When it comes to football club ownership (called soccer in the US) and wider influence in the world game, Saudi Arabia lagged behind its Gulf rivals, namely the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Trophy after trophy for Manchester City and PSG have shown that money can buy success. Riyadh wanted a piece of the action. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) announced his interest in Newcastle United Football Club, using Saudi Arabia’s US$382 billion Public Investment Fund (PIF), but that bid has been recently withdrawn, succumbing to pressure from various parties.

Despite the failure of the Saudi attempt to buy a premier league football team, the divide between wealthy oil monarchies continues to widen.

In the Gulf, Qatar remains public enemy number one. In 2017, Saudi Arabia and the UAE headed up a five-nation coalition that cut all ties with Qatar, causing economic chaos on the peninsula. Since then, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have carried out an economic and propaganda war against Doha. The assault is characterized by petty episodes such as the Saudi threat to dig a trench along the country’s eastern border, rendering Qatar an island, and filling the trench with nuclear waste.

The official justification for the boycott was Qatar’s alleged links to terrorist groups and to Iran, the Shia theocracy that Saudi Arabia views as its principal regional adversary. Doha’s Gulf enemies also point to abuses of human rights and workers’ rights on the peninsula even as Qatar has been actively working to improve its workers’ rights.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are guilty of all the offenses they level at Qatar and on a greater scale.

The Saudi’s claims must be taken with an enormous pinch of salt. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are guilty of all the offenses they level at Qatar and on a greater scale. To name but a few indiscretions, there is the silencing of dissent in both countries, the illegal detention of MbS’ rivals, and the harrowing Saudi-UAE-led air-war in Yemen that has led to what the UN has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” It is highly unlikely that a man like MbS, who was nicknamed “Mohammed Bone-Saw” after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, opposes Qatar because of his deep commitment to human rights and principled opposition to terrorism.

The true origins of the conflict between Qatar and its neighbors are complex, but many trace the roots back to the Arab Spring, where Qatar was seen to be supporting forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi and Emirati regimes viewed as a threat to their power. When it comes to holding on to that power, football may prove a powerful weapon.

Saudi Arabia Qatar football

Saudi Arabia midfielder Hatan Bahbri, center, takes a shot on goal against Qatar in the 2019 Asian Cup (AFP Photo)

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One of the most explicit examples of the Gulf powers using the sport as a tool of direct political power came in 2012, when the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed called upon the UK to ban the Muslim Brotherhood, threatening the cancellation of lucrative oil and arms deals. When the then British Prime Minister David Cameron refused, the UK ambassador to the UAE was summoned not to a meeting with Emirati politicians, but with Manchester City Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak. Al Mubarak later said that: “The UK will need to consider the political implications,” adding: “we are raising a red flag.”

While the Saudi/UAE assault on Qatar often stoops to absurd and childish threats of the “trench filled with nuclear waste” variety, other methods have been more subtle and underhanded. In recent years, several “astro-turf” human rights groups and Twitter accounts (with unknown funders) have been set up to discredit Qatar. These groups often amplify the country’s “appalling” human rights record, while declining to mention the much worse standards of its immediate neighbors. At the same time, new consultancies, and think-tanks, often also with unclear sources of cash, have published reports on abuses of international law by the Qataris. Many of these reports have made it into the coverage of respected news outlets such as the BBC and the London Sunday Times.

Football has been a key weapon in this regional cold war and Qatar’s enemies have realized that the best way to hurt the country is to attack its 2022 World Cup.

Football has been a key weapon in this regional cold war and Qatar’s enemies have realized that the best way to hurt the country is to attack its 2022 World Cup. The decision to grant the tournament to the Gulf peninsula has received almost universally negative press. Accusations of corruption in the 2010 vote abound, ranging from allegations that the Qatari state bribed relevant FIFA officials, to claims that lucrative oil and gas deals played a role in securing hosting rights for the Gulf peninsula. Though much of the criticism, such as the widespread coverage of human rights abuses against the largely South-Asian immigrant workers tasked with building the tournament’s infrastructure, may have seemed legitimate, most of the commentary was far more suspicious.

A case in point was the glitzy London launch of an organization called The Foundation for Sports Integrity in 2018. The Foundation allegedly exists to combat corruption, although the organizers of the event refused to reveal who its main funders were. Speakers at the launch, many of them major celebrities, focused primarily on Qatar’s misdeeds.

One figure who was invited to speak was Nicholas McGeehan, a workers’ rights activist, and well-known critic of Qatar 2022. “I asked for assurances that it wasn’t Gulf money because it was clear that there was a lot of money behind it,” McGeehan told The Guardian. “Those assurances were given and then two days later I was uninvited. They couldn’t give a reason as to why I wasn’t appearing. It just yells Saudi and UAE money.”

In another revealing episode, leaked emails of Yousef Al Otaiba, UAE Ambassador to the US, reveal detailed plans to diminish Qatar’s ability to host the World Cup. This bombshell was allegedly unconnected to FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s raising the prospect of 2022 being an expanded 48-team tournament. Qatar would not be able to accommodate such a change, forcing them to share the tournament with regional neighbors such as, say, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

If there is any organization that can match the Gulf-states for corruption, it is FIFA, and Infantino is a classic example. The Swiss-Italian is undoubtedly the key figure in FIFA’s Faustian bargain with the Saudis and Emiratis and, when it comes to the attack on Qatar’s World Cup, he is also in up to his neck.

Infantino did a U-turn on his long-held position that sport and politics should be kept separate.

In a 2018 address to world-leaders in Argentina, including MbS, Infantino did a U-turn on his long-held position that sport and politics should be kept separate. He spoke instead of how football could be used to heal social and political divides. “Maybe, if football makes dreams come true, in 2022 we could experience a World Cup in Qatar as well as, why not, some other countries of the Arabian Gulf,” Infantino said, adding: “But this is another story, hopefully with a happy end, Inshallah.”

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia and the UAE are deepening their ties with FIFA. The Saudi city of Jeddah hosted the 2019 Italian Supercoppa, which Qatar has hosted twice. One gets an idea of why these states might want to associate themselves with the Supercopa when one considers that Colonel Gadaffi once successfully negotiated for the 2002 edition to be held in Tripoli. Once again, it is all about “sports-washing” dubious reputations.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are also working closely with FIFA on a new, revamped Club World Cup that could challenge the supremacy of the Champions League. Gianni Infantino has his finger-prints all over this one too – the FIFA boss visited Saudi Arabia three times in 2017 alone, just before announcement of the new tournament prior to the beginning of the 2018 World Cup.

In preparation for that tournament, Saudi Arabia had struck a deal with Spain’s La Liga in 2017/18, that saw Saudi Arabia’s top players move to Spanish clubs in the hope of preparing them for the 2018 World Cup. In the end, the experiment was a failure. The Saudi team crashed to a 5-0 opening-game defeat against the hosts, Russia, as MbS looked on, bantering with Infantino and Vladimir Putin in the presidential box.

If it goes ahead, the new Club World Cup would bring in around US$25 billion for FIFA. To put this in perspective, the estimated worth of the current Club World Cup is around US$100 million. For men like Infantino, there are offers you cannot refuse.