Pyramids FC: Saudi money is bringing cultural colonisation to Egypt

Pyramids FC: Saudi money is bringing cultural colonisation to Egypt
Comment: Saudi Arabia's economic imperialism on the football field is a danger to Egypt's cultural sovereignty, writes Mohamed ElMeshad.
6 min read
21 Aug, 2018
The Chairman of the Saudi Sports Authority, Turki Al-Sheikh bought the team this summer [Twitter]
In the third round of Egypt's premier league, Pyramids FC was pitted against fellow Cairo-based club ElEntag Elharby. 

No matter how much of a football fan you are, there is very little anyone could have done to get you excited about this match. That's only natural, perhaps, for a game played at the early stages in a mid-level league, between two teams that are not exactly fan favourites, in an empty stadium.

It was a forgone conclusion that the match would generate close to no commercial or social interest. Nothing to see there, right?

The post-match analysis however was an exercise in media surrealism. Brazilian legend Ronaldinho and Irish footballing icon, Robby Keane, were both flown in specially to provide commentary, alongside Mido, one of the best Egyptian footballers of his era.

Running the proceedings was Medhat Shalaby, an omnipresent sports tv host, known for his emotive rants and colorful analogies. At one point, Shalaby forced Ronaldinho to labour through the pronunciation of all of the player's names on Pyramids FC, just to giggle at his inability to pronounce the Arabic names, and then used up air time to deride his translator. The Irishman and the Brazilian were doing their best to avoid giving their honest assessment of the mediocrity they had just witnessed.

Their contribution to the conversation was nearly non-existent. There was nothing to say. But the real goal of their appearance on Pyramids TV was to promote the newly named club and television station.

Pyramids FC is suddenly a big name in Egyptian football, its television station acquired the services of a decent portion of established pundits, analysts, sports journalists and talk show hosts.

The Egyptian league is not ready for this type of foreign investment

They were also able to quite quickly purchase the rights to broadcast all of the leagues matches all under the slogan, "Change your principles, and support Pyramids". The slogan is aimed at fans of the two most popular teams, Ahly and Zamalek, urging them to change their allegiance.

Numerous reports confirm that members of the public are being offered significant financial incentives to declare themselves supporters of the team. The phenomenon is as distasteful as it is alarming, for a league with more than 100 years of history, including dominance on the African scene, and storied fables of diehard supporters. Money, apparently, can do wonders.

All of this is due to the financial backing of one Saudi official, who, for reasons unknown has imposed himself on the Egyptian sports scene and is seemingly willing to use his bottomless pockets to promote the fledgling entity.

In the span of a few months, the entire Pyramids FC brand has been thrust upon Egyptian football, after Turki Al-Sheikh, Chairman of the Saudi sports authority (a ministerial position), and advisor to the Crown Prince bought and renamed an existing first division team, Al-Assiouty, as an "investor" this summer, and set up the television station to boot.

Al-Sheikh's profile is not exactly one of a sports investor. His name had popped up in public in Egypt a few times as a songwriter/poet. Last season, Al-Ahly Sports club however, stunned its supporters by naming him honorary president of the club.

Pyramids FC's twitter account welcomes its new players

Apparently, he funneled millions of dollars into the club and was being treated as a regal benefactor in return. Al-Ahly did its 40 million fans a huge disservice, by essentially throwing away decades of tradition, and laying down the red carpet for Al-Sheikh to enter its gates acting like a feudal regent.

All was well for Al-Ahly's board of directors when their Saudi benefactor was bankrolling deals for high profile players and plugging many financial holes. But when his meddling became too much, to save face, Al-Ahly severed ties with him.

The details of their fallout are not important. What is important, is the subsequent cozying-up between Al-Sheikh and the president of Zamalek FC - the very controversial Mortada Mansour - a lawyer known for threatening his adversaries with 'releasing CDs' to expose their most intimate moments.

Also eager to cozy up to his new friend, during the recent World Cup Mansour opened up his roster to Al-Sheikh to buy up his choice of players for Pyramids FC. Curiously, they chose to announce five of these trades to the public during the build up to the Egypt-Saudi showdown in the 2018 World Cup, as many of these Egyptian players were in the national team.

Saudi Arabia won, deservedly so, but little attention is given to the link between the demoralised Egyptian team, and the timing and manner of the announcement which was made before the traded players themselves were consulted.

His actions are more akin to colonisation than revolution

Furthermore, at every turn Al-Sheikh seemed to aim digs at Al-Ahly, indicating that he was partially acting out of a desire for revenge against the country's largest sports entity for rejecting him, or perhaps he identified them as the main adversary he needs to take down to achieve his own goal.

In total, Pyramids paid $33 million for new player acquisitions, almost triple its closest rival anywhere in the country - or continent for that matter.

claim he is revolutionising the game in Egypt, but his actions are more akin to colonisation than revolution. The Egyptian league is not ready for this type of foreign investment. Most of its teams are either publicly owned, or linked with military or police agencies, or they are basically departments within larger companies.

Read more: Pyramids FC: Meet Cairo's new mega-club

This is not a league where any individual investor could hope (at this juncture) to invest and come out with financial returns.

Instead, in the Pyramids FC situation, through the sheer power of financial muscle a minister of a foreign country that has been trying to exert its authority over Egypt vis-a-vis its oil wealth, is now approaching a point where he will be able to seriously impact the future of the sport in the country. Unless his approach is somehow kept in check, or the Egyptian FA enact some much needed regulations to organise the sector from a commercial perspective, its fate looks sealed.

A colleague of mine pointed out that such behaviour harkens back to another similarly troubling episode. In 2004 Saudi Prince Al-Walid Bin Talal, through his company Rotana, purchased 70 percent of Egypt's Arab Company for Production and Distribution.

Hopefully Al-Sheikh will not find enough people willing to 'change their principles' to support him in his endeavour

The company, also known as Fonoun, owned negatives of about 800 classic movies dating back to as early as 1935.

Now, Rotana controls a significant portion of the country's rich movie history, which once upon a time rivalled Bollywood, and was the only real film industry in the region.

More recently - and publicly - Mohamed bin Salman himself struck a deal with the current Egyptian president, which led to Egypt ceding two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, ending a decades long maritime border dispute. The islands, Tiran and Sanafir, have long been a mainstay of Egypt's world-renowned scuba diving industry, which is a major tourism draw.

Time will tell if the Pyramids FC experiment will be successful in establishing another form of cultural colonisation in Egypt. Hopefully Al-Sheikh will not find enough people willing to "change their principles" to support him in his endeavour.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.