Saudi Pro League at the heart of Kingdom’s soft power in Iran

Saudi Pro League at the heart of Kingdom’s soft power in Iran

Hilal’s Aleksandar Mitrovic scores a goal during the Saudi Pro League match between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal. Sept.1, 2023 (AFP)
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Saudi Arabia continues to pursue its Vision 2030, focusing on quality of life, the diversification of its economy and ending its dependance on oil. One aspect of this diversification is investments in the sports sector in general and football in particular. Saudi Pro League games are now transmitted worldwide. However, the channel that has sparked debate on social media is one linked to the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.

The Kingdom has approved the broadcasting of Saudi Pro League games on Iranian television channels. This month’s Al-Hilal versus Al-Ittihad game was the first Saudi Pro League match to be shown in Iran. Iranians made approving comments following this landmark event. This game was not only the first to be broadcast live on Iranian television, but it also allowed comparisons to be made between the Saudi and Iranian football leagues.

Many Iranians who love football were amazed by the quality of the pitch, the 4K cameras and the first-rate footballers. In addition, they loved the excitement and quality of the game. Iran’s football league lags behind many others in the region and, when compared to the Saudi Pro League, it is like making a comparison between day and night, such is the gap that exists between the two leagues.

Saudi Arabia’s league sits comfortably at the apex, with it attracting prominent players, including many in their prime who have left Western football leagues to join the Saudi Pro League, adding to the quality of the league and its games. These players have shifted for a new experience and to help in developing the Saudi Pro League, so that it becomes one of the best in the world.

Neymar, the famous Brazilian footballer, moved from Paris Saint-Germain to Al-Hilal this summer and he said he would not be surprised if the Saudi Pro League is already better than the French Ligue 1, considering the quality of players who have moved to play in the league. The Saudi Pro League is going to go from strength to strength, with Western leagues bracing themselves for more high-profile players leaving once the next transfer window opens in January.

The reactions triggered by airing the Saudi Pro League game on Iranian television went beyond the football game itself

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

If Mohammed Salah, the famous Liverpool and Egyptian national team player, ends up in the Saudi Pro League, this would be a massive football earthquake and win for the league, given his quality and status in the Arab and Muslim worlds. A massive bid failed to lure him in the summer, but this could change in the next transfer window.

It is expected that Saudi clubs will become much better and more competitive, allowing one of them to potentially win the Asian Champions League. In addition, the Saudi national team that performed heroically at the last World Cup in Qatar has employed the famous Italian coach Roberto Mancini and he is likely to take the national team to another level by preparing it well for the coming regional and international tournaments.

The reactions triggered by the airing of the Saudi Pro League game on Iranian television went beyond the football game itself. Iranians treated the game as a political event. Those that wrote comments on social media mostly expressed surprise at how advanced the Saudi Pro League is when compared to their poor league, but others also expressed political messages. One Iranian wrote: “In the past, they have scaled the walls of the Saudi embassy. Now they are lined up to watch the Saudi league games.”

Some Iranians mocked the state of the Iranian league, referring to its poor infrastructure, stadiums and pitches, the inferior standard of its players and the scant investment in the game. They even went to the extent of arguing that the broadcasting of Saudi Pro League matches is a way for the Iranian regime to distract the people and create another window of escapism, given the extensive socioeconomic problems they face.

This trick of distracting the Iranian people is not something new; the Iranian regime has mastered this trick over the decades, but usually it hits out at Saudi Arabia, escalates tensions in Gulf waters, dishes out fiery rhetoric against the US or pushes its proxies to launch attacks in its spheres of influence. But given that the Iranian people are accustomed to these tricks and no longer as gullible, the regime has resorted to using a new card — the broadcasting of Saudi Pro League football games to pacify the Iranian people, which is important given that Mahsa Amini’s death anniversary is just around the corner.

Saudi soft power, this time, did not face obstacles to correcting the lies and stereotypes about the Kingdom

Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami

The excitement with which Iranians greeted the game prompted those who could not watch it live to search for highlights. Amir Mir wrote on social media: “If you turn on the television and watch the Saudi league games on the sports channel, then it’s okay. But if you couldn’t watch the game fully and search for a recap of it, with the same gusto, this means that Saudi Arabia has done what it should do. Alas unto us.”

Hard-line columnist Vahid Haji wrote: “The likes of Hossein Taheri and Thabeti, who have been deriding Saudi Arabia just over the past few months, are tonight busy watching the Al-Hilal versus Al-Ittihad game and the Saudi league on Iranian television.” He added: “We were supposed to put an X mark on the green flag of Saudi Arabia. But the plan has now changed, with the Saudi flag placed on Iranian receivers.”

For its part, Farheekhtegan newspaper said that the improved ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia played a role in Riyadh’s decision to broadcast Saudi Pro League games in Iran, not to mention the significance of the league per se. The newspaper reiterated that the broadcasting of Saudi Pro League games on Iranian national television and radio channels was good for them, as they do not enjoy much popularity and are searching for ways to attract viewers and listeners without the need to invest. These games allow the channels to attract Iranians through the airing of high-quality and exciting football.

Columnist Amjad Tarik wrote in Asr-e Iran: “For the first time, Iranian state television has live-streamed the Saudi league football games. And this would be continued. The Saudi league, as a result of the existence of top footballers and the provision of massive resources, cannot be ignored. The games of the Saudi league being broadcast on Iranian television is a sign of how seriously the two sides are taking the resumption of diplomatic relations.”

To conclude, Saudi Arabia continues to set an example of good governance as part of Vision 2030. The impact of this model has spread to several regional countries — including those whose relations with Saudi Arabia are marked by tensions and animosity. However, Saudi soft power, this time, did not face obstacles to correcting the lies and stereotypes about the Kingdom. It seems that the Saudi clout is so extensive that the Iranian regime has been unable to counter it. The next Saudi steps will further stun the Iranian people.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is the founder and president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami
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