Before Wednesday's World Cup qualifier between Saudi Arabia and Australia in Adelaide, a moment of silence was held for the victims of the recent terror attack in London, specifically for the two Australian women who were killed. However, the Saudi Arabian team did not observe the moment of silence. Instead, they stayed in their half of the field and continued warming up. The lone exception was Salman al-Faraj, the Saudi midfielder, who stood at the center line with his hands behind his back.
After the game, a spokesperson for Football Federation Australia (FFA) told News.au that they knew in advance of the game Saudi Arabia would not be taking part, citing cultural differences. "The FFA was further advised by Saudi team officials that this tradition was not in keeping with Saudi culture and they would move to their side of the field and respect our custom whilst taking their own positions on the field."
Late Thursday evening, the Saudi Arabian Football Federation issued an apology stating "it deeply regrets and unreservedly apologizes for any offense caused. The players did not intend any disrespect to the memories of the victims or to cause upset to their families, friends or any individual affect by the atrocity. The Saudi Arabian Football Federation condemns all acts of terrorism and extremism and extends its sincerest condolences to the families of all the victims."
I asked Wael Jabir, Dubai based editor of Middle East football website Ahdaaf.me, whether Saudi Arabia's refusal to observe the moment of silence has anything to do with being sympathetic to or condoning the London attacks, as some people have suggested. "In short, no. I don't believe this is the reason at all," he replied via Twitter direct messages. "A minute's silence is seen in the more conservative interpretation of Islam prevalent in Saudi as a 'Bida'h', something that the prophet Muhammad never did so they should not be doing...In practice, what that means is that Saudis never observe minutes of silence for any incidents, even the death of their own king or fellow citizens."
Several websites, including the Guardian, have tried to demonstrate the Saudi's act as hypocritical by pointing out that moments of silence were in fact held for the death of former Saudi King Abdullah. However, those examples are misleading. Two were held in other countries—Qatar and the UAE, to be precise—which have different prevailing interpretations of Islam that allow for such silences. Also, none of those instances actually involved Saudis.
Another potential counterexample circulating is from a match between Saudi club Al Ahli Saudi and Barcelona last year in Doha. A moment of silence was held there as well. But, again, this is misleading. The image the Guardian published is from just prior to the moment of silence being announced. Once it was, many of the Saudi players unhooked their arms, although they didn't disperse and kick the ball around as they did in Australia.
Which is really the crux of the matter. Not only did the Saudis decline to observe the moment of silence, they didn't handle it in a particularly sensitive manner. Instead of remaining mostly still and talking quietly with one another as the Saudi club did against Barcelona, they jogged around the field.
Or, they could have gone even further, Jabir said, and offered a prayer. Not the formal prayer typically held in lieu of moments of silence which require formal dress and specific rituals, but a more generic prayer called Dua, performed simply while holding out one's hands with palms facing upward (the same gesture Muslim players Mesut Özil or Paul Pogba make while praying before games). Dua itself is generic; one can say whatever they wish, whether it's for a good game and no injuries or, as Jabir put it, for "Allah to have mercy on the souls of those who passed away and forgive them for any sins they may have committed in life."