In the first part of a two-part special on Newcastle United / Saudi Arabia, YOUSEF HATEM (@yousef_1892) writes about the importance of understanding the Kingdom, if we want to continue to engage in these debates at all.
You may have surmised, from my name, that I am neither descended from border reivers nor prince bishops.
Though I was born in the General on Westgate Road, I am Egyptian.
For us, Saudi Arabia is not an abstract concept. If you stand on a Red Sea beach (I recommend it, by the way: we need the income from tourism…), it is Saudi you are facing. Egypt is approximately 85% Muslim, and Saudi Arabia – on whose land the two holiest sites in Islam, the mosques of Mecca and Medina, are to be found – is the guardian of those sites.
Saudi is a very rich country, and we are a poor one nearby. They sit on the world’s largest supply of crude oil, and indigenous Saudi people – by and large – do not work hard: most of them are “employed” by the monarchy itself, doing “jobs” which barely exist, in return for “salaries” which are, essentially, extravagant welfare benefits.
By contrast, we have a vast (and significantly more active) population which seeks opportunity in the Gulf – including in Saudi – due to dire economic circumstances at home: a real inflation rate of over 100%, and a lack of high-quality jobs. This lack of fulfilling employment is, in large part, a function of having a population which is growing more quickly than the economy. That is why, if you visit the shiny new Museum of Egyptian Civilization, in Cairo (you should, it’s excellent…) there will be eight young men offering you a paper towel at the same time. It is also why we have an acute substance-abuse epidemic.
Saudi, for us, often represents hope. Salaries for real jobs, not the sinecures which are available to the locals only, are not paid in the worthless Egyptian pounds on offer at home, and the large multinationals are all there. My uncle – an engineer – has worked in Saudi for as long as I can remember. My cousin – an accountant – works there now. Among other things, the Kingdom is a honeypot for bright and ambitious young people from across the Arabic-speaking world.
But it has also meant that the puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam, native to Saudi Arabia, has found itself exported to Egypt. Historically, we had been something of a melting-pot and wore our Islam lightly. Older relatives talk of the hijab (headscarf) having been uncommon in their youth, and the niqab (the complete covering) being almost unknown. This is no longer so. Men went to Saudi for work. They sent remittances home, but also adopted – and imposed – the norms of where they had been.
We are patronised by our rich neighbours, too. In your Red Sea resort, it will be the families from the Gulf who turn up at the breakfast buffet at 10:59am, clicking their fingers and loudly demanding omelettes. It is their children who are most likely to push in line at the water parks. Ours will largely let them do so. It is belittling, but it is the way of it. We bear it – as we bear most things – with a world-weary smile.
In short, we are conflicted. We have views on Saudi Arabia, but (unlike the views of commentators outside the region), they are informed – so often – by lived experience, by practical considerations, and by cold reality. Saudi Arabia, for us, is a real place. It is not just a swamp of rampant human rights abuse and institutionalised extreme misogyny, wrapped up in an essay question. We do not view it through the Western gaze. We cannot.
If you have visited my country (and, yet again, I would urge you to do so!), you will see the temples of Philae, Kom Ombo and Karnak, will take a hot-air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings at dawn, and will see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. These were our glory days, but, like Everton, we haven’t been much good for a while. We have been subjugated for centuries. The Ottomans came and occupied us. The British came and did likewise, causing many Egyptians to support the Nazis in the Second World War, hoping (in vain) that a victory for Rommel and his Panzer divisions at El-Alamein might hasten the departure of the colonisers.
During the Cold War, we initially threw our lot in with the Soviets, lost the Six-Day War of 1967, and then relied on American aid to rebuild our country. The Arab Spring of 2011 saw the overthrow of Mubarak, an American puppet par excellence, and his replacement by the Muslim Brotherhood, bankrolled by Qatar. The counter-revolution, led by the current president, Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, was strongly supported by Saudi, which continues to pour money into Sisi’s Egypt – nominally a democracy but, to all intents and purposes, a military dictatorship.
Since the decline of the pharaohs, we have only ever had terrible choices. Our enemy’s enemy has long been our friend. Now, our choice is between Qatar and Saudi – not for us the convenient “plague on all their houses” attitude that can so easily be adopted by those who operate at more of a distance from the region.
It is a paradox, certainly, that it is Saudi support for Egypt’s current regime (brutally authoritarian, but secular) which has largely kept Islamist extremism, as represented in Egypt by the Qatar-funded Muslim Brotherhood, at bay. The luxury of comfortable choices is not on offer. Saudi fundamentalists are protecting us from Qatari-backed ones. The Middle East is a curious place, where bad people do good things, good people do bad things, and things are rarely as simple as they seem.
Anyway, enough of the detour into Egyptian matters. What does any of this have to do with us (where “us” means those Newcastle United supporters who are interested in the debates which exist at the intersection between geopolitics and top-level sport, including in relation to our own beloved club)?
Well, in terms of the ability of individuals to make any tangible waves in this murky sea, very little.
Sport – football, yes, but also golf, Formula 1, and boxing – is just one of many ways in which Saudi Arabia is presenting itself internationally. Newcastle United (for all that it may be a huge part of our lives) really is quite small beer. Fans’ enjoyment of the team’s success can be taken safe in the knowledge that marvelling at a delicious Willock through-ball (and how could you not…) does not make one culpable for bombs dropping in Yemen. A birth-right is simply being exercised as it always has been. Those of us who continue to support the team while retaining an interest in the wider geopolitical points have, presumably, accepted the cognitive dissonance inherent in doing so.
For now, the only point I’d make is that, in order to continue to engage constructively with the issues, we ought to properly educate ourselves more about Saudi Arabia. Not as a benighted land which acts as a repository for everything we abhor – or say we abhor – but as a real place. Its human rights abuses may be indefensible – but indefensibility is not inexplicability, nor does it mean that such abuses must (or will) continue forever.
Saudi Arabia did not even exist until 1932, when one clan (the House of Saud) took control of land which had been held by various tribes for centuries, and tidy lines were drawn on a map. Saudi is, essentially, a family firm: it is even named after the ruling family – the equivalent of Britain being called, let’s say, the Windsor Islands. It came into existence long after the concept of the nation-state was fully formed.
Oil was struck there in 1938, making a nation which had existed for only six years, fabulously wealthy overnight. What behaviour would you expect of a billionaire toddler? We can criticise the Saudis, and we can bemoan the obvious “sports-washing” which is inseparable from their ownership of Newcastle United, but let’s understand who they are and where the behaviour comes from.
It Is an immature absolute monarchy which, for the past 85 years, has had enough money to keep its subjects docile and avoid calls for reform, by stuffing their mouths with cash. Learn about the region – try “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani, or “The Great War for Civilisation” by Robert Fisk – and then try returning to the question of why reform in Saudi Arabia has been so elusive for so long. Understanding Saudi Arabia, its history, and its place in the region and world, will not – and should not – make anyone better disposed towards its dismal attitude towards women, LGBT people or non-Muslims, but it might just help generate a more informed and forward-looking debate.
This stuff is interesting. At least, I think so, although I’ve been known to find pretty much anything interesting if I can discuss it while pumping Erdinger down my gullet in a balmy beer garden.
In the second and final part of this mini-series – I’ll explore the question of where “we” (that is to say, those of us who said we would continue to take a genuine interest in these issues, even while accepting our powerlessness) go from here.
YOUSEF HATEM / @yousef_1892