The Gulf’s Soccer Showdown

The World Cup’s knockout rounds are in full swing, and followers of Middle East soccer will now have to root for teams outside the region. Despite some compelling narratives – the dramatic politicization of Egyptian star Mo Salah, Iran’s rags-to-riches goalkeeper saving a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shrugging off his team’s loss to Russia with Vladimir Putin – most Middle Eastern sides rather ignominiously crashed out of the tournament in the group stages.

For Middle East observers, at least, it’s not too early to look forward to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The irony of Saudi players running against the backdrop of Qatar Airways billboards during their World Cup matches in Russia will not have been lost on followers of Gulf politics. The juxtaposition of the Saudi players and Qatari advertising is a potent visual reminder of the political and diplomatic tensions between the two countries and how global soccer has become the latest arena to feature their competition.

Relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been fraught since the 1990s, but tensions have escalated dramatically in recent years. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt broke ties with Qatar over Doha’s divergent foreign policy goals, perceived hostile media coverage, and support for the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East. The immediate trigger of the May 2017 crisis was a Qatar News Agency (QNA) report that Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Khalifa had praised Iran and Hamas, and described “tensions” with US President Donald Trump. Even though Qatari officials almost immediately disavowed these reports and the Washington Post later reported that the UAE actually breached QNA’s website to plant the false stories, by June, the quartet of states had fully blockaded Qatar and issued thirteen demands (later cut to six) for lifting the blockade.

One year on, Qatar has yet to meet these demands. Both sides have jockeyed to win support from the Trump administration and in the court of public opinion, but the crisis is ongoing with no end in sight. While tensions among the Gulf states over Qatar’s regional behavior are not new, this latest rift appears to run deeper, and no side seems ready to blink. Saudi Arabia is even weighing building a moat to separate Qatar from the Arabian Peninsula.

The soccer pitch has emerged as a strange battlefield in this fractious environment. Last year, FIFA lifted a ban on Kuwait’s Football Association so that the Gulf Cup could be moved from Qatar to Kuwait post-blockade to keep Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain in the tournament. At this World Cup, the two countries failed to negotiate a $35-million broadcasting agreement for Qatar-owned beIN Media to license match-carrying rights to Saudi TV providers, forcing Saudis to illegally stream games from Russia.

The rivalry gets even messier looking forward to 2022, when Qatar will controversially host the next World Cup amid allegations of bribery at FIFA. As the tiny state rushes to build new stadiums that can accommodate soccer in the peninsula’s inhospitable climate, it continues to attract controversy for human rights abuses against laborers. Meanwhile, professional teams gripe that the tournament must be held in winter, the heart of Europe’s club season, to avoid the blistering heat of the Qatari summer.

The Qatar tournament was indelibly politicized from the start. But the Gulf crisis and the ambitions of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose Vision 2030 socioeconomic reform plan emphasizes sport as a vehicle for enacting social change and attracting foreign investment, have ratcheted up soccer’s politicization in the Gulf.

Rumors swirled in the immediate aftermath of the blockade that Qatar could find itself unable to host the 2022 tournament. Dubai’s security chief said the quartet’s blockade would end if Qatar surrendered its hosting duties, and a UK consulting firm published a controversial report that gained media traction by highlighting the political risks inherent to a Qatari World Cup.

As it became apparent that FIFA would not move the tournament, however, Saudi Arabia and its partners’ strategy shifted. The Kingdom lobbied FIFA to bring forward to 2022 a scheduled expansion of the 2026 World Cup field from thirty-two to forty-eight teams. This plan would have strained Qatar’s hosting capacity and likely forced it to share duties with Saudi Arabia and others; luckily for Qatar, it failed.

The Saudis did get a win, however, by rallying a new voting bloc – known as the South West Asian Football Federation – to help North America secure its 2026 hosting bid over Morocco, who was backed by Qatar. Saudi leadership of this bloc could position it as a major influencer on future FIFA decisions beyond 2026, including two potential new major FIFA competitions.

So why have two states with limited soccer legacies latched onto the sport, and why has it emerged as such a potent area for competition?

For Qatar, soccer has become arguably its highest-profile method of state branding, intended to help cultivate the young state’s identity (it gained independence in 1971) and cement its continued relevance in the international system. The World Cup is the latest in a series of sporting events, including the Exxon Mobil Open, the Qatar Master’s, and the Asian Games, used to reinforce this image of Qatar as the premier sports hub in the Middle East, with the UAE the only real close competitor.

Qatar’s attempts at soccer prestige are not limited to the international level, either. In 2011, Qatar Sports Investments purchased French club Paris-Saint Germain, and has since used its economic clout to build a team of some of the world’s best players, most notably Brazilian star Neymar. Under Qatari ownership, PSG has regularly courted controversy for violating FIFA’s financial fair play rules by overstating sponsorship deals and racking up debt, spending nearly $1.2 billion on player transfers since acquiring the club. Until the 2017-2018 season, Qatar also lent its name to the front of what is perhaps the world’s most iconic jersey by sponsoring Barcelona via the Qatar Foundation and Qatar Airways.

Observing Qatar’s success in engaging with elite global soccer, Saudi Arabia appears to recognize the utility of FIFA and soccer as a means of gaining international prestige. Like Qatar, Saudi Arabia recently sought to make a splash in Europe’s club waters, but in a different manner: the Kingdom loaned nine players to Spain’s La Liga for half a season as part of a Saudi-Spanish partnership to build Saudi Arabia’s soccer profile and prepare Saudi players for the World Cup. While the experiment garnered media coverage, it was short-lived. Most of the Saudi players are headed back to the Kingdom next season after seeing almost no game time, primarily for second division teams.

Saudi Arabia’s employment of the sport as a tool of domestic and regional diplomacy has been more successful. At home, soccer matches were one of the early venues for expanding public gender mixing and Saudi Arabia played a match against neighboring Iraq as a step toward normalizing relations after more than two and a half decades of isolation. With King Salman offering to finance a 135,000-seat soccer stadium outside of Baghdad, it appears the sport will remain an important component of Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy with Iraq.

Observing their similar strategies and zero-sum approaches to political disputes, it is difficult to see an end to Saudi Arabia and Qatar’s soccer rivalry any time soon. Yet, paradoxically, the sport could also offer a path through the diplomatic mire. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were essentially forced by the Asian Football Confederation to allow their club teams to travel to games in Qatar, ignoring the blockade. And despite their teams’ shortcomings, passionate fans and officials in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sophisticated understandings of the game and the challenges facing their national teams.

Perhaps, if they can confine the action to the field, there is a sliver of hope that Saudi Arabia and Qatar can begin to advance the political football.

Owen Daniels is an associate director with the Middle East Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Follow him on Twitter: @OJDaniels.

Image: Saudi Arabia's Abdullah Al-Mayouf during training at Rostov Arena, Russia June 19, 2018 (REUTERS/Marko Djurica)