How Saudi Arabia's Sports Minister Is Roiling Egypt

Egyptians are livid at the country's star TV host for transferring to a Saudi network. After all, you don't give away national assets – neither islands nor sportscasters

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Egyptian fans before a match at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, on June 6, 2018
Egyptian fans before a match at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, on June 6, 2018Credit: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The video clip disseminated last week by Saudi Arabia’s Sports Minister Turki al-Sheikh stirred a hurricane in Egypt. It shows the minister and senior Egyptian TV host Amr Adib, with the minister boasting about hiring Adib for the Saudi MBC Network. “This is the most expensive broadcaster in the Middle East, an Arab Larry King,” the minister jokes in the clip.

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Indeed, with earnings of $3 million a year plus another $500,000 for his share of advertising revenues, Adib has broken all records. But at the same time, he’s also burned his bridges with his fans, who have not forgiven him for the betrayal.

“A Saudi patron or, if you will, a sack of rice, boasts of his treasures and gives his patronage to a slave he has purchased. Egypt does not deserve this,” tweeted Osama Gawish, an Egyptian soccer fan.

“A sack of rice” is the expression used by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in describing Saudi aid he received when he assumed power in 2013 after deposing Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s former president. Since then the insulting expression has become a turn of phrase used to describe anyone seeking to purchase an Egyptian national asset.

Amr Adib is such an asset. His status as a sportscaster and commentator on the “ON_E” network, owned by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, has earned him millions of fans. His political and sports analysis has become a touchstone for TV viewers across the Arab world. Together with his brother, senior journalist Imad al-Din Adib, who owns a popular TV station, the family commands a large segment of TV viewers.

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The Adib brothers were followers of President Hosni Mubarak before the outbreak of the Arab Spring and many people remember Amr Adib’s harsh criticism of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square and his statement that there is no censorship in Egypt and that no limits to freedom of expression.

After the revolution he quickly changed his tune and wrote that during the Mubarak years “we were all humiliated, friends. There is no humiliation like the one we suffered. Our lives were in a dark place.” Shortly thereafter he became the darling of the new regime. Now his fans are discovering that for money he is willing to “betray the Egyptian nation” and work for “the enemy.”

This particular enemy is hard to bear since the Saudi sports minister is an honorary president of the al-Ahly sporting club in Egypt, financing the election campaign of Mahmoud al-Khatib in running for president of the club.

Mohamed Salah during the warmup before the match. Champions League Final - Real Madrid v Liverpool - NSC Olympic Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine - May 26, 2018.Credit: \ ANDREW BOYERS/ REUTERS

Al-Sheikh has also revealed that he invested millions of Egyptian pounds in the club, thus becoming the person who essentially appoints or fires coaches and players on the national team, at his discretion. When public anger against him surfaced he wrote on his Facebook page that “we extend them (Egypt) our hand and open our hearts to them, but for them we are nothing but sacks of rice. They see us through their coins, not their heads.”

This publication well exemplifies the dependent relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia since it shows that even in the holiest of sanctuaries, the world of sport, the Saudi kingdom is deeply involved in Egypt.

“What has happened between al-Sheikh, the representative of the rice sack state and al-Khatib, the representative of the al-Ahly club, is a small-scale model of what will soon happen between Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, representing the Gulf States, and al-Sissi, the representative of the Mother of the World (Egypt’s term for itself). This is the biggest scandal of the century” tweeted an Egyptian on Twitter, expressing public fury over Saudi domination and patronage.

Now the same al-Sheikh – who, Egyptians claim, hoped for the injury of Egyptian soccer star Mohamed Salah so that he wouldn’t take part in the World Cup games – is “sticking his golden dagger” into one of the pillars of Egyptian media. This is not an ordinary acquisition deal between a private TV network and a popular broadcaster, this is a Saudi takeover.

Until recently the network was owned by Saudi businessman Walid Ibrahim, a nephew of the late King Fahd. Ibrahim was one of the dozens of tycoons arrested in November on orders from Crown Prince Bin Salman. The Prince made Walid an offer he couldn’t refuse – to give up his network in exchange for his release. Ibrahim rejected the offer at first but later made a deal with the authorities, by which he would remain at the head of the network but concede 60 percent of his shares to the government, to Bin Salman, that is.

Before this deal was made, Walid had intended to shut down the professional sports channel but now that it was owned by the kingdom,  Sports Minister al-Sheikh is the one who calls the shots, including the acquisition of sportscasters.

“The Saudi sheep merchant has landed in the camel market at Imbaba (a poor Cairo neighborhood known for its sheep and camel market), buying everything he can,” wrote Egyptian journalist Selim Azouz, describing the Crown Prince’s conduct in Egypt.

There is no forgiveness for such intervention in what Egypt holds most dear. The fury it has evoked is somewhat similar to the anger raised by Egypt’s decision to hand over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to the Saudis. You don’t give away national assets - neither islands nor a sportscaster. 

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