After Asian Cup embarrassment, the UAE's bid to host World Cup appears even more distant

After Asian Cup embarrassment, the UAE's bid to host World Cup appears even more distant
The Saudi-UAE blockade of Qatar has seen Doha come out even stronger as the Gulf state prepares for the World Cup.
5 min read
30 January, 2019
Qatar now has its eyes set on the 2022 World Cup [Anadolu]
On Friday, the small Gulf state of Qatar pulled off a remarkable footballing and diplomatic victory by lifting the Asian Cup after defeating Japan in the final in Abu Dhabi. 

Having beaten the UAE in the semi-final, Qatar's historic cup win was portrayed in media as a David-over-Goliath victory - and a geopolitical win due to the Emirati-Saudi blockade - as Doha prepares to host the 2022 World Cup. 

If this was a battle of soft power between the UAE and Qatar on the football field, then the visiting underdogs won hands down, and the churlish response from the Emiratis didn't win Abu Dhabi much sympathy from football fans.


Charges of terrorism levelled at Qatar when the UAE, Saudi Arabia and its allies launched their blockade in June 2017 have already been widely rejected by most Middle East analysts.

When Qatari players were pelted with shoes thrown by Emirati fans, one can see the relationship between sport and politics in the Gulf runs deeper than just football.

It is a little-kept secret that Doha's hosting of the World Cup was a source of envy among some Gulf countries, which have tried to attract global attention by holding major sporting and cultural events.

With land, sea and air links with Qatar's neighbours closed, the blockade called into question Doha's ability to build the stadiums needed for the World Cup, which many have whispered was one motive behind the Saudi-led blockade.

Former Dubai police chief Dhahi Khalfan - an unofficial weather vane for UAE government policy - made this more explicit in late 2017.

"If the World Cup leaves Qatar [then] Qatar's crisis will be over," he said. "Because the crisis is created to get away from it."

Aref al-Awani, tournament director for the Asian Cup in the UAE, used the carrot approach, saying "if FIFA were to propose" sharing the games, "we would certainly look at the economic impact and media opportunities". 

"It's good to have football in the region... sports for us is to bring everybody together."  

At the time, the UAE was in the media spotlight for its own mistreatment of migrant workers, and they may have felt that this coverage would have critically undermined any bid
- Nick McGeehan, human rights researcher

Either way, the Saudi-UAE-led blockade has not achieved its aim of forcing Qatar into vassalage.

"A lot of well-informed people suspect jealousy of Qatar's successful bid and prestige with World Cup sharpened tensions, which were obviously pre-existing," Nick McGeehan, a human rights researcher, told The New Arab.

"The UAE have also made very obvious attempts throughout the blockade to persuade FIFA to allow Saudi Arabia and the UAE to share hosting rights, thereby stripping Qatar of its exclusive right to the tournament and delivering a massive and humiliating blow."

So why did the UAE not bid for the 2022 World Cup itself?

"At the time, the UAE was in the media spotlight for its own mistreatment of migrant workers, and they may have felt that this coverage would have critically undermined any bid," McGeehan added.


Abu Dhabi's construction of the Louvre and other art galleries on Saadiyat Island - "wholesome liberal-type projects that help them sell their country to businesses and tourists", McGeehan said - backfired, when high-profile artists criticised the project due to workers' rights issues.

The UAE has looked to sport for soft power and brand-building in the west, where critical reports of the UAE's poor human rights record and role in sparking a potential famine in Yemen have become more common in broadsheet media.

But Premier League winners Manchester City are also owned by Abu Dhabi royalty, the Emirates airline sponsors Arsenal's north London stadium, while Manchester United recently held a winter training camp in Dubai.

The UAE also hosts major sporting championships from the Grand Prix and World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, to Pakistani Super League cricket and the horse racing World Cup in Dubai, bringing some positive media spin for the UAE and its rulers.

It would be a considerable feat if they could share it. This would make the world take notice of the UAE
- Kristian Ulrichsen, Rice University's Baker Institute

"The UAE, and Dubai in particular, pioneered this model of hosting high-profile sporting events as a means of pushing a PR narrative. The success of this is reflected in the fact that it's become completely normalised for the UAE to host events, despite its grim record on rights and its deep strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia," added McGeehan.

All of these events pale into comparison compared with football's most prestigious tournament. Kristian Ulrichsen from Rice University's Baker Institute said the World Cup would likely be the ultimate prize for the UAE.

"Both countries both have invented new branding mechanisms and realise the soft power of sports, how it brings people together. The feeling is that Qatar got one up on the UAE [with the World Cup]; many people didn't think they had a chance of hosting it," said Ulrichsen.


Qatar has circumvented the blockade by expanding Port Hamad and sourcing construction materials for World Cup stadiums from elsewhere - arguably cheaper than the generous "mates-rates" they were paying to their Gulf neighbours.

The UAE is said to be keen for FIFA to expand the 2022 World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, which would mount pressure on Doha to share hosting rights with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as hinted at by FIFA President Gianni Infantino last month.

"It would be a considerable feat if they could share it. This would make the world take notice of the UAE," Ulrichsen said, although he said he would be surprised if this happened.

Suhaib Jamal Nasir, a Doha-based analyst, listed the numerous reasons that hosting the World Cup in the UAE in three years' time would be close to impossible. 

"The UAE fails on venue, distances, transport and accommodation," he said. 

The UAE's chance to shine during the Asian Cup was thrown away and its chance to host the World Cup appears ever more distant.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin