A few days ago, a Syrian refugee, now with an EU citizenship, entered the Al Janoub stadium in Al Wakra, a suburb of Doha. The Arab Cup is currently taking place in Qatar, a test tournament for the 2022 World Cup next year. He is excited because for the first time in his life he is watching a game of a Syrian national team. He films the playing of the hymns, in the stands he sees club shirts from Damascus and Homs. He estimates that 4,000 people with Syrian roots are in the stadium. Many have come specially, others have built a new life in Qatar. They are paid less than the locals, but they are safe from bombs and terror in the Persian Gulf.
More than 420 million people live in the 22 countries of the Arab world, from Mauritania in northwest Africa to Oman in the Middle East. Their dialects, their political systems, their forms of Islam are different. Many states are hostile to each other. One of the few passions that they have in common is football. Qatar has long been promising a World Cup for the entire region. A sports festival that is supposed to bring about peace. But behind the facade, Qatar wants to establish itself as a regional power. Football should provide an emotional and harmless backdrop for this.
The opening ceremony of the Arab Cup, organized by FIFA, underlines the ambitions. High-ranking politicians like Michel Aoun, President of Lebanon, or Mahmud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, sit in the stands. Videos point to the cultural richness of the Arab world, but also to the disillusionment that many intellectuals had to move to the West for their success. “We will return to our neighborhood,” sings the Lebanese music icon Fairuz. FIFA President Gianni Infantino gives his short speech in Arabic. The emir sits next to him and claps. The Qatari pay broadcaster BeIN Sports broadcasts the games of the 16 teams free of charge.
It is a symbolism that hardly receives any attention in Europe. In Germany or Great Britain, human rights violations are being discussed with a view to Qatar. In the Middle East, on the other hand, the small emirate is a foreign policy heavyweight with large budgets. The wars in Yemen or Syria, the tensions in Libya, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Qatar wants to play a mediating role in many disputes, most recently when tens of thousands of Afghans were evacuated from Kabul. “In the West, the view of the Arab world is often shaped by prejudice,” says a former Qatari national soccer player, who works for the Doha Film Institute. “With the Arab Cup and the World Cup, we can finally tell our stories ourselves to a large audience.”
Sentences like these are often heard from Qatari decision-makers, but they cannot be separated from political conditions. Qatar likes to be neutral, but already during the Arab Spring from 2011 it took clear positions: for the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, for Islamic forces in Tunisia, for the rebels in Libya against Muammar al-Gaddafi and in Syria against Bashar al-Assad. In the neighborhood on the Gulf, distrust grew. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, together with some partners, imposed a blockade against Qatar. It also stopped exporting food to Doha, and the interruption of important travel routes separated families in the Gulf.
In football, sponsorship contracts have been terminated and player transfers have been canceled. In Saudi Arabia, the pirate channel BeoutQ skimmed the BeIN Sports program. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also wanted to host World Cup games. Fifa also advocated a lucrative expansion of the tournament from 32 to 48 teams, but Qatar insisted on existing contracts and refused.
The situation changed with the pandemic. The already low oil price collapsed, foreign investments fell in the Gulf States, and tourists stayed away. In January, Saudi Arabia ended the blockade after three and a half years. “It’s a fragile peace,” says a Middle East expert, who wrote a book about the Gulf crisis. “The Gulf States have realized that they are dependent on cooperation in these difficult times.” But Saudi Arabia and Dubai want to continue to benefit from the World Cup. If not with tournament games, then with training camps, sponsorship events or the accommodation of fans. During the Arab Cup, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Doha for the first time since the blockade.
Saudi Arabia is close to qualifying for the World Cup, as is Iran on the other side of the Persian Gulf. Between its arch-rivals, Qatar lies on a small peninsula. “Thousands of people from Saudi Arabia and Iran could meet for the first time during the World Cup,” says a political scientist. “And they might notice that they have more in common than differences.” Qatar shares the world’s largest natural gas field with Iran. As early as November, Tehran brought up the island of Kish off the Iranian coast as a World Cup hostel for fans and teams. Iran still suffers from severe US sanctions. Can the World Cup contribute to rapprochement? Qatar is home to one of the largest US military bases and could act as a mediator.
But the games could also cause tension. During the Arab Cup, Fifa continued to train local security stewards. It was less about the potential dangers of European hooligans and more about political symbolism in the Arab world. Flags or lettering that refer to Syrian rebels, the claim to a Kurdish nation or the suffering of the indigenous Berbers in North Africa are undesirable in stadiums. Qatar is also expecting thousands of fans from European diaspora communities. In Germany alone, there are 1.5 million people with Arab roots.
On another issue, prevention is more complicated. At the end of November, the Egyptian football icon Mohamed Aboutrika, a commentator on BeIN Sports, described homosexuality as a “dangerous ideology” that is incompatible with Islam. Western media criticized the statements, whereupon tens of thousands of people showed solidarity with Aboutrika on social networks. At a press conference during the Arab Cup, the Jordanian team captain Mahmoud Al Mardi quoted a verse from the Quran and supported Aboutrika. Homosexuals face persecution in several countries in the Arab world, including Qatar.
Last Saturday, Tunisia and Algeria met in the final of the Arab Cup, exactly one year before the World Cup final. During the tournament, Algerian fans sang in small groups those songs that have become protest anthems in their homeland. The Algerian long-term ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in 2019, also under pressure from the Ultras. In Qatar, such songs do not cause any excitement. Unless they are directed against the emir and his family.