When the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ)—Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—imposed a blockade on Qatar in June 2017, this bloc of Arab states did so for reasons that were multifold. Doha’s alleged meddling in other countries’ internal affairs, sponsoring of “terrorist” organizations, its relatively warm relationship with Iran, and Qatar’s media landscape were the main justifications provided by the ATQ members and critics of Qatar.
Yet another factor that contributed to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis was the intent of Qatar’s adversaries to prevent it from hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022, or at least force it to share the global sports event with the ATQ states. In fact, four months after the blockade was placed on Qatar, the head of Dubai Security stated, “If the World Cup leaves Qatar, the crisis will go away… because the crisis is created to break it.”
From Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s perspective, Qatar’s ascendancy has constituted a threat ever since the mid-1990s—especially since the Arab Spring uprisings erupted across the greater Middle East in 2011. The Saudi/Emirati decision to blockade Doha 28 months ago exposed their apprehensions of Doha. The growth of the Qatari brand could have spurred healthy competition within the GCC, especially in Qatar-UAE relations. Yet it did not. Instead, Qatar’s success in global sports has been perceived as a major problem for other Arabian Gulf states’ prospects for establishing their own national sports brands. The competition—namely between Qatar and the UAE—has turned into a zero-sum game.
The PR Push
Throughout the GCC crisis, the ATQ states have kept Qatar’s World Cup 2022 plans in mind and sought to prevent Doha from benefitting from the global event. Doubtless a successful World Cup event would severely undermine their hopes for isolating Qatar and convincing the world that it should be isolated.
A flurry of articles was published shortly after the start of the blockade raising questions about Qatar’s logistical capacity to host the World Cup (which was then) five years down the road. The media onslaught also questioned the politics of the global event taking place in a country that several influential Arab states deemed to be ruled by a pariah regime hellbent on destabilizing the Middle East via Islamist groups. The same day that the blockade went into effect, a piece published in The Guardian quoted Reinhard Grindel, the German FA (DFB) president, saying: “The football community worldwide should agree that . . . major tournaments should not be played in countries that actively support terror.”
The UAE hired Cornerstone Global Associates and a British lawmaker, Damian Collins, to launch a campaign aimed at portraying Qatar negatively to prevent it from hosting the 2022 World Cup.
Furthermore, as the New York Times exposed earlier this year, the UAE hired Cornerstone Global Associates and a British lawmaker, Damian Collins to launch a campaign aimed at portraying Qatar negatively to prevent it from hosting the 2022 World Cup. In July 2018, the Sunday Times published an article, titled “Exclusive: Qatar Sabotaged 2022 World Cup Rivals with ‘Black Ops’”, quoting Collins, who called on FIFA to investigate claims that Qatar had secured the bid in 2010 through illegitimate means, and asking to strip the emirate of its hosting rights if such investigation confirmed the allegations.
Such a PR push fits into the UAE’s grander efforts designed to ostracize Qatar in the West by financing campaigns aimed at driving journalists, think-tanks, and media outlets in the US and UK to depict Qatar as a state that should be isolated for its alleged role in fanning the flames of extremism while destabilizing the region.
As The Intercept reported in 2017, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s alleged attempts to wage financial warfare against Qatar after the GCC crisis broke out were, at least in part, designed to force Qatar to share the World Cup in 2022 based on the argument that Doha could not afford the infrastructure for hosting the event on its own. Those behind this claim had an outline, obtained by The Intercept, which stated: “If Qatar now spends its reserves on protecting the currency and domestic credit markets, there is less dry powder to fund the infrastructure spending.”
More Games as a Solution to Resolving the GCC Crisis?
Earlier this year, talk about increasing the number of teams from 32 to 48 raised many questions about other GCC member-states sharing hosting rights and responsibilities with Qatar. But the Arabian feud obviously complicated the prospects for such a sharing arrangement. Therefore, unless the crisis between the ATQ and Qatar comes to an end, the World Cup cannot be expanded to the blockading states. At least this was the conclusion reached by FIFA in an 81-page feasibility study which looked at the logistical and political variables in play. As long as Qatar is blockaded by its Arabian neighbors, FIFA will not require Qatar to share games with the ATQ states, although Oman and Kuwait could, at least on paper, be considered potential co-hosts.
In January, the UAE’s sports chief Mohammed Khalfan al-Romaith said that the Emirates would welcome plans for his country and Qatar to co-host the 2022 World Cup if the GCC’s internal feud can first be resolved. FIFA President Gianni Infantino has also expressed the idea of Qatar and members of the ATQ co-hosting the global event as a path toward resolving the GCC crisis. Yet Infantino’s idea, while possible in an ideal world, is out of touch with reality.
“Infantino’s assertion that if foes play soccer, bridges are built is but the latest iteration of a long-standing myth,” as James Dorsey explained. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Soccer is an aggressive sport. It is about conquering the other half of a pitch. It evokes passions and allegiances that are tribal in nature and that more often than not divide rather than unite. In conflict situations, soccer tends to provide an additional battlefield.”
Losses for Dubaians and other Khaleeji
Dubai’s economic development has suffered from the GCC crisis, most notably with Jebel Ali losing much business to Omani ports.
Dubai’s economic development has suffered from the GCC crisis, most notably with Jebel Ali losing much business to Omani ports that became new logistical hubs for Qatar’s regional and international trade. Additionally, Qataris are no longer coming into Dubai as tourists or buying expensive real estate as they did prior to mid-2017. The continuation of severed ties between the UAE and Doha will cost Dubai with respect to the World Cup in 2022.
If it weren’t for the Arabian feud, Dubai could be hosting fans who also want to experience Dubai as tourists. Yet without a resolution to the GCC crisis, the UAE’s main tourist attractions will miss out on opportunities to profit from the World Cup being held in nearby Qatar. Furthermore, with Turkish construction companies winning many contracts for World Cup-related projects in Qatar, Emaar and other construction firms based in the UAE have been deprived of the chance to win such contracts.
Finally, there are emotional costs to be paid too. Assuming that the blockade is still in place in 2020, Bahraini, Emirati, and Saudi fans will be denied the most exciting opportunity of a life-time to attend the first World Cup held in the Middle East—let alone in a fellow Arabian Peninsula country.