Will a soccer tournament solve the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain engage in ‘low risk diplomacy’ with diplomatic adversary Qatar at region’s premier sporting event.

 Buildings are seen from across the water in Doha, Qatar (photo credit: REUTERS)
Buildings are seen from across the water in Doha, Qatar
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For what is supposed to be a soccer tournament, the 24th Arabian Gulf Cup, the region’s most prominent sporting event, appears very political.
For over two years, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, together with Egypt, have maintained a complete boycott of Qatar due to longtime regional rivalries and disagreements, saying that Doha, among other things, supports terrorism. Despite this, the three sent teams to the biennial tournament, which got under way this year on November 26 in the Qatari capital.
According to Hassanane Balal, a London-based journalist who covers the Iraqi national team, politics is par for the course at this type of event.
“Politics will always be involved in international [soccer], whether it’s out in the open or a bit more discrete,” he told The Media Line. “It’s very difficult to separate the politics of a country [from] rivalries…. It’s completely normal and happens in all sports.”
Balal relates that when Qatar played at the Asia Cup soccer tournament earlier this year against the UAE – which hosted the event – the latter’s fans threw shoes at the Qatari players.
Aravind Ramesh, a Qatari fan attending the Gulf Cup, has not witnessed conflict in the stands.
“No politics or tensions were felt here,” he told The Media Line. “Despite the [boycott], everything is going smoothly. Supporters here were cheering for all the teams, and no harm was done to any players.”
Behind the scenes, however, politics is very much at work.
According to Dr. Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at King’s College London’s School of Security Studies and a fellow at the college’s Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, the Gulf Cup is providing the parties with an opportunity to preserve their reputation in the absence of political progress.
“Sports diplomacy is a low-key way to show good-will without any risk of losing face should there not be a breakthrough in the diplomatic efforts,” he told The Media Line.
For Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, the tournament in Qatar could set a precedent for more open borders. Indeed, it might give the four countries time to start early negotiations before next month’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the UAE.
“It is possible that attending and participating in the Gulf Cup is a part of an attempted reconciliation process in the run-up to the GCC annual summit… if by doing so, the tournament provides a pretext for quietly lifting the blockade of Qatar through measures such as the ban on the movement of people or of direct flights,” Christopher Davidson, the British author of several books on the Middle East, told The Media Line.
Time will tell how much the trio’s presence in Qatar will improve the rift, if at all.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told The Media Line that “the way the Gulf Cup and Qatar’s hosting is treated in media in the UAE and Saudi Arabia may give an indication into whether the persistent hostility toward Qatar that has been such a feature of the blockade [is] lessening.”
Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, contends that at this point, all parties stand to lose if the conflict worsens.
“No Gulf Arab state,” he said, “gains at this point in time from a further deterioration in relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.”
Mogielnicki argues that while participation in the tournament shows some willingness to end the conflict, no actual steps have been taken.
“Permitting… teams to play matches in Qatar is a side effect of an inclination to overcome the issues underlying the dispute with Qatar,” he told The Media Line.
“It is not, in itself, a concrete step toward any solution,” he continued.
For now, though, the relationship, he said, “is not moving in the wrong direction.”
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