With news breaking that Brazil has beaten out the U.S. for a chance to host the 2016 Olympic Games, I’m inspired to imagine the day Saudi Arabia might be in the running.
It’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. After all, just last month the country inaugurated a new world-class research university — reported to have the world’s 10th-largest endowment and its sixth-fastest supercomputer. There are of course problems for the school, King Abdullah University for Science and Technology — named for the country’s reform-minded monarch — but the fact the country is now home to such an ambitious, co-ed institution is a giant step. And a giant step in the direction of folks who wave a wand at places like Chicago and Rio.
Why care about the Olympics? There was an energetic story about the 2016 decision by NYT reporter Richard Sandomir, who argued that Chicago would be the big TV money-maker, Rio would be the most fun, while Sochi — that weird corner of Russia, which is home to the upcoming winter contest — would mainly be a bummer.
Lost in that kind of story — and most of the giddy discussion of the games I’ve seen in recent days — is any real talk about the Olympics’ transformative power. After all, I think it’s unarguably good for all of us that the international eye will soon be trained on host-country Russia. How helpful it would be for other dubious regimes to one day earn the right to have such scrutiny! [I’ll look forward to such hoopla someday touching an Olympic Baghdad (2056!), Kabul (2076?), and perhaps even Mogadishu (3016…)]
So what about Riyadh 2036? Saudi’s not yet ready to handle sport’s premiere international gathering — for instance, what would female gymnasts wear? But for now, I can give you a preview of what things are like when people here gather to watch sports.
This spring, I attended a World Cup qualifying match between Saudi Arabia and… North Korea. It’s hard to imagine two more fearsome opponents — especially for an American — but 90 minutes into the experience (as reported in a piece I originally published in The Review, the weekly cultural supplement to The National) I had a glimmer of how normal things can be here, and also how sad.
Rihan told me to meet him at a car park near the stadium around 6.00pm. As I drew closer in my humble Corolla, I noticed that several beat-up cars driving around me had a door, trunk lid or maybe both side mirrors spray painted green: the color of the Falcons, the national football team. Saudi kids leaned out the windows, waving the national flag.
Rihan’s cousin showed up first, in a Jaguar. Rihan himself, the son of a general, appeared shortly thereafter in a brand-new Jeep – imported all the way from Texas, he told me. The cousin and I got in, and Rihan jokingly asked if I’d locked my little Toyota. “Wouldn’t want anyone to steal it,” he said, guffawing.
The road to King Fahd stadium was thick with cars – fancy sedans and SUVs like Rihan’s, modest Japanese imports like mine and truly broken-down early 1980s Caprice Classics – all full of football fans. This would be the first time living here that I’d seen so many people in one place. It felt almost illicit, given the country’s squeamishness about people gathering for any reason but religion. Zain, a Kuwait-based mobile phone company, had bought most of the stadium’s seats, so general admission tickets that would normally cost between 15 and 50 riyals were instead being distributed for free at the gate.
Rihan explained that he had tried to secure us seats in the VIP section. But even at about 300 riyals a pop, he said, they had sold out almost immediately. To get a good seat, we were showing up three hours early. As we neared security, Rihan’s cousin stuffed his lighter – officially forbidden within the stadium – in his underwear. I emptied my water bottle – also barred – and submitted to the pat-down.
Inside, we pushed our way to excellent seats, right beside the VIP section. It was a little after 6.00pm. The match – a World Cup qualifier against North Korea – was to start at 9.00pm, and my clothes were already drenched. This was unsettling: when the desert is humid, as in the UAE, perspiration flows freely; in dry Riyadh, where the summer temperature hovers near 50°C, it’s relatively rare to break a sweat – and when you do, heatstroke can be next.
Everyone around me fired up cigarettes and puffed. Rihan seemed pained by the situation; he apologized for the heat and crowds while looking longingly at the big cushy seats just a few feet away. Despite feeling like a hair dryer was blowing inches from my face — and the disconcerting presence of dozens of baton-wielding riot police in sturdy helmets with lead-filled neck guards — I smiled, sat back in a pool of my own fluids, and tried to enjoy myself.
