Far from the apolitical event that Qatar and FIFA promised, symbolic acts of defiance and rapprochement have dominated the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Over the past three weeks, the world has enjoyed watching the FIFA World Cup, the world’s most popular sporting event, in Qatar. As the first World Cup tournament hosted in the MENA region, the symbolic nature of the sporting event has had a major impact on the politics of the Gulf region. Over the last weeks, we have seen how the World Cup has illustrated the power of football as a vehicle for politics and reconciliation.
The World Cup in Qatar is unique primarily because it has become a venue for the East to meet the West. Some of these meetings have led to controversy, as when English football fans dressed as crusaders were prevented from entering Al Bayt Stadium by Qatari security who viewed this costume as offensive. When Tunisia held on to defeat France, social media across the Middle East stressed the importance of a former colony besting its past ruler. Such instances of conflict played out in the stands and on the football pitch were limited, however. For the most part, the World Cup has unified a tensely divided world. For instance, despite both of their teams exiting the tournament in the group stage, the fans of Saudi Arabia and Mexico were seen celebrating together in Doha. We also saw fans from Iran and Saudi Arabia celebrating in the Iran fans area.
It’s Always Political
This tournament has not only highlighted the complex relations between East and West, but has also served as a canvas for airing geopolitical concerns to a global audience. Although Qatari organizers have emphasized the apolitical nature of the World Cup and invited Israelis to Qatar for the first time in the nation’s modern history, the world was nonetheless reminded of the Arab-Israeli conflict when a football fan wore a Palestinian flag during the Tunisia-France match and brandished a “Free Palestine” banner. Tensions between the Iranian people and Iran’s theocratic regime spilled onto the field, as well. During the Iran-Wales group stage match, security at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium were filmed confiscating a shirt from an Iranian fan that had “Mahsa Amini” printed on the back—referencing the 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose death in police custody touched off Iran’s ongoing nationwide protests. During their opening game against England, the Iranian team refused to sing the national anthem, while fans audibly booed while the anthem was playing,
Certain matches were destined to be important international political events. The deciding U.S.-Iran contest demonstrated that the “maximum pressure” campaign applied by Washington against Tehran had not poisoned personal relations between the players. The cameras captured U.S. player Antonee Robinson embracing Iranian right back Ramin Rezaeian. At home, Iran’s loss to the United States divided opinion; celebrations at the loss were especially pronounced in Iran’s western Kurdistan province, Amini’s native region. In one Sanandaj city neighborhood, the United States’ winning goal was celebrated with cheers and horns. Festivities were also reported in Tehran, Arbadil, Mashhad, Kerman, Mahabad, and Zahedan, hailing the defeat of the Islamic Republic. At the same time, many pro-government Iranians cheered on their team in Tehran and expressed disappointment at the loss.
The World Cup has also had a unique conciliatory effect on nations normally divided by fierce disagreements with one another. Even after the Al-Ula Summit that ended the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the blockading states, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, there remained an unspoken coldness between Qatar and its neighbors. Other factors have contributed to steady rapprochement—notably pressure from Washington—but none had entirely normalized the “brotherly relations” that had previously characterized the ties between Doha and the blockading states. In a New York Times article, Vivian Nereim emphasized the importance of the friendly greeting of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), arguing that their personal rapport was emblematic of a broader rapprochement between the two erstwhile adversaries. In addition to the leaders’ presence at the opening ceremony, Saudi Arabia directed its agencies and ministries to offer any support required by Qatar. However, the most indicative signal of rebuilding of brotherly relations was seen at the game between Saudi Arabia and Argentina, which led to an astonishing victory for Saudi Arabia and euphoria throughout the Arab world. During the match, Sheikh Tamim was seen draping Saudi Arabia’s flag around his neck. Neither mutual security threats nor pressure from external powers could have brought together the leadership of two states whose relationship has been stressed and strained over the past few years.
GCC members were not the only states caught up in the flurry of reconciliation. The Muslim Brotherhood has long proven a flashpoint between the current leaders of Egypt and Turkey, who hold ideologically opposing views of the Islamist group. The World Cup in Qatar, however, became the venue where Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met for the first time at the opening ceremony of the tournament. Their handshake exemplifies the strong influence of football diplomacy at tournaments like the World Cup. It is clear that small gestures, such as a handshake or a quick chat, have the potential to lessen tensions between states competing in the international or regional arenas. Diplomacy springing from the World Cup has the potential to unite the region in solidarity against global threats, paving the way for future cooperation where it previously seemed impossible.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.