Arab states blink on Qatar ties, football on track in region

Doha, Qatar World Cup, Gulf nations
The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha will be one of the official fields for the 2022 World Cup | iStock

For the last 28 months, the feud among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) appeared to be a frozen conflict. Suddenly, there is an indication of a thaw with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signalling a possible softening of their resolve to keep Qatar isolated in the Arab world.

On Wednesday, the trio announced they will send teams to Qatar’s capital Doha for the Gulf Cup football tournament two weeks from now. These countries had boycotted the previous biennial event which was scheduled to be held in Qatar. It was only when the tournament was moved to Kuwait did they take part. This, by far, is the first positive sign that a rapprochement could well be in the works.

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The three Gulf Arab nations, and Egypt, imposed a diplomatic and economic blockade, and cut air, sea and land links with Qatar in June 2017, ostensibly on the charge that Qatar was aiding and abetting terrorism. Not only diplomatic and commercial but also sporting ties between the quartet and Qatar have remained suspended since then.

There was a visit by Qatar’s football team to UAE in January-February this year but for the AFC Asian Cup which sees wider Asian participation than the Gulf Cup that is a GCC plus Iraq and Yemen-only event.

A resolution of the fratricidal bickering among the Arab neighbours has done enough damage to each of their interests. The region’s ‘Big brother’ Saudi Arabia is seeking to come out of the mess that it has involved itself in, most notably in Yemen where it is waging a protracted, bloody war. The UAE wants to mend ties with Iran after its oil assets were attacked.

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For Qatar, an end to the bitter conflict with Saudi Arabia, with which it shares its only land border, will give it the opportunity to concentrate on the preparations for the FIFA World Cup 2022 without distractions.

The economic embargo has in these past two and a half years been a big worry for gas-rich Qatar. It has had to strike new alliances in the region, notably with Turkey and Iran, for food and other imports. New shipping routes were put into place at huge cost.

Although it has kept its head above the water by dipping into its vast financial reserves, it could have done without what has been a tiring dispute for all involved.

Earlier this month, Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said his country had overcome the adverse impact of the economic blockade, and that it was marching towards realising the objectives of Vision 2030, a development road map.

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Doha has gone about creating the necessary infrastructure, including state-of-the-art stadiums, roads and a 76-km metro rail network the full component of which will be ready in 2020, with determination.

Qatar won the World Cup bid amid allegations of corruption involving certain influential figures in FIFA. Controversies have continued to dog Qatar and the football administration ever since the bid was won in 2010. The country has attracted charges of human rights abuse too against expatriate workers employed on World Cup-related projects. The conflict with its neighbours made things worse for Qatar.

Doha had projected the event, the first time it is being held in the region, as an Arab World Cup. But the blockade imposed on it by three of its GCC members — the other two, Oman and Kuwait, are neutral — had cast a shadow on the preparations for the Cup.

The decision by Saudi, UAE and Bahrain to send its football teams to Doha though is seen by many in the region as a positive step towards resolving the conflict. How soon the friendly gesture will translate into real progress on the ground is however difficult to tell. But Qatar’s foreign minister this week spoke of “American efforts” to restore status quo ante, signalling perhaps an early end to the conflict.

The most-watched sporting extravaganza worldwide is being held in Asia for the first time, and Indians some 0.7 million of whom live and work in Qatar get a chance to be part of the excitement.

Doha is just three hours away by air from India, and Qatar expects a large turnout from Indians when the event gets underway. India is the only south Asian country that has been extended the visa-on-arrival facility by Qatar.

But will India play? Chances are bleak. To stay in the hunt, India will have to win against Oman in Muscat on November 19 in the qualifying rounds. It has been a win-less campaign so far, with one loss and three draws.

(The writer is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. He has reported extensively on politics and policy for leading news publications in India and the Gulf)