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'Not safe': Saudi Arabia slammed after jailing football fans

April 17, 2024

Several Saudi Arabian football fans have been jailed for singing a song celebrating a religious figure at a game. Human rights experts warn it is now "not safe to attend a match."

Football fans wait in the stands for a match to begin in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia will host the World Cup in 2034 but there are safety concernsImage: picture alliance / Anadolu

The jailing of 12 Shiite Muslim men in Saudi Arabia has highlighted the dangers for fans who want to travel for sporting events such as the World Cup, according to human rights campaigners and an exiled Saudi Shiite.

The men were summoned, along with more than 100 other fans, for questioning after being filmed singing a religious song celebrating the birth of Imam Ali, an important figure in the Shiite Muslim faith at a match between their team, Al Safa, and Al Bukiryah in January. Those 12 jailed have received sentences of either six months or a year, though with little oversight from international bodies of the Saudi prison or legal system, sentence lengths are not always respected.

The men were penalized under the kingdom's cybercrime laws, provisions of which are often used to punish those who commit supposed offences offine too. Many observers of Saudi Arabia consider these laws to be arbitrary, thereby allowing the state, ruled by de facto leader crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, to use them to clamp down on groups and beliefs which do not align with its own.

Freedom of expression under threat

"These laws have egregious sentences for basic freedom of expression issues," Joey Shea, Saudi Arabia researcher for Human Rights Watch, told DW. "Anything that can be interpreted as destabilizing the state or insulting the country's leaders can come with very big sentences that can be meted out. And, ultimately, it can be a political decision to decide which fans and which speech is cracked down upon. It's a really terrifying scenario."

Why is Saudi Arabia investing billions in sports?

In recent years, these laws have been used to hand out decades-long jail sentences, or even death sentences, for sending tweets deemed to be critical of the country's leadership.

In the case of the Al Safa fans, the offense appears to be celebrating their religion. The club is based in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where most of the country's minority Shiite population is based. Shiites, as followers of that branch of Islam are known, have long been persecuted in Sunni majority Saudi Arabia and have no representation in positions of power. When Bin Salman came to power and promised to modernize the country, Shiites like Taha Alhajji hoped for an improvement in their circumstances.

"There was a period of optimism for the Shiite community that the situation would be better and would be less harsh on them, so they could practice their rituals," Alhajji, who now works as a lawyer in Germany after fleeing his homeland, told DW. "It is clear that the new government's approach is pretending to accept the others. But the reality is that it has imposed more and more severe restrictions, whether on religious rituals or on freedom of belief."

Human Rights organizations are unable to gain access to Saudi prisons but Shea said that accounts from those who have been released suggest the 12 men will face "general neglect and dire conditions” without access to medical care or contact with their families.

Sports ministry sack club board

Alhajji, who offers legal advice to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, said the men have the right to an appeal but, given the courts are effectively operated by the government, that is unlikely to succeed. He rejects the notion that they have comitted a criminal offense. "The chants did not contain any provocation, incitement, abuse, or aggression against any person," he said.

The Saudi authorities clearly disagree, and have sacked the entire board of Al Safa. In a statement, the country's sports ministry said the club had broken article 36/3 of its rulebook and committed "practices, or actions that are inconsistent with public order, public morals, or regulations" before adding that it would "refer them to the relevant authorities to take the necessary action." The likelihood is that they will replace them with representatives more favorable to the government, but there has yet to be any public announcement.

Roberto Firmino celebrates a goal in the Saudi Pro League
Al Safa play in a division below the Saudi Pro League, which has a host of big name playersImage: AP/picture alliance

Saudi Arabia's huge investment in sport has turned the eyes of the world towards the oil-rich Gulf state. So far, most large sporting events have passed off without a hitch for the handful of international fans that travel. But the football World Cup, in 2034, is likely to be a bigger test. Fans used to total freedom of expression will travel in greater numbers, while players, coaches and administrators have also shown some willingness to take on politically sensitive topics, such as the rainbow armband or the German team's gesture of covering their mouths to draw attention to the lack of freedom of speech in Qatar during the 2022 World Cup. For Shea, this could lead to serious issues.

'Not safe to attend football matches'

"It is absolutely not safe to attend a football match in Saudi Arabia and express any form of political opinion that is not just uncritical support of Mohammed bin Salman," Shea said. "We just don't know how Saudi authorities will react when there are loads of foreigners visiting who are used to raising issues at football matches. I think that we very well may see more arrests, unfortunately, in the future."

Alhajji has similar concerns, adding that Saudi Arabia's lack of reporting and transparency means the breadth of persecution of minorities or dissidents remains unknown: "Everyone must be careful, as they may be at risk of arrest because of their clothing, appearance, a word they said, a stance they took, or raising a slogan or flag."

World Cup organizer FIFA says it is "committed to respecting all internationally recognized human rights and shall strive to promote the protection of these rights," but Alhajji said the organization are putting no pressure on Saudi Arabia to change. It is unclear whether the imprisonment of an international fan, rather than Saudi Shiites, might yet force its hand.

Edited by: Mark Meadows