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Football-loving Egypt is usually split unequivocally over team loyalties but has found common ground in its aversion to one person: Saudi Arabia’s de facto Sports Minister Turki al-Sheikh. The minister has been on a mission to gain a foothold in Egyptian football but faces a backlash from Egyptians – from fans to officials – who do not want to be told what to do by a wealthy intruder from the Gulf.
It all started when al-Sheikh, said to be part of the inner circle of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS), was appointed as honorary president of Egypt’s biggest club al-Ahly in December 2017. From that moment, he began to pump money into the club, reportedly amounting to 119 million Egyptian pounds ($6.65 million). But al-Sheikh would not settle for just a ceremonial role. He facilitated the transfer of several al-Ahly players to Saudi clubs and pushed plans for a new stadium.
In May 2018, he announced that he was ready to provide al-Ahly with “world-class foreign players”. However, later that month, an Argentinian coach who was rumoured to become the new al-Ahly coach signed a contract with the Saudi club Ittihad Jeddah instead.
Al-Sheikh “Loves to Talk”
Al-Sheikh’s dealings were not appreciated at al-Ahly. “No one, no one at all — with all due respect to al-Turki… will be allowed to interfere in the club’s affairs,” club Chairman Mahmoud el-Khateib said earlier in 2018. In addition, fans asked the club’s board to dismiss al-Sheikh.
What bothered al-Ahly fans most was al-Sheikh’s personality and tendency to make himself the centre of attention, sports journalist and al-Ahly fan Mohamed Fathy told Fanack. “He loves to talk and prides himself on what he has done [for al-Ahly],” he said, explaining that for al-Ahly fans “nobody is bigger than the club”.
The fans’ criticism worked. In late May, al-Sheikh stepped down as honorary president, saying his actions had been “misinterpreted”.
Yet his mission was far from over. Soon after stepping down, he purchased al-Assiouty, a small provincial club in Upper Egypt, and renamed it Pyramids FC. The club made headlines in the summer with several top signings of Egyptian and foreign players, the appointment of former al-Ahly coach Hossam el-Badry as chairman and Argentinean Ricardo La Volpe as coach.
Pyramids’ fan clubs sprung up seemingly out of nowhere, a new logo and team song were introduced and the Pyramids TV sports channel was launched. Big international football stars such as Ronaldinho appeared on the channel as analysts. The first months of the season were good for Pyramids, showing its ability to challenge al-Ahly’s traditional dominance.
Yet once again, al-Sheikh seems to have overplayed his hand. After a disappointing result in the league in September, al-Skeikh blamed the referee, telling the media, “I’ve had enough. I’m submitting a request to his Excellency, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to find a solution for the obstacles we are facing on the sporting and investment levels.” He even threatened to take Pyramids out of the league if his request to bring in foreign referees was turned down.
All Clubs against al-Sheikh
Other teams complained about Pyramids being favoured by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA). “After a match against Pyramids, all coaches said that the referee favoured Pyramids,” Fathy said. Alaa Nabil, the coach of the Arab Contractors club, went further, decrying al-Sheikh’s influence over the EFA and alleging that the league was already decided in Pyramids’ favour. Nabil was subsequently fined and suspended for two matches.
In late September, several al-Ahly fans were arrested after they chanted insults at al-Sheikh inside the stadium.
Nonetheless, Fathy believes the measures against Nabil and the arrests of al-Ahly fans are largely symbolic. “They only arrested a few fans – usually they arrest them in much higher numbers – and Nabil received just a small punishment,” he said. “For me, this shows that the authorities agree with them and are in fact not with Turki.”
Indeed, al-Sheikh complained that the authorities did not do enough to protect him against attacks from other clubs and fans. He wrote on Facebook that “every day a new problem emerges”, and that he was considering withdrawing his investments.
Furthermore, the Saudi-owned Sela Agency announced it had terminated a sponsorship deal with al-Ahly and Egyptian sports in general in reaction to the ‘offences’ directed at al-Sheikh. The Pyramids channel ceased broadcasting after Egypt’s media monitoring body disciplined the channel over ‘violating media practices’.
Saudi’s Game in International Football
James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, sees a larger picture in al-Sheikh’s meddling. “Saudi Arabia is trying to flex its muscles in international sports,” he told Fanack over the phone. For instance, MBS made an offer to FIFA, the international football governing body, to set up two new competitions, which would give Saudi Arabia a significant voice in global football, he said.
Saudi Arabia also spearheaded the establishment of a new football federation for West and South Asia (SWAFF), consisting of 14 countries with the notable absence of Iran and Qatar, which is effectively a rival of the existing Asian Football Federation.
The tangle of football and politics became particularly apparent when Saudi Arabia supported a bid by the United States, Canada and Mexico to host the 2026 World Cup, over Morocco. Al-Sheikh himself hinted in a tweet that Morocco should have sided with Saudi Arabia in its diplomatic spat with Qatar in order to earn Saudi’s support.
Dorsey believes Saudi Arabia’s sudden interest in football is a bid to exert soft power and counter the influence of its rival Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 World Cup and sponsors major teams such as Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been in a legal dispute with Qatari-owned Bein Sports, which holds the rights to broadcast all the major global football leagues in the Arab world, since it allowed the Saudi-facilitated pirate channel BeoutQ to stream matches online.
Egypt is also interesting for Saudi Arabia because it is the most important football nation in the Middle East, Dorsey said. He sees “a determination to have a foothold in the Egyptian market”.
Al-Sheikh’s way of gaining this foothold reflects the same behaviour by MBS in other fields, Dorsey believes. “It demonstrates a sort of impetuousness or entitlement, the feeling that you can do what you please,” he said, pointing to how MBS dealt with the hostage taking of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. “It’s a misperception of the limits of power. They shoot themselves in the foot.”
In Egypt, al-Sheikh appears to have done just that, judging by Pyramids FC poor performance and the closure of its TV channel. A statement from the club confirmed that al-Sheikh will withdraw his investments and the top signings will receive contracts elsewhere. Without these players, it is unclear how the club will proceed, and the club’s success may prove short-lived. If this is the case, al-Sheikh’s Egyptian adventure will end in a “fiasco”, as Dorsey put it.
Fathy is more cautious. “[On 11 October], Turki posted a video of Pyramids on Facebook, maybe [indicating] that he will stay. We will have to wait and see,” he said.
Meanwhile, al-Sheikh’s next move could already be taking shape. Local media alleged that the Pyramids channel would be transferred to Zamalek, Egypt’s second-biggest club and al-Ahly’s archrival. Moreover, al-Sheikh thanked Zamalek President Mortada Mansour on Facebook on 13 October for naming a club building after him, and praised the club itself.
Whether or not al-Sheikh continues to meddle in Egyptian football, his involvement to date has certainly not gone as smoothly as he no doubt hoped.