Is the Muslim Brotherhood using sports to sow discord among Arabs?

By Dr. Theodore Karasik

The movements, motivations and strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) are key to deciphering the latest disputes that are manifesting themselves in the the core of the Middle East region. The most recent quarrel is a crisis involving a Saudi minister and an Egyptian sports club.

There are signs that the MB is attempting to utilize this dispute as a way to foment political strife and cause disarray between the two most important allies of Washington in the region: Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is now apparent that the MB is attempting to interfere in the emerging Arab sport sector.

The current issue largely revolves around the Chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Sport Authority, Turki Al Al-Sheikh, and the extremely popular Egyptian Al-Ahly club. Al-Ahly was silent when faced with what appeared to be a recent MB attempt to influence the club and its plans, leaving its fans confused and distraught. While the Egyptian government has assumed a neutral position in the dispute, it is now monitoring the movements of the MB.

This matter bears analysis from a number of angles. The first aspect lies in Cairo, where the board of the Al-Ahly club is led by Mahmoud Khatib, or “Bipo”, as his fans like to call him. One of many of his decisions, is the presence of Al-Amiri Farouk, the former minister of sports under former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, as his deputy. Farouk played the role of the “hidden man” who leads, informs, and makes the decisions, as opposed to Mohammed Khatib, who only appears to be in charge.

The second aspect of the affair was the apparent infiltration by Egyptian football player Mohamed Aboutrika into Al-Ahly. According to Twitter chatter, the now-retired player turned out to be, not surprisingly, an operative of the MB. As a matter of fact, the player currently lives in Qatar, which cannot be mere coincidence.

He influenced the fans of the club by successfully turning the optics of the matter into a monetary dispute, as if the conflict were basically due to Al-Sheikh’s alleged anger and discontent. This anger supposedly stemmed from the sports minister’s lack of influence in the Al-Ahly’s board decisions following the donation of funds to the club.

Herein lie the problems of the MB game, which now appears to have entered the realm of sports. This game begins by dragging in politicians, then the media, then the two nations, instigating a crisis that will involve the two most important allies in the Middle East. Riyadh and Cairo will acquiesce to it, supposedly, in order to absorb the public anger that the MB is now slowly setting up between both countries.

Interestingly, this intra-Arab sports crisis illustrates only one of the many strategies aimed at disassembling societies and sowing discord that may now be present in Middle East sports. And it is no accident that these strategies were subjected to deep analysis by the MB in light of the weak personality displayed by Khatib and the public discontent of Al-Sheikh.

It is not a coincidence that the Saudi minister was celebrated in the largest sports stadium in Egypt, and it is also not a coincidence that the Egyptian media worked to focus on his presence, and then subsequently fabricate the crisis with a concerted media campaign that paints Saudi Arabia as the instigator.

This was followed by statements that only served to create a false mental image across Arab societies that Saudi Arabia is nothing more than a walking bag of money that uses its financial might to influence other major Arab entities. Whether Saudis like it or not, this image is being actively ingrained by entities hostile to Saudi Arabia into local and international minds as part of the Middle East’s hyper-media environment.

Did Al-Sheikh’s donation of $14.5 million fall within the category of “give money to those who do not deserve it”? The answer to this question lies in the changes that Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing, as well as in the repeated and dangerous attempts to break its spirit through the sports sector.

When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman proclaimed, “the sky is our ambition”, this statement may have been the inspiration for Saudi Minister Al-Sheikh to choose a platform for the launch of this ambition. In his quest, Al-Sheikh could not find a stronger and more cohesive Arab public platform than the Egyptian Al-Ahly club.

He chose Al-Ahly to test a vision that would inevitably reverberate across the rest of the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. As athletes would say, “To show your strength, you have to play in a strong environment.”

The Muslim Brotherhood ‒ which has a deep-seated vengeance against Egypt and Saudi Arabia ‒ picked up on Al-Sheikh’s moves early on. In light of its infiltration into some of Egypt’s most influential institutions, including sports, it appears to be focusing on thwarting Saudi Arabia’s move toward establishing cohesion and unity through athletics and entertainment.

It should be noted that the Saudi minister’s swift movements, coupled with the weakness of Al-Ahly’s management, presented an opportunity for MB supporters to drive a wedge between the two entities and create an obvious state of confusion for Al-Ahly. The campaign shrewdly targeted primarily the young fans and followers of the Saudi minister, those known to be passionate and impressionable.

Did Al-Ahly lose a club in the growing era of Arab sports? The answer is yes, as their loss was not only material, but unforgettable. Arab sports fans may not forgive the board of this club, which stood in the way of an ambitious Arab project because of the thinking that “the Saudi minister is trying to humiliate us with his money”. This statement perfectly encapsulates the MB modus operandi, which is to play on the feelings of the masses.

More to the point, the losses on the Saudi side hurt, too. It is clear that the humiliated party was the Saudi minister himself, and the party that will be subsequently embarrassed is the management of the Al-Ahly Club, especially following the unprecedented loss of more than $300 million in investments. This crisis also led to the cancellation of a new sports stadium project with a capacity of nearly 60,000, designed by Populous, one of the largest global architectural firms. The cancelled project was scheduled for completion in late 2021.

There is even more to the story. The management of the club also lost deals to sign on experienced football managers such as Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, as well as the famous Italian coach Luciano Spalletti. One of these two would have been well on his way to coach the club. Venezuelan star player Rómulo Otero was also in negotiations with the Saudi minister to play with Al-Ahly, but after the crisis he moved to play with a Saudi club, Al-Wehda

The other loser is the player Aboutrika, who was popular among Saudi fans. He was planning to move from Doha to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to return to his country, but strong pressure from high-level officials in Qatar forced him to backtrack on his decision.

The Saudi minister may reconsider his decision regarding turning down the position of honorary president of the club, provided that his rights to respect and dignity are restored. It is clear that the fans of the club are angry at the absence of a board of directors that not only cares about their club’s interest, but does not allow itself to be mired in any political conflicts.  According to an interlocutor, “The MB’s poison is disgracefully entering the Arab sports world.”

Overall, there is no doubt that the MB’s invention of this crisis showed the ability to use influence operations between the Saudi sports minister and the Al-Ahly Club created a loss in confidence. For Saudi Arabia and Egypt, sports are key to revenue and entertainment plans. Politics should be left out of the equation, but there is no doubt that as long as the Qatar Crisis continues, the MB is likely to use sports to further drive a wedge between countries. It is a trend to watch.

Photo credit: Flickr/Creative Commons/Diariocritico de Venezuela

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