Soccer field suggests progress in ending Gulf state dispute

Saudi Arabia's decision to play in Qatar may signal emerging detente


December 4, 2019


Karim E. Moustafa

American efforts to repair broken relations in the Gulf region may be working – at least on the soccer field.

The decision of Saudi Arabia’s team to compete in a tournament in Qatar is seen as a sign that the bitter rivals might be edging toward some form of detente.

The two nations have been embroiled in a two-year-old diplomatic dispute since June 2017 when Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of “supporting terrorism,” a charge repeatedly and vehemently rejected by Doha. Saudi Arabia launched a boycott with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and several other countries in Africa as well as Asia. These states all severed diplomatic with Qatar. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab neighbors went even further.  These states restricted access to its airspace and asked their citizens to leave Qatar. Saudi Arabia also closed its land border. Qatar was forced to find new sources for food stuffs and other items. Prior to the blockade Qatar received over 60% of its imports from its Gulf neighbors.

President Trump initially sided against Qatar in his public statements. Over time, however, the United States has increasingly tried to play the role of a neutral mediator.

Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, announced in July that they would boycott the 24th Arabian Gulf Football Cup because Qatar was hosting the event. However, when the tournament began on November 24, all three nations decided to participate.

This decision may have as much to do with sports as geopolitics. The reversal almost certainly delighted football fans in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — as both countries will play in semi-final matches tomorrow. Iraq will play Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will take on Qatar. The winners will play in the tournament final on December 6th.

The participation of these teams and reports that the Saudi team took a direct flight from Riyadh to Doha for the tournament have signaled a thaw in ties, according to some analysts. Previously the Gulf states had avoided all uses of Qatari airspace.

Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani told reporters on Tuesday there had been “some discussion about the ongoing Gulf dispute.”

“There are American efforts, which Qatar appreciates, to preserve the unity of the GCC and to return it back to what it is used to be,” he said, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council comprising Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman.

Al Thawadi continued: “At the moment we’re proud to be hosting the Arabian Gulf Cup while simultaneously preparing for the 16th edition of the FIFA Club World Cup. Both tournaments will test our readiness for 2022 while giving fans a taste of what to expect in three years’ time. We’re determined to take the lessons learned from these events and apply them to the World Cup.”

The next FIFA World Cup will be played in 2022 giving the Gulf states plenty of time to work out their ongoing disputes.

Photo Credits: Karim E. Moustafa and Unsplash