We were surrounded by painfully thin, dark-skinned boys. The guy next to us was shaking and twitching as he chain-smoked cheap cigarettes. Rihan, a physician, told me he was high on amphetamines. Our section-mates, he explained, were from South Riyadh, where poorer Saudis – some the children of black African slaves – tend to live. I watched them cheerfully beat each other with Zain promotional balloons and dance to nationalistic Saudi pop piped in on weak speakers. Their ringleader, a wiry charmer with a million-watt smile, wore a shirt with five different logos from five different designer houses, his pants had superfluous zippers, and his wiry muscles couldn’t seem to let his limbs stay still. When he caught me looking, he coquettishly blew smoke my way.
On the field, four men in suits – evidently inspectors from Fifa – paced out the length of the goals and kicked at patches of browned grass. Then someone fired off what sounded like a pistol or a firecracker. Pigeons high up in the canopy of the stadium scattered in a beautiful cloud of fright. One must have taken shrapnel or dinged the webbing, for a bird plummeted to the turf in front of one of the suits. The crowd went wild. Seventy-thousand Saudi men started chanting. The bespectacled official leaned down and cupped the animal in his hands, and the four men made their way off the field.
By 9.00pm the VIP section had become quite full of heavy-cheeked men and their sons – and even a scattering of girls too young to require covering. The ones sitting closest to us seemed slightly alarmed – fidgeting in their seats and eying us nervously – to have the wild-eyed plebeians so close to them. The wild-eyed responded by chain-smoking, hooting and hollering (“What did he just say?” I asked Rihan at one point. “He wants to know why that young boy isn’t married yet,” Rihan said, shaking his head and pointing at a pre-teen.) At some point, the South Riyadhis – still led by the smiling charmer – resumed beating each other.
Just before the teams took the field, the charmer made his way to the fence and started calling to the fat rich kids, dazzling them with his fast talk and sad eyes. A kid with curly black hair waddled over. Nods were exchanged, and the kid walked away. Soon he returned with a sack of cold waters. We’d been locked in our pen for three hours, and this was the first potable liquid anyone had seen. The charmer tossed bottles to his boys, who slapped each other in excitement. As the curly haired kid stepped bashfully away, the charmer’s poise broke for a bit and he mouthed what seemed like genuine thanks.
As the match began, a line of religious men across the stadium hoisted battery-powered megaphones and goatskin drums and began warbling an old Bedu fight song – in violation of official Fifa rules, Rihan told me, smiling. The crowd chanted along. Soon a wave developed, which rose and fell with tremendous speed among the sweating, heaving crowd of chain-smokers. As it ran around the stadium, it pointedly skipped the VIP section’s acres of velvet seats and mineral water, then resumed right where I was sitting.
Saudi was slated to lose. And even if the game was a draw, Rihan explained, the North Koreans would advance. As an American, my country has technically been at war with these short, stocky Asian men in red jerseys for over 50 years, so it was a sort of awkward fun to root for the hapless Saudis, even if 15 of their countrymen hijacked planes aimed at my country eight years ago. Rihan and his cousin encouraged me, pointing out that any Korea supporters in the audience would surely be ripped to pieces. With that in mind, I watched the Koreans play conservative defense, keeping the score at 0-0. The Saudi team took as many as 30 shots, but all of them went wide. Most of the crowd had been sweating for hours now and faces grew long 90 minutes into the match.
As the game drew to a close, the riot police stood in a fearsome line, braced for pandemonium. But the final seconds counted down uneventfully. Tie game. Instead of ripping chairs off their bolts to beat each other or the Korean players to death, 70,000 Saudi men – united, as ever, in their tightly regimented odyssey of being Saudi men – filed out into the hot night, each to his own life.
Rihan told me we could go back and see a game any time. “It’s always like this,” he said, picking his way through the sandy car park. “Nothing ever changes.”