Saudi fans delight in West Bank game, shrug off geopolitics

Riyadh (AFP) – Saudi football fans are delighted about their national team’s historic match Tuesday against their Palestinian “brothers” in the occupied West Bank, but dismiss suggestions it marks a gradual normalisation of ties between the kingdom and Israel.

Arab clubs and national teams have historically refused to play in the Palestinian territories — occupied by the Jewish state since 1967 — as it requires obtaining entry permits to Israel, a country most of them do not recognise.

“This is not a normalisation. It is still occupied Palestine. For Saudi Arabia, there is no state called Israel,” football fan Saad told AFP, his eyes locked on a screen playing a Saudi match in a cafe along Tahlia street, a restaurant-lined thoroughfare. 

“It is a good thing to support sport in Palestine given the situation there,” said the 27-year-old. “The Palestinian cause remains a fundamental one for Saudi Arabia.”

After defeating Singapore 3-0 last week, the Saudi national team will face Palestine on their home turf in the West Bank in the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup. 

The game marks a change in policy for the kingdom, which has previously played matches against Palestine in third countries in line with a decades-long Arab boycott of the Jewish state.

However, in recent years, common concerns over Iran are widely seen as having brought Gulf powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Israel — both staunch US allies — closer together.

– No politics please –

According to the Saudi Sports Authority, the decision to play in the West Bank was “at the request of the brothers in the Palestinian federation” and to ensure the team is “not deprived the chance to play at home and among its fans”.

For another of the Saudi football fans watching the match against Singapore, the historic match-up has nothing to do with politics.

“For the Saudis and the Palestinians, the goal of the match is to qualify for the World Cup,” said 30-year-old Hazzaa, who sported a trimmed beard and a traditional red and white keffiyeh headdress. 

Abu Abdallah, a Saudi businessman, said he believed it was an honour for his country’s team to play the Palestinians amongst their people.

“This is something rare to happen, and the kingdom would not take any step unless it was in the interest of the Palestinian people or Saudi Arabia,” he said. 

– ‘Balancing act’ –

Palestinian football association chief Jibril Rajoub said on Thursday that the game, to be played at the Al-Ram Stadium which is recognised by FIFA, would not breach the boycott.

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