Much of last week was spent discussing the cancellation of a Super Cup soccer match that would have been played between two prominent Turkish teams but in Riyadh. It does seem strange that Riyadh constituted the location of a Super Cup match between two Turkish teams on the occasion of the centennial of the Turkish Republic. It soon became clear that the “performance fee” proposed by the Saudi organizers would far exceed the income the game would generate if played locally. It seems that the material reward was too good to resist, though modest in terms of the money that passes annually through the hands of the professional teams.
From the very beginning, the public viewed the decision to take the game to another country, particularly Saudi Arabia with displeasure, but the Football Federation and the teams appeared decided to continue with their plan. Whether the national government was involved in deciding to take the game to Saudi Arabia was not known, although many assumed that it was active in shaping the decision such that other parties had to accommodate themselves to the government’s preferences. The assumption seems normal given the recent friendly disposition the government has displayed toward the Saudis. For example, the file on the murder of the Saudi journalist Khashoggi in their Consulate in Istanbul was taken away from the Turkish judiciary and turned over to the Saudi government, by all indications, the perpetrator of the crime. The Turkish President, on the other hand, began to exude warmth toward Saudi Arabia. And silly as it may seem, to be in the same time zone as Saudi Arabia (more specifically Mecca and Medina), for several years the government had canceled the use of daylight-saving time, imposing morning hardships on the population including schoolchildren.
The game has been canceled because the Saudi authorities did not allow the Turkish teams to wear T-shirts bearing the picture of Ataturk and to come to the field displaying two of his sayings, one of which is “Peace at Home, Peace Abroad.” The Turkish government says that it had nothing to do with holding the game in Riyadh, a decision for which the Football Federation and the respective teams are responsible. That may well be the case because, technically speaking, the contract to play the game in Riyadh was private. The debate about whether the Turkish teams made demands that exceeded the contract or whether the Saudi side was bound by FIFA rules in its negative decisions against the requests of the Turkish teams, although the game was not in the nature of international competition, will continue for some time. It is clear, however, that the events have created domestic repercussions of a political nature with which the Turkish government has to cope.
Clearly, the Saudi government appears not to have found the developments to its liking. Already, rumors (possibly false) that it will not allow Turkish pilgrims to perform their hajj this year have begun to circulate. A more accurate evaluation would be that Turkey’s relations with
Saudi Arabia that were not particularly warm until recently but beginning to improve may evolve in a negative direction again. While the Turkish government is unlikely to welcome this reversal, they may not be able to do much about it. Why? It seems that the incident has released the general feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction with the government that has been trying to bring Turkey close to the lands of the Arabs, departing from the path of a more Western-oriented, secular Turkey that keeps its distance from the Middle East. As we have expressed earlier in this column, the current government has displayed a distinct proclivity to become a more active actor in Middle Eastern politics, violating earlier foreign policy principles to keep away from being involved in inter-Arab issues and politics. It has further tried to transform Turkish society into one in which Sunni Islam (as defined by the government) prevails. On the whole, citizens appear more oriented toward the idea of a distinct Turkish nation, an outlook Atatürk worked so hard to establish.
The outburst of dissatisfaction about what has transpired in the field of soccer is not about sports in general or about the canceled game but about the government’s policy of trying to transform Turkish society along religious lines like the rest of most of the Middle East. Whether the government had anything to do with the soccer contract is in fact immaterial. Citizens do not seem to be in favor of the policy course the government has been following. The arrogance that the Saudi government generally displays toward regional countries, particularly when they are perceived to be interested in benefiting from improving economic relations with it, has made matters only worse. But the public’s reaction to the government is distinctly domestic. It will continue to haunt Turkish politics as long as government efforts to reconstruct the Turkish nation mainly on religious grounds continue.