by James Brownsell
So much of this Gulf Crisis has been so petty, so childish, so frivolous. Like little boys squabbling over toys, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been picking on their little brother Qatar for having an independent streak – and then roping in Egypt, the neighborhood bully, to back them up. Bahrain’s like that scrawny kid on the block who hides behind the bigger boys while making threatening gestures with his fists, safe in the knowledge he’ll never be tested alone.
The blockade has never been about terrorism. It’s never really been about foreign policy or geopolitics. It’s been about ego. It’s been about status. It’s been about insecure little men with feelings of inadequacy.
Qatar began to step out of the shadow cast by its Gulf brothers and started to make a name for itself in the regional neighborhood around the turn of the millennium, as Al Jazeera grew in influence across the Arab world. Qatar’s projection of soft power slowly expanded, with the Saudis and Emiratis cautiously wary that their little brother was growing up.
Doha’s coming of age, however, when its reputation first really started outgrowing the neighborhood, began in 2010 when Qatar was awarded hosting rights for the 2022 football World Cup.
Suddenly, Qatar had burst onto the international stage. It was leaving its bigger brothers behind and blazing a trail on its own. And the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not like that one little bit.
The football World Cup is one of the globe’s premier showcase prestige events. It is a massive status symbol for a host country. It says: “We have arrived. We stand equal among the world’s cultural landmarks. We are as developed, as capable – as ‘civilized’ – as any of the world’s nations.”
Obviously, to say the Gulf Crisis and blockade of Qatar is solely down to Doha’s hosting of the World Cup is a massive over-simplification. But we all know that if Qatar were to offer “co-hosting rights” to Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, this blockade would be over tomorrow – and nothing else provides as clear an example of the pettiness of this conflict. When children are playing and one gets given a bigger, better, shinier toy, the others all want it. And when they can’t have it, they resent the one with the new plaything.
Football diplomacy has been kicking off in the Gulf in recent years, and with no shortage of foul play.
The Gulf Cup, an eight-team football tournament held every two years, was due to be hosted by Kuwait in 2016, after Iraq understandably backed out of holding the competition due to its financial crisis and the Islamic State group’s take-over of around a third of the country. But then Kuwait – once upon a time the stars of Asian football – were booted out of FIFA amid allegations of government interference in the national football association.
The Gulf Cup was delayed by a year and handed to Qatar, at the half-way point of its preparations for World Cup hosting duties. Of course, by then, the Saudi-Emirati-led blockade of Qatar was in full swing. Diplomatic relations had been severed, the Saudi-Qatar land border (through which 60 percent of Qatar’s food imports had entered the country) had been sealed, regional airspace had been shut to Qatari flights. Qatar had pulled out of the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain were withdrawn from the 2017 tournament, having failed to respond to invitations from the Doha-based organizers. World Cup administrators at FIFA were rightfully concerned about the potential impact on 2022, when millions of football fans were expected to travel from across the region to Qatar.
If the Gulf Cup fell apart, it would set a worrying precedent for the blockading countries to lead and/or enforce a boycott of the World Cup in 2022. And there is a lot of cash and pride at stake in making sure each World Cup is a huge money-spinner for organizers, sponsors and tourism facilities.
Finally, the Kuwaiti government passed a law blocking any state interference in the domestic FA, Qatar graciously agreed to hand back hosting rights to Kuwait, the blockading countries announced their participation – and everyone at FIFA breathed a sigh of relief.
Qatar, incidentally, then just a few months into the reign of coach Félix Sánchez Bas, hammered Yemen 4-0, but it was to be their only victory of the tournament, which was won by Oman (who beat the UAE on penalties in the final).
Fast forward a year and a bit, and we find ourselves at the Asian Cup 2019 – the continent’s top international football tournament. The UAE was awarded hosting rights in 2015, and so the cream of Asia’s footballing elite headed for Abu Dhabi. Except, of course, for the Qataris. With the full-scale economic blockade still in force, Qataris have essentially been banned from travel to the UAE.
Australia, South Korea and Japan were among the favorites to take the title, but nevertheless, the hosts outperformed expectations, winning their group to qualify for the knockout stages, where they saw off Kyrgyzstan, and, amazingly, Australia, to reach the semi-final.
Qatar, too, despite having practically no supporters in the stands, began to acquire a “dark horse” status, sweeping away Saudi Arabia (not exactly known for their footballing prowess) and demolishing North Korea six-nil to progress out of the group stage. Comprehensive wins against Iraq and a South Korea featuring Tottenham superstar Son Heung-min saw Félix Sánchez’s men qualify for one of the most hotly anticipated semi-finals in Asian Cup history.
The stage was set for the Arab Derby in Abu Dhabi. To ensure a feisty, if not outright hostile environment in the stadium, Emirati officials block-bought as many as 18,000 tickets and gave them away free – ostensibly as a charitable act, but one which had the obvious consequence of making sure very few “neutral” Qatar fans would get a seat. Schools in the UAE closed early so the children of the nation could watch what should have been a glorious moment in Emirati sporting history.
What followed on Tuesday afternoon was, however, nothing short of a national humiliation. In the first half, both teams had placed a pacy, attractive brand of football – and the 2:0 scoreline in Qatar’s favor may not have accurately reflected the passage of play – even if Qatar’s second, scored by Almoez Ali after excellent teamwork, really was world class. In the second half, the Emiratis simply broke down and lost all discipline – both on the field and in the stands.
In the UK, the BBC still shows clips of England crashing out of European football competitions in the 1990s. It’s the sort of collective shame that takes a generation or more to come to terms with.
And let’s not beat about the bush, this absolute trouncing was of a worse scale of humiliation than anything the England football team has had to face.
Having stacked the stadium with their own fans, who screamed insults during the Qatari national anthem, who threw missiles including shoes and bottles hitting Qatar players on the field; having consigned Qatar to total blockade for 18 months; having thrown baseless accusations at Doha; having threatened military invasion – the UAE still got beaten silly on the football pitch.
The 4:0 footballing lesson doled out by the Qataris was a lesson in overcoming petulance. It wasn’t just a victory for 11 men on a field, but an example of the futility of this entire blockade. It was Qatar, who have yet to concede a single goal all tournament, saying: “Throw everything you’ve got at us; we’ll face it all with dignity.”
A win against Japan in the final on Friday would be almost irrelevant after this heroic match. Qatar must now have successfully banished any cynicism among international (Western) football snobs who objected to the World Cup being awarded to an Arab nation. “No appetite for football in Qatar?” What nonsense. What Qatar have achieved in this tournament is more remarkable than the statistics will show.
This match will go down in history for passion, projectiles – and, maybe, a little taste of justice.