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Bayern Munich taking heat for Saudi Arabia trip

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After taking a quick side trip to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a test game last Saturday, FC Bayern Munich is now taking heavy criticism from all sides for visiting a country with such a repressive government and poor human rights record.

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Pep Guardiola, at a press conference before Bayern's friendly against Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal
Pep Guardiola, at a press conference before Bayern's friendly against Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal
Alex Grimm/Getty Images

At the conclusion of their 9-day winter training camp in Doha, Qatar, Bayern Munich made a quick (and reportedly lucrative) stop on their way home in the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, to play a test game against the top Saudi club, Al-Hilal. The whole escapade lasted less than a day, with Bayern taking an easy 4-1 win, and allegedly pocketing over €2 million, but the repercussions from the world of politics and sports are already in full force.

Saudi Arabia - a totalitarian regime

Saudi Arabia is the largest Arab nation in Western Asia by land mass, and sits on the 2nd largest oil reserves in the world, which gives it considerable clout in world affairs. It is an absolute monarchy, and is ruled by King Abdullah and the rest of the royal family (also known as the House of Saud), who control all relevant government positions, under a relatively strict form of Sharia Law.

Not surprisingly, this means that there is significant discrimination experienced by women (considered to be lesser people, who can't freely move around the country without a male family member), non-Muslims, homosexuals (capital punishment for being gay), and generally anyone who is seen as a threat to Islam. Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have criticized the country's record on human rights, their medieval justice system, and their often barbaric punishments of the accused. The latest case that has made headlines in the Western media is Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, plus 1000 lashes (essentially, a whipping of the back, in which the skin gets torn off the body), to be administered in counts of 50 over 20 weeks, for what has been deemed to be subversive activities against the government and Islam.

Politicians condemn FC Bayern's visit

Upon FC Bayern's return from the Middle East, the public condemnations started. German politicians were the first to criticize the lack of awareness by the largest football club in Germany, where visiting Saudi Arabia and playing a test game without acknowledging the human rights violations, is seen, at best, as grossly irresponsible and, at worst, as a silent endorsement.

As the Green Party's Özcan Mutlu stated,

There is no honor in having a friendly game in Riyadh when, so to speak, right next to the stadium, the blogger Badawi is flogged 1,000 times and has the skin ripped off his back.

Badawi's punishment had been carried out the day before, in close vicinity to the stadium that Bayern played. Or, as SPD's Dagmar Freitag said,

Footballers don’t have to be politicians but they should be aware of human rights conditions and should set an example.

Theo Zwanziger piles on

Former DFB president and current member of FIFA's executive committee, Theo Zwanziger, was a lot more blunt.  He is quoted as saying,

I have known for a while that, at Bayern, commerce beats ethics and, if in doubt, they will fall on the side of the purse.

However, the more emotional indictment was made when he referenced FC Bayern's legendary Jewish president, Kurt Landauer, who was prosecuted by the Nazis and who had his whole family murdered in concentration camps, when Zwanziger said,

I ask myself, how Kurt Landauer would see his FC Bayern's behavior, avoiding having an opinion on important ethical processes.

Ouch!  Very ouch!

FC Bayern issues an apology - sort of

Today, FC Bayern issued a formal statement, apologizing for not addressing the situation while visiting Saudi Arabia, and reiterated its stance on opposing discrimination, violence and racism. Unfortunately, it falls well short of what everyone was probably expecting, and fails to address multiple points, including what the club plans to do about this kind of situation in the future.

There was no word on whether the team will schedule more friendlies in countries with questionable records.  This point becomes quite relevant for next summer, when the club plans to visit China (not exactly a bastion of human rights) in their quest to expand new markets for their brand.

What about Qatar?

Curiously enough, amid all this criticism about Bayern's Saudi Arabia trip, nobody has even made a mention of holding a winter training camp in Qatar, which, although nowhere near the level of violations of its neighbor to the south, has its own problems with respecting human dignity, with countless reports of systematic abuse and exploitation of foreign workers among the most common complaints.

What should Bayern do?

What are your thoughts?  What should the club have done?  Should the discrimination of women be addressed, especially when you consider that they are not even allowed in the stadium to watch the game? Should FC Bayern be held to a higher standard, due to its status as the premier sports club in the country, and its own history of discrimination under the Nazis for its Jewish ties? Should they follow the lead of other notable Bundesliga clubs, like Borussia Dortmund, who have a club policy of not playing games in countries with a record of discrimination and a refusal to discuss human rights?

Or is all this none of their business, as they are just a football club, and not a political entity?