Saudi sports minister leaves Egypt’s sports scene

The decision of the head of Saudi General Sports Authority Turki al-Sheikh to withdraw from Egyptian sports and sell his club Pyramids Football Club after being insulted by Al-Ahli fans at one of their games sparked controversy in Egypt.

al-monitor Saudi players listen to the head of the General Authority for Saudi Sport, Turki al-Sheikh (C), as they gather during a training session at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, Russia, June 13, 2018.  Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images.

Oct 23, 2018

CAIRO — Turki al-Sheikh, Saudi Arabia's sports minister and chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Sports Authority, has quit investments in Egypt’s sports. Sheikh decided Oct. 5 to sell his club known as Pyramids Football Club and to stop the broadcast of the club’s official channel.

On the same day, the channel went off-air. It only broadcast the following message, “There is no room for sports investment in an unhealthy environment.”

In press statements to Al Arabiya channel also on Oct. 5, Sheikh said, “I am disappointed about what happened to me in Egypt. I am frustrated. My decision is final and irreversible. Pyramids FC has finished. I started selling it.”

Sheikh's decision to withdraw from the Egyptian league came after excessive derogatory and insulting chants against him by Al-Ahly fans in their game against Horoya from Guinea on Sept. 25 in the African Champions League quarterfinals.

“I’m seriously thinking about quitting investments in sports in Egypt,” Sheikh tweeted after the game. “I have been facing a strange attack from all sides. Why bother?”

Before going off-air, Pyramids TV had launched a fierce attack against Al-Ahly’s board of directors. In his show on the channel “Masa Pyramids” on Sept. 30, media host Medhat Shelbi called on Al-Ahly’s board to apologize. No apology was issued and the fans who insulted Sheikh on the stands have yet to be arrested and prosecuted. This raised Sheikh's ire and pushed him to withdraw from the Egyptian sports scene.

The crisis escalated when Saudi-owned sports marketing agency Sela Sports announced Sept. 26 that it is suspending its sponsorship of Al-Ahly. A four-year sponsorship contract was signed between Sela and Al-Ahly.

Sela said in a statement that it decided to freeze and suspend all of its investments in Al-Ahly and Egypt sports, amounting to 2.28 billion Egyptian pounds (around $127 million). It expressed its rejection of any behavior that violates and tarnishes sports values and ethics. Sela noted that its decision comes following the insults leveled against Sheikh by Al-Ahly fans.

Sela also decided to break its contract with Egyptian sports marketing agency Presentation Sports. According to previous statements by Hani Abu Rida, the head of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA), Presentation Sports is a state-owned company. This means that the state would be incurring losses ensuing from the termination of the contract. Presentation Sports is the exclusive sponsor of the Egyptian national soccer team as well as the Egyptian league and cup. This sponsorship allows it to control deals with media outlets for airing soccer matches.

Sheikh had fought and won several soccer battles in Egypt. On Sept. 12, Sheikh requested the replacement of Egyptian referees with foreign referees. Sheikh had accused Issam Abdel Fattah, the head of the referees' committee in the game between Pyramids and El Gouna, of bias and making wrong calls. The two teams played out a 1-1 draw.

EFA fulfilled Sheikh’s demands and allowed clubs to bring in foreign referees in return for the payment of $15,000 worth of expenses. Abdel Fattah justified the EFA decision of allowing the replacement of Egyptian referees in statements to ON Sports TV on Sept. 16, saying that the state is keen on the success of Pyramids’ investment experience.

Mohammad Hamouda, Sheikh's lawyer, explained that the recent crisis is the result of insults by a group of Al-Ahly fans against Sheikh. “We know that this group does not represent the entire Al-Ahly fan base, but it is a group encouraged by some members of Al-Ahly's board of directors. We resorted to the law and we filed 15 complaints. The matter will now be settled in court,” he told Al-Monitor.

Hamouda said, “Pyramids has managed to achieve tremendous results in the Egyptian football premier league, but some clubs fear its success and victory. This is why Turki al-Sheikh was attacked. It is normal for Saudi Arabia to cancel its contract with Al-Ahly and Presentation Sports when a Saudi official such as Sheikh is insulted.”

He added, “The termination of the contract between Saudi Arabia and Presentation Sports does not mean that Sheikh is in a conflict with the Egyptian state. This is a natural behavior by a person who was insulted at the stadiums. I am surprised by the state's silent stance toward the offenses by a group of Al-Ahly fans against Sheikh.”

Hamouda urged the state to take harsh measures against those who hinder sports investments.

The Egyptian Ministry of Youth and Sports has yet to make a comment or issue a statement about the issue.

According to Hassan al-Mistikawi, a well-known Egyptian sports critic, “The crisis began when Sheikh made angry statements against Al-Ahly’s board of directors over the mismanagement of players contracts.”

Sheikh was the former honorary president of Al-Ahly. In May 2017, he lashed out at the club’s administration and its president accusing them of misusing the donations he made to the club and resigned from his position on May 24. Al-Ahly requested the Ministry of Youth and Sports to investigate the charges.

He told Al-Monitor that the fans were split over the issue and this is why Al-Ahly fans were outraged against Sheikh and insulted him from the stands. “We must publicly denounce any offensive act by the fans against any sports figure,” he added. “What happened was a violation of the sports law that punishes anyone who attacks any sports figure."

Commenting on the message broadcast on Pyramids FC TV channel after it went off-air, he said, “It is not true that the environment in Egypt is not fit for sports investments. The crisis has nothing to do with investments. This is related to violations by the fans. The state has nothing to do with it.”

Journalist Ammar Ali Hassan believes political authorities from Saudi Arabia and Egypt must intervene to put an end to this issue. He told Al-Monitor, “Sheikh is not a businessman who wants to invest in sports, but rather a Saudi minister. Also, the issue is now affecting the fans.”

Hassan noted, “When Sheikh first started investing in the Egyptian sports field the state did not take into account his position. Over time, his battles with Egyptian sports figures led to controversy in the street.”

Hassan explained that the termination of the contract between Sela and Presentation Sports seems to have angered Egyptian state officials. The state this time did not yield to Sheikh’s demand to force Al-Ahly to apologize. It remained silent. “I do not expect, however, Sheikh to clash with the Egyptian state. In the end, Sheikh still represents Saudi Arabia as a Saudi minister. The crisis will be contained. To preserve relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt it seems that it would be better for Sheikh to quit the Egyptian sports scene.”

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