday. The venue had previously hosted a concert by South Korean group BTS and a WWE show, for which boxer Tyson Fury joined American wrestling superstars. In a few hours, it will be the scene of one of the biggest posters in international football, a Clásico Barça-Real. A nice publicity stunt for the Saudi monarchy, which certainly hopes at the same time to make people forget the embarrassment caused by the explosion that occurred on December 30 on the sidelines of the Dakar Rally.

Avoid going off the road

The explosion of a vehicle, which seriously injured the French driver Philippe Boutron two days before the start of the race, caused confusion. Present in the car at the time of the incident, Thierry Richard, Joël Pally and Mayeul Barbet all spoke of an attack. Unlike the Saudi authorities, who strangely support the trail of an accident. The national anti-terrorism prosecution has opened an investigation into “Assassination attempt in connection with a terrorist enterprise” . According to RMC Sport, the General Directorate of Internal Security did not receive any of the elements of the case, however, and it was not for lack of having requested it.

“Saudi Arabia has an interest in playing the game of transparency, otherwise it could aggravate this climate of suspicion, explains Fatiha Dazi-Héni, specialist in the monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula at the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School (IRSEM). The Saudis refuse for the moment to regard this as an attack. They want to avoid talking about it because it bothers them considerably. Since 2015, there have been very few attacks, or it has been hushed up. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman wants to diversify the country’s economy and get rid of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative bad reputation. An attack would recall the black period of terrorism known in the 2000s, so necessarily, it can only disrupt the momentum of the country. ”

New look for a new Arabia

A momentum that the regime has built for several years, by focusing in particular on sport. Among his recent catches of war: the takeover of Newcastle United Football Club, the Italian Supercup in Jeddah (2018) then in Riyadh (2019), the event fight between heavyweights Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz in December 2019, the Rallye Dakar which is being held in the kingdom for the third time this year and a Formula 1 Grand Prix, the first edition of which took place in December, in the presence of Justin Bieber, David Guetta and Jason Derulo. A momentum nevertheless thwarted by the war in Yemen, the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and the recurring question of respect for human rights at the borders of the kingdom.

“There is competition, and that attracts investments from other Gulf countries. Kuwaitis are investing en masse in new projects in Arabia. There is this double spring, it frightens and it attracts. ” Fatiha Dazi-Héni

Hence the criticisms of Amnesty International before this Spanish Super Cup. “The red lines are very numerous and the repression total for those who criticize the reforms. On the other hand, the organization of this type of event is also a way of pointing out things that we can condemn and discuss with the Saudis, who are an important strategic partner for France and other countries ” , enlightens Fatiha Dazi-Héni. The argument had just been used by the president of the Spanish Federation Luis Rubiales to explain the choice to export the Supercopa to Saudi Arabia. “Qatar had to review the Kafala policy (the system for placing foreign workers under guardianship, editor’s note) and even if the evolutions are timid, these countries which are very concerned about their image are obliged to take into account the criticisms. Women now have access to more professions, they can travel abroad and drive. They obtained more rights to emancipate themselves ” , specifies the political scientist, who spent two weeks there in December. In the same vein, the Saudis now allow wrestlers to perform during the Crown Jewel show, which was not the case for the first edition in 2018.

From there to say that the monarchy has succeeded in its transformation? “Internationally, especially in the West, it’s appalling, since the image of a very repressive crown prince dominates. On the other hand, promoting tourism and a new Arabia works quite well internally, especially with young people and women. Just as Putin managed to restore some national pride to the Russians, the prince tends to promote an ultranationalist narrative that did not exist before, since everything was based on a religious narrative. Many young Saudis take pride in seeing Saudi Arabia in a new light, promoting sports and entertainment. There is competition, and that attracts investments from other Gulf countries. Kuwaitis are investing en masse in new projects in Arabia. There is this double spring, it frightens and it attracts. ” We can bet that with the cream of Spanish football before its eyes, the regime will do everything to show only the tail.

By Quentin Ballue
Comments by Fatiha Dazi-Héni collected by QB. Fatiha Dazi-Héni is the author of Saudi Arabia in 100 questions (Tallandier, 2020) and the report Mohammed Bin Salman and the bet on youth (IRSEM, Study n ° 80, May 2021).

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