Has the World Cup brought the region closer together?
United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed, widely known as MbZ, and Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, met with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim, during the World Cup in Doha. Their presence in Qatar illustrated the Gulf region’s new environment as a convivial meeting in Doha between these three leaders would have been inconceivable amid the Gulf Cooperation Council’s 2017-21 crisis.
Only five-and-a-half years ago, the United States was worried about possible Saudi military operations against Qatar, prompting then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to call MbS (in a phone conversation that “didn’t go very well”) to warn him against taking such military action. Washington officials were so concerned that they even sent drones to the Qatari-Saudi border to monitor the tense situation.
Last month, the sight of MbS sporting a scarf with the colors of the Qatari flag and the Qatari leader carrying a Saudi flag during Saudi Arabia’s match against Argentina was remarkable, to say the least.
Although the problems that Qatar had with some of its fellow GCC states have not been entirely resolved, intra-Gulf relations are now much warmer. There is real potential for the GCC to start a new chapter based on brotherly ties which the World Cup appears to have accelerated.
“It is clear that it has strengthened bonds between people across the six countries—or at least, revitalized bonds, following a period of tension,” said Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, in an interview with Responsible Statecraft. “Sport is very good at generating the sentiment of belonging — at club, country, and even regional levels. The World Cup in Qatar has certainly spurred on a shared sense of belonging amongst my Khaleeji friends and colleagues and pride in the region’s success at staging the competition.”
The International Media
Negative Western media coverage of Qatar, both before and during the global event, led to a united response from GCC governments and their people.
“There is a lot of resentment among the public [in GCC countries] to the way that certain Western media have dealt with [issues pertaining to the World Cup being held in Qatar] and ignored the other human rights issues—whether it is migrants coming from the Middle East to Europe, their treatment in Europe, the Palestinian issue or other human rights issues…They ignored all of that and they focused all their attention on Qatar. That was seen as totally unfair and a double standard from many people within Qatar and the region,” Abdullah Baabood, an Omani scholar and visiting professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, told Responsible Statecraft.
Last month, the GCC’s six members unanimously rejected what they called a “malicious” media campaign against Qatar. “Given that the criticism levied against Qatar points to violations that are widespread among – and common to all GCC states, it was only natural that Gulf states would choose to support Qatar,” Mira Al Hussein, an Emirati postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University, told Responsible Statecraft.
“After all, other Gulf states will be hosting global events, too, and they would surely not want to be subject to the same level of scrutiny and criticism. That said, witnessing the overwhelming and unsolicited support that Qatar has received from Arabs and Muslims worldwide will have certainly triggered some reflection on how to maximize state popularity and garner support,” added Al Hussein.
Quilliam explained that this uniform response constituted an “outright rejection of Western media coverage as orientalist, colonialist, and former powers rueing their loss of influence.” As Doha’s fellow GCC capitals see it, “Qatar has gained much credit for unashamedly sticking to its values, celebrating its culture and demonstrating its capability of running a major world sporting event.”
The political consequences of Qatar hosting the World Cup along with its attendance by MbZ and MbS are difficult, if not impossible, to predict at this stage. Although, from the standpoint of GCC unity and cohesion, this global event and such visits are positive, one must consider that intra-GCC relations have historically been in constant flux.
In an interview with Responsible Statecraft, David Roberts, an associate professor at King’s College London, warned against reading too much into the photos of Tamim with MbZ and MbS. “You need to have a historical lobotomy to think that therefore now everything is fine. GCC unity has been a constant ebb and flow for decades if not centuries. So, while things are comparatively quiet now, that’s well and good. But if history’s any guide, you don’t know how long it’ll last.”
To be sure, there remains significant tension between Bahrain and Qatar notwithstanding the al-Ula summit of January 2021 which officially ended the second GCC crisis. The absence of the Bahraini leadership at the global event underscored this point.
“The World Cup seems to have broken down any unremaining invisible barriers between the leaders of the two countries. MbS’ wearing of the Qatari scarf at the tournament sent a strong signal to Saudis that the rift is over, and reconciliation is more or less complete. However, a few issues still separate Doha and Riyadh,” explained Quilliam.
Indeed, Doha is far from being on the same page as Abu Dhabi and Riyadh when it comes to numerous questions in the region. “There are still some lingering issues between [the UAE and Qatar] that have been resolved despite the signing of the al-Ula agreement and there are also some deep suspicions between the two countries,” according to Baabood. “This will take some time though one can say that the relationship is much warmer than before. There have been exchanges of visits between the leaders of both countries. We’ve seen recently MbZ visiting Qatar and meeting with the Emir. So that’s really an indication that this relationship is warming up.”
“MbZ’s visit to Doha was more symbolic than substantive,” noted Quilliam, “and while a step in the right direction, the two leaders continue to share different visions for the region’s future.”
Al Hussein shares a sense of cautious optimism about what the World Cup can do for the future of GCC unity. “I don’t think that the World Cup has necessarily strengthened the GCC internally as a cooperative bloc; rather it has projected an image of unity that could potentially work in the region’s favor.”
Given the World Cup’s global significance and the pride that Qatar’s hosting engendered across the Gulf, there appears to be a real opportunity for the region’s leaders, in addition to healing past wounds, to promote greater integration, coordination, and solidarity under a shared Gulf Arab identity.
Bader al-Saif, an assistant professor of history at Kuwait University, told Responsible Statecraft that the World Cup is a reminder to GCC leaders that strength lies in unity. “A pan-Gulf identity precedes the creation of the GCC. It is anchored in shared blood and destiny that has long tied the people of the region together. A Khaleeji identity is here to stay and evolve. Bringing together the best of all Gulf states will achieve what no one state can accomplish on its own.”