All across Qatar, excitement has steadily built as the small Gulf monarchy prepares for the largest and most spectacular sporting event in the world. Between November 20 and December 18, Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the first Middle Eastern country to host the event. Across the eight groups, 32 countries have qualified to join the tournament, including teams from all six continents. While many people anticipate the showdown between Iran and the United States in Group B, many Arabs are excited that the Arab world will be represented by four teams: Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Qatar, and Morocco. During the tournament, Qatar—a nation of barely 3 million—expects to host 1.2 million foreign visitors. Qatar has spent an estimated $220 billion to hold this mega-event, making the 2022 World Cup the most expensive in history.
Since the inauguration of Qatar’s winning the bid for the World Cup in 2010, Doha has faced greater external scrutiny related to labor issues, investment, economic diversification and logistics, as well as to sports diplomacy and the importance of soft power. The FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar also provides a fruitful case study of intra-Gulf political and social dynamics. As the impact of the tournament reverberates across the neighboring Gulf monarchies, the event has proven an opportunity to strengthen cross-societal ties and build trust among Gulf nationals following the Gulf reconciliation agreement that ended the blockade of Qatar in 2021.
Football beyond Borders
Although Qatar will be the sole host for football matches across its eight World Cup Stadiums, neighboring states—particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—are looking to reap the rewards of such an important and large-scale event in the Gulf region. Indeed, as an already established tourism hub, the UAE is expected to benefit the most from the World Cup in neighboring Qatar. Given the limited accommodation capacity in Qatar, Dubai will be a major gateway to the 2022 World Cup, with an expected 54 daily flights between Dubai and Qatar. Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector also expects a boost during the World Cup.
In order to attract more tourists during the World Cup, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched policy reforms intended to ease the entry process for foreigners. On August 24, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that the country would issue multiple entry visas valid for 60 days for holders of the Hayya Card, an event pass issued by Qatar for attendees of the tournament. Furthermore, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) residents with a valid residency visa for at least three months can now apply for an e-visa to enter Saudi Arabia—circumventing the cumbersome application process at Saudi embassies and consulates. Following Saudi Arabia, the UAE announced that it too would grant multiple-entry tourist visas for Hayya Card holders. On October 14, Saudi Arabia also welcomed Muslims with World Cup Hayya cards to perform the Umrah (lesser pilgrimage to Mecca) and visit Medina with a free Saudi visa from November 11 to December 18, 2022.
In addition to international tourists, many Saudi and Emirati football fans are expected to visit Qatar during the World Cup. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were among the top 10 countries with the highest demand for World Cup tickets during the initial sale period. Based on these figures, a significant number of GCC citizens and residents will be expected to visit Qatar during the World Cup, providing an opportunity to strengthen intra-GCC mobility and engagement. These developments raise the prospects for restoration of the collective Gulf (Khaleeji) identity.
Restoring the Khaleeji Identity
As a concrete and important step to reconciliation, on January 5, 2021, the GCC states signed the Al-Ula Agreement, ending the boycott on Qatar imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt in 2017. The four states cut diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism and meddling in other Arab states’ internal affairs. During the GCC crisis, Saudi Arabia closed its land border with Qatar, while a total air and sea blockade was imposed by the quartet. In June 2017, the citizens of blockading countries were forcibly recalled from Qatar, and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain gave Qatari residents and visitors 14 days to leave their territory.
Almost overnight, the free movement of people between GCC countries was severely restricted, and the closure of the borders separated many families stretching across the Gulf States. One of the main concerns around the crisis was a significant decline in the salience of Khaleeji identity, given the bitter public rift that the blockade exposed. National and international media outlets, as well as heated netizens, joined in the fray to exacerbate tensions. These difficulties may be set to change in 2022, as the World Cup is expected to tremendously increase intra-GCC mobility.
“The World Cup will take place almost two years after the al-Ula summit resulted in the lifting of the Saudi- and Emirati-led blockade of Qatar. Since the GCC crisis ended in early 2021, much progress has been made in terms of repairing Doha’s relationships with both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, notwithstanding some lingering tensions,” said Giorgio Cafiero, CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, in an interview with the Gulf International Forum. “The World Cup is a unique opportunity for all GCC states to benefit economically and bring together citizens of all six countries in the sub-regional institution in ways that would not be realistic had the blockade of Qatar remained in place,” Cafiero said.
The World Cup may also reinforce national identities across the Gulf, as football fans from the qualified states are prepared to support their national teams with national pride. Yet, under the immediate conditions in the Gulf, football can also serve as a vehicle for rebuilding trust and confidence between the GCC states and re-establishing a common ‘Khaleeji’ identity.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.