Can football diplomacy reunite the GCC?
Appealing to FIFA to take a "bold gamble" and bring the World Cup to a region where football is a craze and beginning to emerge as a world player in global sports, Doha had convinced the 22-member panel.
Being held in the Middle East for the very first time, this FIFA win was a great source of pride for this region.
Unfortunately, even as the mega-event edged closer, political disputes broke out in 2017, resulting in an unjust blockade on Qatar in by other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, namely Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain.
However, the blockade was lifted this year at the 41st GCC summit held in January and a "solidarity and stability" agreement, the Al-Ula declaration was signed. Airspace, land and sea borders between Qatar and the other states were reopened.
With this timely rapprochement, the FIFA World Cup can now be organised smoothly without any impediment and football teams and fans will easily converge at the stadium, making it a landmark event.
Here are two of the main benefits for Qatar.
First, as part of its economic strategy strategy, Doha opted to invest in sports to achieve diversification from the traditional oil and gas sector. Not only does this sector complement tourism, it can make Doha stand out on the world map as a centre of excellence for global sports.
Starting programmes under the Aspire Academy for recruiting talented young athletes and top coaches, Doha made large investments in sports, making international games part of its culture and an integral part of its national brand and image.
|Read also: Taking stock of the anti-Qatar
blockade three years later
With these moves, Qatar has built its own separate niche globally and expanded into Europe, Asia and North America with Doha-based beIN Sports TV channel having broadcasting rights for major sports competitions and leagues.
Welcoming athletes and sports clubs preparing for international competitions or organising training camps, Qatar is a popular sports destination during the winter break in colder countries.
Second, the FIFA Cup is also a good opportunity for "sports diplomacy". Increasing a nation’s ‘soft power’, high profile events such as these make good optics and help in building more people-to-people links. Wiping away the years of bitterness, FIFA could reunite the GCC.
Even before the blockade was lifted, Hassan Al Thawadi, General Secretary of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy which helps organise the World Cup, had expressed hope, saying that, "I've always dreamed big and said this is a World Cup to bring people together-and goodness knows, after Covid, we have to come back together. We need to get over this and celebrate collectively during Qatar 2022."
|I've always dreamed big and said this is a World Cup to bring people together-and goodness knows, after Covid, we have to come back together. We need to get over this and celebrate collectively during Qatar 2022
And some unity has started to kick in as Doha and Riyadh recently achieved a compromise over the hosting of the 2030 Asian Games. Despite having competed for the rights to host this event, Saudi Arabia has now agreed to host the 2034 edition instead.
Meanwhile, Qatar has sped up preparations to host the event.
Praising Qatar’s arrangements for the football event, the GCC’s highest authority, the Supreme Council has also "reaffirmed its support for the State of Qatar in anything that leads to the success of the upcoming World Cup."
Initially, the blockade had dealt an economic setback to Qatar and it was compelled to stabilise its currency by injecting $43 bn from its sovereign funds into banks. At that time, Doha was already under pressure due to massive development projects initiated in preparation for the FIFA event. However, Doha proved resilient and managed to pull through the crisis efficiently.
Completing work on stadiums and big infrastructure projects such as the Doha Metro, Qatari authorities have proved that the closure of the only land border (with Saudi Arabia) was not an insurmountable hurdle.
Busy with World Cup preparations, Qatar has already inaugurated four of the eight stadiums which feature cutting edge technology such as Advanced Cooling Tech.
|Qatar has already inaugurated four of the eight stadiums which feature cutting edge technology such as Advanced Cooling Tech
Soon after the blockade in 2017, some of the other Arab states had even demanded that Qatar be stripped of hosting rights of the FIFA World Cup. In response, Doha had issued a statement, saying that, "Qatar will host the first World Cup in the Middle East — the positive benefits and impact will extend beyond Qatar and throughout the Middle East."
Adopting neutrality, FIFA President Gianni Infantino had maintained that his organisation’s role is to "deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics."
Nevertheless, since holding the tournament requires constant travelling by scores of organisers, referees, teams, commercial sponsors and spectators, FIFA authorities must have heaved a sigh of relief now.
However, the Gulf Cup of Nations event was also hosted by Qatar in December 2019 even though the regional dispute had not ended and limited exemptions had to be issued by the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini governments.
In the broader perspective, the FIFA event will benefit the whole region, not just Qatar.
Notably, the Qatar World Cup has economic benefits for the GCC which is struggling to overcome damages inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic.
As football supporters travel and spend money, other states in the region could also benefit, especially those of cities like Dubai which is seeing fewer tourists these days.
Moreover, other GCC states like Bahrain and the UAE have been sponsoring and directly investing in top leagues and sports events to acquire Olympic awards and a better FIFA ranking since years, even before Qatar. Participating in this mega-event can help them acquire both know-how and contacts.
Also, if the blockade had remained in place at the time of the FIFA World Cup, there would have been gloominess and tension in all the Arab states as they share a passion for football. Tempers would have run high specially if any of the other four states had qualified for the final tournament.
|Football has shown throughout this crisis that it is a unique platform of exchange for people of the Gulf and I am sure the game will continue to unite the region in the near future
Visiting Saudi Arabia right after the Al-Ula Summit, FIFA President Gianni Infantino welcomed the lifting of the blockade, saying that, "Football has shown throughout this crisis that it is a unique platform of exchange for people of the Gulf and I am sure the game will continue to unite the region in the near future… This will be the first FIFA World Cup in the Middle East and in the Arab world, a unique opportunity for the entire region to unite and shine on the global stage."
This year, the FIFA Arab Cup 2021 is to be held in Qatar from December 1-18, and 22 national teams have already signed up to participate.
Confirming these matches, Infantino says that, "Through football, this tournament will unite over 450 million people from across the region, and we are confident that the FIFA Arab Cup will help to build excitement across the region as we edge ever nearer to hosting the first FIFA World Cup in the Middle East and Arab world in 2022."
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia.
Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi