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FIFA Women’s World Cup woes for Saudi Arabia’s prince of darkness on Mother's Day

March 20, 2023 at 8:24 am

Salma Al-Shehab and her family

Mother’s Day in the Arab world is celebrated on the first day of spring, 21 March, and for many children it is the most important day of the year, so high is the Muslim regard for mothers, who should be obeyed and treated with the utmost respect. This, of course, is only right, and should be the norm for everyone.

In the Qur’an, the Almighty tells us a number of times to worship none but Him and to be good to our parents. The blessed Holy Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace be upon him), encouraged being good to the mother ahead of the father. This was made clear when a man asked the Prophet who was most worthy of his kindness. He asked three times, and each time the answer was the same: “Your mother.” On the fourth time, the Prophet said, “Then your father.” the mother is always singled out as she bears greater hardship in bringing a child into the world.

This makes it all the more shocking that some Arab mothers will be forced to spend their special day this year behind bars. I’m thinking in particular of mother-of-two Salma Al-Shehab, who was given a 34-year prison sentence for having a Twitter account and for following and retweeting posts from Saudi dissidents and human rights activists. Salma is a doctoral student at Leeds University in the north of England, and was arrested and sentenced last August during a family trip back home in the Kingdom.

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Her plight illustrates how Saudi’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, has targeted Twitter users for repression, while simultaneously controlling a major indirect stake in the US social media giant through Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). Yes, that’s the same PIF which has an 80 per cent stake in English Premier League team Newcastle United Football Club, known as the Magpies due to the famous black and white striped shirt.

I am one of the founders of Magpie Women Against Saudi Sportswashing (MWASS) and yesterday — which was Mother’s Day in Britain — I laid a bouquet of flowers at St James’ Park, home of Newcastle United, for Salma Al-Shehab. It was my own small gesture of love and solidarity on behalf of her two young boys. When asked by a member of the ground staff what I was doing at St James’ I replied: “I want to remind fans that while the Saudi Public Investment Fund has bought our club, it cannot buy our silence. We need to start using the terraces as our platform to remind the Saudi regime of its responsibilities when it comes to human rights.” Mother’s Day, I pointed out, presents a great opportunity to do this. “Why? Because there are more than a dozen wives, mothers, daughters and sisters who have been imprisoned by the thin-skinned Saudi rulers who lash out at even the mildest criticism.”

I think my reply touched the right spot. Not only do most Arab mothers enjoy an elevated status in the Middle East, but most Geordies also hold a special place in their hearts for their mums.

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My all-female group MWASS LASSES recently teamed up with SANAD, a Saudi human rights group that defends political and civil rights in the Kingdom and monitors human rights violations, and exposes them to the general public. The movement is small, but dedicated to seeking justice.

Of course, we should not be too surprised that Bin Salman lacks awareness about the importance of Mother’s Day, or even mothers at any other time. He placed his own mother under house arrest in 2016. According to some reports, the petulant prince, who claims shamelessly to be leading the way in reforms for women in the Kingdom, did this to his mother to keep her from his father in an effort to ensure his eventual accession to the throne. “Mother knows best,” as the old saying goes. Perhaps Fahda Bint Falah Al-Hathleen had an inkling about the nightmare of a ruler that her firstborn will make. This insight into the mind of the prince has been corroborated by fourteen current and former US officials who told NBC News about intelligence gathered over several years.

I am a firm believer in the court of public opinion rather than the brutal courts of Saudi Arabia where human rights violations occur daily. Moreover, I am confident that the more pressure that is applied, the greater the likelihood that we will see thousands of political prisoners released from Saudi prisons.

To those who say that politics and sports don’t mix, we Newcastle fans in MWASS disagree. The football terraces are just the place for fans with a political conscience to express their feelings towards regimes that routinely abuse human rights. The brutal Saudi prince, remember, is accused of masterminding the horrific murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Moreover, he has already faced a defeat in his sportswashing campaign to charm and court the West. In an off-field victory for human rights, world football’s controlling body FIFA has reversed its sponsorship plans with Saudi Arabia’s state tourism authority, Visit Saudi, for the prestigious 2023 Women’s World Cup. This tournament is viewed as the flagship of women’s football and has long been seen as an opportunity to celebrate women’s rights.

FIFA is described frequently as one of the most corrupt sporting bodies in the world. It stunned human rights campaigners when it announced the Visit Saudi sponsorship deal. This shocking disregard for the repression of women like Salma Al-Shehab was condemned as an “own goal” by players and commentators alike. For once, though, FIFA has to be congratulated for its U-turn. If the Saudis want to win the tournament back, then they should open their prison doors — on Mother’s Day would be appropriate — and release all female political prisoners.

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Such decisions can and do appear to be made on the whim of the crown prince. Last year, on International Women’s Day, the Riyadh authorities passed Saudi Arabia’s first Personal Status Law, which sets out a string of repressive male guardianship rules over women concerning marriage, divorce and decisions about their children.

Several human rights organisations have criticised Saudi sportswashing which sees billions of dollars spent on hosting major sporting, entertainment and cultural events as a deliberate strategy to deflect criticism from Bin Salman’s systemic violations of human rights. Despite such criticism, yesterday also saw the Saudi Arabian Formula One Grand Prix being held in Jeddah.

While FIFA has not always lived up to its pledge to promote human rights, some of the world’s top women footballers have protested that the beautiful game is being monetised and exploited by the oil-rich Saudis. FIFA’s decision to block the Visit Saudi sponsorship of the Women’s World Cup, therefore, should be a signal to Bin Salman to review his actions. The jailing of Salma Shehab and others like her will continue to have unintended consequences for Saudi Arabia’s moody prince of darkness. As any chess player will tell you, the king may rule the kingdom, but it’s the queen who controls the board. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman may want to reflect on that. How difficult can it be for him to do the right thing?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.