For centuries, Muslims around the world have longed for a united Ummah that speaks with one voice for all adherents of the Islamic faith, an impossible dream given Muslims are now spread throughout a majority of the world’s 195 countries. It remains a dream, nevertheless.

But for four glorious weeks in Qatar, the FIFA World Cup breathed new life into this holy aspiration. Middle Eastern rivalries were either forgotten, put on hold, or mended. The Islamic world was brought together from the moment the once-every-four-year tournament kicked off inside Al Bayt Stadium, a facility designed to resemble a traditional Bedouin tent.

Standing in the middle was legendary Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, who opened the tournament with “The Calling,” telling billions of global viewers, “We all gather here in one big tribe.” His words echoed by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, who called on people to “put aside what divides them to celebrate their diversity and what brings them together.”

Qatar was the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament, and from the moment Saudi Arabia defeated red hot favourite Argentina in the opening round of matches, we saw regional support for the regional teams. “Today, we are all Saudi Arabia” became a common refrain across social media platforms among Arabs throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and among Muslim populations in South Asia, Europe, and North America.

Similar sentiments were shared when Morocco beat the highly fancied Belgium side, particularly given North African migrants are treated as second- and third-class citizens in the European country, with hijab wearing women regularly targeted with discrimination. But when Tunisia defeated its former colonial overlord France, Arab Twitter erupted as though the Arab country had won the entire tournament.

To the delight of hundreds of millions of Arabs, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco proved they can defeat the best teams in the world. For other MENA teams, Iran can consider itself unlucky due to the threats its players faced from the regime at home, while the inexperienced Qatari side can consider itself lucky to have been included in the tournament, a right it earned as the host country.

But it was Morocco that stole the hearts of the Arab and Muslim world, however, when it not only became the only Arab team to make it into the round of 16, but also into the semi-finals, while beating European heavyweights Spain and Portugal along the way. The region wide adoration for Morocco’s achievements were further bolstered when its players raised flags in solidarity with the Palestinian people, prompting Palestinian ambassador at the United Nations to declare, “The winner of this World Cup is already known: it is Palestine.”

 

 

The Moroccan team inspired Arabs from other nationalities to wave the Palestinian flag inside the stadiums and along the streets of Doha, which showcased Arab unity and solidarity against Israel’s international law and human rights abuses. Such unity exposed the lies and false assumptions that underpin the Abraham Accords, which were endorsed by Arab regimes, not the Arab people, prompting Israeli commentators to warn, “Israel’s problem is not the rich Gulf monarchies but the hundreds of millions of Arabs.”

Certainly, the Western media played a pivotal role in uniting the Arab and Muslim world during the tournament, with many determining American and European criticism of host country Qatar to be rooted in Islamophobia and Western chauvinism. Others saw it as an expression of the West’s hypocritical stance towards human rights in the Middle East, where Israel’s violations of human rights and international law are defended or ignored.

“Western journalists keen on performing their human rights act during this year’s World Cup have found an irresistible stage,” argues Khaled Beydoun, a law professor and author of the forthcoming book, The New Crusades: Islamophobia and the Global War on Muslims.

“However, when it comes to sites where Muslims are the victims of human rights violations instead of the perpetrators, the self-righteous acts are sparse or nowhere to be found.”

There were, however, notable limits to Arab solidarity, particularly for Saudi fans who fear expressing sympathy for Qatar will land them in hot water, given many have found themselves in prison after being accused by the Saudi government of sympathizing or having ties to Qatar, as illustrated in a tweet posted by Nasser al-Qarni, son of imprisoned Saudi cleric Awad a-Qarni, which read, “One of the charges against my father by the public prosecutor was sympathizing with the hostile state of Qatar.”

These fears remain, despite renewed ties between the Saudi and Qatari governments, which were on full display during the opening ceremony of the tournament, with Saudi Arabia’s defacto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman wearing a scarf to represent the Qatari flag, while Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamin wore one to represent the Saudi flag. These mutual affections were unthinkable only a few months ago.

In a recent interview, David Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London, warned against reading too much into the photos indicating a thawing of relations between the two Arab countries, saying. “You need to have a historical lobotomy to think that therefore now everything is fine. GCC unity has been a constant ebb and flow for decades if not centuries. So, while things are comparatively quiet now, that’s well and good. But if history’s any guide, you don’t know how long it’ll last.”

Others have described the Saudi Crown Prince’s attendance visit to Doha as “more symbolic than substantive. It’s likely the good vibes experienced during the tournament will fade away quickly.

“The significance of these euphoric moments is undoubtedly linked to the specific occasion of the World Cup as a passing event, and tensions and frictions amongst the Arab states will continue for the foreseeable future,” remarks Khaled al -Hroub, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Northwestern University in Qatar.

But even if the past four weeks gave the world only the illusion of unity in the Middle East – it certainly felt good.