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Deconstructing Détente: How 2022 World Cup Can Reshape the Gulf’s Politics

The 2022 FIFA World Cup has given billions of fans all over the world a feast of delightful football. More than one million foreign visitors have had the chance to watch matches in person at one of Qatar’s stadiums. The government in Doha and the Qatari people have enjoyed their month-long spotlight. Therefore, both football fans and Qatari leaders can rejoice—not only have the displays of athleticism on the field rivaled any World Cup in memory, but Qatar has basked in the prestige and renown that only this tournament can provide.

Politics Reigns

Off the pitch, politics featured throughout the tournament—occasionally outshining the matches themselves. Doha hosted dozens of leaders who met to discuss international relations. Particularly, meetings between some leaders of the Gulf region were remarkable. It is no secret that hostility has spilled over between Gulf Arab leaders. One only has to look as far as the land, air and sea blockade imposed against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt that began in June 2017 and lasted for three and a half years. Yet, Kuwait, Oman, Turkey, and Iran, helped Qatar to resist and eventually break the blockade.

While relations between Qatar and its neighbors improved significantly after the signing of the Al-Ula Agreement in January 2021, the process of diplomatic normalization has sped up significantly during the World Cup. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan all attended the tournament’s opening ceremony, along with 22 other world leaders. Many countries whose head of state could not join sent ministerial-level representatives instead.

As with many dyadic relationships, some of Qatar’s erstwhile adversaries warmed up to Doha faster than others. It is well known that Bahrain’s leader was the only “Quartet” ruler not to visit Doha before the World Cup. Analysts agree that diplomatic relations between the two countries have improved slower than others. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did his best to smooth over past tensions. Qatari leader Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani reciprocated his counterpart’s overture by carrying a Saudi flag and draping it around his neck during Saudi Arabia’s match with Argentina. Although in the moment this symbolic gesture appeared nonchalant, it is quite noteworthy considering the rift that had long divided the two countries.

UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed paid a surprise visit to Qatar on December 5, the first time since the lifting of the blockade. Since the UAE was the driving force behind the blockade in 2017, his visit was particularly important for normalizing ties. Though Qatar is the host country of the 2022 tournament, the UAE has benefited enormously, thanks to its close proximity and tourism infrastructure. It is estimated that Dubai alone hosted 1 million additional tourists during the event. Moreover, some participating national teams did their pre-tournament exercises either in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Another visitor was Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt, whose country joined the blockaders in 2017. Relations between Qatar and Egypt improved quickly after the Al-Ula Agreement, with closer economic ties have preceding political rapprochement. Before attending the opening ceremony of the World Cup, Al-Sisi visited Qatar last September. While there, the Egyptian president sought to strengthen relations with Doha and meet with Turkish President Erdogan. The tournament served as the real catalyst for closer ties, however. Without the World Cup, it would be difficult to imagine seeing Egyptian and Turkish heads of state shaking hands. Both countries are expected to re-deploy their ambassadors soon, capitalizing on the positive momentum. Of course, the role of Qatar’s mediation should not be underestimated. Doha has long strived to restore relations between Turkey and Egypt, and football has provided just the occasion to do so.

Potential Pitfalls

Nevertheless, the outlying grievances that led to the 2017 blockade continue today. For instance, Qatar and Turkey foreign policies toward the region have not changed. If Doha and Ankara continue to support the Muslim Brotherhood, regional relations might rupture once more. For the moment, the expectation is that all parties will avoid antagonizing each other without changing their stances over these core issues. State-run media outlets that once served as bullhorns to spread fiercely hostile propaganda have been quietly reminded that their coverage should not cause outrage or disrupt progress toward diplomatic normalization. How long this detente will continue and whether it has a sturdy enough foundation to persist in the future is up for debate.

Since popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes are not expected in the near future, Turkey and Qatar may boost their efforts to reconcile Islamist parties and Arab regimes. Some Turkish scholars argue that the Muslim Brotherhood, which is seen as the source of uprisings by authoritarian regimes, might benefit from a general de-escalation with regional leaders and governments. One suggestion is that Qatari and Turkish diplomats might even mediate between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Sisi administration to create the same socio-political circumstances as during the Anwar Al-Sadat government. Unlike Abdel Nasser, Sadat made peace with the Brotherhood, and they maintained a certain level of respect toward each other.

Overall, it can be argued that in the wake of the Al-Ula Agreement, the 2022 FIFA World Cup is another milestone toward improving inter-state relations in the Gulf region and the Middle East more broadly. Outstanding disputes remain frozen, and no country appears eager to melt the ice. The recent round of handshakes in Doha suggest that detente is not only possible, but occasionally preferable—even if divisions between the parties persist.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: GCC

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İbrahim Karataş is an Associate Professor in International Relations, based in Istanbul, Turkey. He writes columns for Turkey’s Daily Sabah and Yeni Akit dailies and has written more than 30 academic articles and books.


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