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Victory at World Cup caps a triumphant month for Saudi crown prince

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I remember it like it was yesterday. My twin brother and I, all of 6 years old, stayed up late in our grandparents’ home in Kolkata, India, to watch Argentina’s opening match in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The South American nation was then the reigning champions, powered by the inimitable Diego Maradona. Their first match of the tournament, against unheralded Cameroon, was supposed to be a formality.

Then Cameroon won, against all expectations and logic. My brother and I cried, stunned by our superhero’s fallibility. We were too young to recognize the seismic importance of Cameroon’s triumph. Until then, the soccer teams of African nations were often the target of scorn and mockery, subject to much latent racism.

“We hate it when European reporters ask us if we eat monkeys and have a witch doctor,” François Omam-Biyik, the winning goal scorer, told reporters after the game. “We are real football players and we proved this tonight.”

On Tuesday, Argentina found itself once more on the receiving end of a historic shock. Their much-fancied side, led by the global phenomenon Lionel Messi, slumped to a bewildering 2-1 defeat to Saudi Arabia. Yes, Saudi Arabia: The country that has repeatedly failed in the World Cup; the country whose most memorable participation in the tournament was losing 8-0 to Germany in 2002; the country everyone expected to still be the whipping boys two decades later in Qatar.

Instead, cheered on by tens of thousands of Saudi fans who made the short trip across the border, Saudi Arabia pulled off the unthinkable. Already, Wednesday has been declared a public holiday for the nation to extend its celebrations. The victory, as my colleagues reported, also marked an unusual moment of pan-Arab unity, with social media in the region abounding with joyous memes hailing the Saudi success.

“They are the South American champion,” said Saudi Arabia Coach Hervé Renard, a Frenchman with a significant track record of success coaching in Africa, in reference to 2021 Copa America-winning Argentina. “They have amazing players. But this is football and sometimes things are completely crazy.”

Saudi World Cup win over Argentina unites divided Mideast in celebration

For Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the soccer team’s defeat of Argentina caps a triumphant moment on the world stage. The controversial royal was given pride of place at the World Cup’s opening ceremonies. He was spotted there wearing a maroon Qatari scarf during the host nation’s defeat to Ecuador — an act of fraternal support that would have stunned onlookers only a few years ago when Saudi Arabia led a regional boycott and blockade of Qatar. On Tuesday, the enthusiasm of the crown prince for Qatar’s World Cup was reciprocated by the Qatari emir, who waved a Saudi flag in the stadium as the Saudis scored their win.

The crown prince has been mending other fences, too. He was all smiles in Bali for the leaders summit of the Group of 20 major economies, glad-handing with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He also appeared at the U.N. Climate Conference in Egypt and the summit of APEC nations in Bangkok. The latter trip marked a restoration of Thai-Saudi relations after a deep freeze provoked by a cinematic 1989 jewelry heist carried out by a Thai worker in a Saudi palace that was followed mysteriously the next year by the murders of three Saudi diplomats in Thailand.

The crown prince has already withstood global opprobrium over his alleged masterminding of the 2018 abduction and grisly execution of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. In the summer, he called on French President Emmanuel Macron and a number of other European leaders. He also received President Biden on his home soil with a fist-bump, a meeting that made absurd Biden’s campaign trail proclamation that Riyadh would be turned into a “pariah” under his watch. And last week, the Biden administration told a judge to confer sovereign immunity on the crown prince in a civil case over his role in Khashoggi’s killing.

Combined with Riyadh’s enduring influence over global energy markets, the state of play shows the youthful crown prince’s strong hand. It also underscores the ongoing difficulties faced by those in Washington who hope to pivot U.S. policy in the region away from the Saudis.

“The United States tried to limit the kingdom’s importance and role regionally and internationally, but it found first that this goal was unachievable and second that it harmed its own interests,” Abdulaziz al-Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Jeddah, told Reuters. “So there’s a process of American retreat from taking negative positions towards the kingdom.”

U.S. declares Saudi crown prince immune from Khashoggi killing lawsuit

Photos depicted the crown prince cheering the Saudi victory at home in Riyadh. The good vibes in the kingdom are bound to continue through the tournament, with huge throngs of Saudi fans turning up in Qatar. Earlier precedents suggest that even if Saudi Arabia loses their remaining games, its stunning upset over Argentina will be cast in stone. The history of the World Cup is replete with losing darlings, from the rampaging North Korean side that charmed the English public in 1966 to Senegal’s debutants in 2002 who defeated France, the former colonial ruler, in its first World Cup game.

The Saudis are on track to enjoy a tournament that’s right next door with none of the heightened scrutiny that Qatar has had to weather for hosting the World Cup. But it’s unclear how much soft power this Saudi team can muster for their crown prince.

No matter its unheralded players, Saudi Arabia already plays an outsize role in the global game. Saudi sovereign wealth pulls the strings at Newcastle United, a popular English Premier League club now effectively controlled by an oil-rich, human rights abusing regime. And the crown prince seems poised to bid for the 2030 World Cup, inviting the same scorn and criticism that Doha did when it won its bid in 2010. In this latest public relations offensive, Riyadh may have an unlikely ally: Argentina’s Messi, who reportedly inked a lucrative sponsorship deal to help tout the crown prince’s “Vision 2030” campaign for the kingdom. Like so much revealed at the World Cup, it’s a sign of the times.

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