Jordanian Prince Ali bin al Hussein, half-brother of King Abdullah, has called on Jordan and other governments to increase support for sports in general and football in particular in a bid to build community resilience against extremism.
Prince Ali, a vice president of world football body FIFA and head of the West Asian and Jordanian football associations, issued his call in a video-taped address to the International Community Engagement Conference in Singapore organized by the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.
The prince's remarks came amid a wave of mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa in which militant football fans have played key roles. The protests have already toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and. Libya, left the embattled presidents of Syria and Yemen tottering on the brink of demise and prompted the monarchs of Morocco and Jordan to accelerate their plans for political and economic reform.
Prince Ali was elected to the executive committees of FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in December of last year on a platform that called for youth development and empowerment of women.
"Throughout my career in football...I have witnessed first-hand the power of this beautiful sport in engaging our youth, empowering local communities, and developing pride on the individual and national levels. This is the essence of building community resilience," Prince Ali said.
“Extremism is a phenomenon that threatens our common humanity and constantly challenges our potential to develop and progress. It is anathema to the most basic human values that we must not only uphold but protect and promote; respect and dignity. This is where sports play a key role," the prince added.
The prince argued that football "has the potential to transform lives especially if introduced and promoted at the grassroots level amongst our youth, which in turn, represent the majority of our population in Asia. Through Football, our youth experience the spirit of teamwork and fraternity, but also develop their own individuality by taking responsibility for their choices and actions toward their teammates and the opposing team on the field.
There are rules and regulations to be respected and followed thereby instilling a sense of duty and respect towards others; increasing tolerance and promoting coexistence."
To achieve that goal, Prince Ali said governments had a duty to build sports infrastructure in a bid to address the needs of the youth, empower boys and girls and create opportunity for them. "I have recently completed a tour of more than 22 sports club across Jordan in an effort to assess their needs. To my disappointment, the missing link in the football equation is the government."
He argued that the Jordanian Football Association (JFA) was playing its part by focusing on community youth development projects such as youth centres and football academies and organising a national football championship for 500 teams representing their neighbourhoods across Jordan, where children often do not have playgrounds. "I have seen the excitement of the players at the final game; they felt a sense of purpose and pride," Prince Ali said.
The prince described professional Jordanian football players, many of whom graduated from JFA youth programs, as ambassadors in a game, he argued, that strengthens relations "between nations and people of different cultures and backgrounds; thereby promoting respect, coexistence and acceptance. These values...constitute the building blocks of community resilience."
Prince Ali projected football as a "catalyst for social, cultural and economic development" and the building of "stronger communities based on respect, human dignity and coexistence.
He vowed that the AFC would play a proactive role in promoting football programs that focus on education and holistic health for youth as well as the inclusion of women.
The women's issue as well as politics are likely to be litmus tests of Prince Ali's notions of football in terms of football as a catalyst for community building as well as for community engagement. The prince is quietly seeking to mediate a solution to FIFA rules that bar religious garb from the football pitch and as a result have excluded religious Muslim women players who want to wear the hijab, a Muslim hair dress that covers hair, ears and neck, from playing professional football.
Equally difficult is the battle to reduce social prejudices in a conservative part of the world where the obstacles to women's participation range from social pressure to outright bans.
Similarly, more independent ownership and management of football in a region in which regimes sought to control the game in a bid to improve tarnished images, distract attention from issues fuelling discontent, and prevent the pitch from a rally point for protest, is likely to be an increasingly prominent issue as change takes effect.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.