Playing political football with Paterno’s Saudi visit

Playing political football with Paterno’s Saudi visit

Arab News published a column on Jan. 13 by the celebrated American football coach Jay Paterno containing reflections on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. The column was entitled “My visit to the Kingdom changed all my perceptions” — a sentiment we now hear often from first-time visitors. Italian Serie A football league President Gaetano Micciche made similar comments a few days ago when AC Milan played Juventus in Jeddah for the Italian Supercup.

As part of its ambitious Vision 2030 reform plan, since 2016 the Kingdom has been opening up to tourists as it seeks to diversify its economy away from oil. For the first time, it is hosting sporting and entertainment events on a genuinely international scale. 

Paterno was in Saudi Arabia last December, and attended the inaugural Formula E motor race at the historic site of Ad Diriyah. That this event took place, and that it was such a success, came as a pleasant surprise — not just to Paterno but to Saudis themselves, who in the past three years ago have seen unprecedented changes such as the curbing of the powers of the religious police, the end of the ban on women driving and the re-opening of cinemas. 

Neither Paterno nor any of the attending Saudis (yours truly included) ever imagined seeing the likes of Enrique Iglesias, David Guetta or the Black Eyed Peas perform in Saudi Arabia — but that is exactly what happened at the Formula E event. There were youngsters passionately cheering on their racing heroes and desperately trying to take selfies with international pop stars while thousands of men and women danced the night away. We were in Saudi Arabia, but in truth we could have been anywhere. 

Enrique Iglesias performing in Saudi Arabia

It appears that professionalism and respect — not to mention logic — are turned on their head when the subject is Saudi Arabia; any praise, no matter how justified, is criticized, and any criticism, no matter how unjustified, is praised. ​

Faisal J. Abbas

Such sights were perhaps what led Paterno to argue in his Arab News column that there is much in common between Saudis and Americans. However, his views have been turned into a political football in his home state of Pennsylvania. For the past week I have followed hateful, ignorant and frankly racist comments about Paterno by otherwise respectable US journalists, bloggers and commentators. 

It appears that professionalism and respect — not to mention logic — are turned on their head when the subject is Saudi Arabia; any praise, no matter how justified, is criticized, and any criticism, no matter how unjustified, is praised. 

What was Paterno supposed to do — lie about what he had experienced and felt, so that his depiction of Saudis matched the negative stereotypes? Or was he supposed to turn his traveler’s diary into a geopolitical essay on US-Saudi relations? 

Some of his critics cringed at his suggestion that Saudis and Americans are alike (admittedly a hard sell to those who believe all Saudis travel to work by camel or magic carpet). Others thought his positive portrayal of his experience was intended to promote the country, and the “public deserved an explanation.”

While all this unsubstantiated criticism is disturbing, it it honestly surprising? A recent Arab News/YouGov poll suggested that 81 percent of Americans could not point to the Arab world on a map, far less have an accurate view of it. Many thought the fictional sultanate of Agrabah (from the Disney classic “Aladdin”) was a real country and endorsed a US travel ban on its citizens. From such people, one should not expect much in the way of objectivity. 

How would Americans feel if the US were judged solely on how Native Americans were treated? Or by atrocious incidents such as the nuclear attack on Japan, or the torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib? 

Faisal J. Abbas

However, the criticism of Paterno did not come from them, but from so-called media professionals, which is both sad and alarming. 

I do not suggest that the Kingdom is above criticism. Indeed we at Arab News were among the first to condemn the atrocious crime of which our former colleague Jamal Khashoggi was the victim. We have also been vocal in calling for all forms of guardianship over adult women, a discriminatory and outdated practice, to be abolished. 

I am not here to defend Arab News; our record speaks for itself. But it is only fair to caution against the unfairness and inaccuracy of looking at the Kingdom only through the prism of its critics. 

How would Americans feel if the US were judged solely on how Native Americans were treated? Or by atrocious incidents such as the nuclear attack on Japan, or the torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib? 

If it is fair for Saudi Arabia to be criticized when things go wrong, and it is, then it is also fair for its reforms and progress to be discussed and encouraged. And is it not a supreme irony that Paterno is being bullied for his views in, of all countries, the United States — a nation built on tolelance for views other than one’s own.

 



Arab News AMF panel: Arab image in the US

 

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Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News

Twitter: @FaisalJAbbas

 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view