The Irony of Football: Does Qatar’s Victory in the 2019 Asia Cup Allude to its ‘Victory’ in the Ongoing Gulf Crisis?
by Kevin Dupont
The ongoing political crisis within the Arabian Gulf has attracted global attention, while severely altering the current state of affairs in the Middle East and highlighting the ongoing struggle to maintain a status quo in the region. On June 5, 2017, a coalition of Muslim-majority countries severed diplomatic ties with the State of Qatar, an unprecedented move to even the most senior experts in the region. Members of this coalition primarily include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and Bahrain.
This severing of diplomatic ties was initiated as the coalition—led by the Saudis and Emiratis—believed that their neighboring Gulf state was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, a recognized terrorist organization by the leading powers and growing relations with neighboring Iran. However, as we approach the two-year anniversary of the announcement of the blockage, one is right to wonder: who is ultimately benefitting the most from this crisis? If recent sporting events are any indication, we may just have an answer.
Analyzing the recent victory by Qatar in the 2019 Asia Cup can highlight just how the blockade is unraveling for both the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and Qatar, with the Qataris emerging as the clear frontrunner on and off the pitch. On the pitch, the 2019 Asia Cup is a major sporting event that brings together teams from participating, geographically eligible nations to compete in a month-long event. This edition of the event was ironically held in the United Arab Emirates, one of the nations that has remained adamantly opposed to Qatar. The Qataris, who were not predicted to excel in this event, swept through the field in dramatic fashion, emphatically defeating Saudi Arabia 2-0 in group play (in what was deemed the ‘blockade derby’) and the UAE in a heated semifinal that ended in riots. After a 3-1 victory in the final match, the Qatari national team received little attention in the event’s host nation, but returned to Doha to a victor’s welcome.
Football heroics aside, the results of the Asia Cup are precariously similar to recent regional events in the Arabian Gulf. Saudi Arabia, who was eliminated from the event in the Round of 16, has seen its government in continuous political turmoil, with the efforts of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman receiving international attention following the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and through the recent events in Yemen. Meanwhile, the UAE remains caught up in economic struggles ahead of the World Expo 2020, to which it will also play host. All this being said, while the Saudis and Emiratis are distracted by their own internal matters, the Qataris remain future-focused, continuing to improve economic relationships with neighboring powers and forging new alliances outside of the Arabian Gulf states.
Officials in Doha have also made wise strategic moves in the domestic and international arenas by becoming less involved with extremist groups in Syria. With the Syrian civil war getting ever more complicated with matters of foreign occupation, there was less incentive for Doha to support rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham in the north, to which Turkey now oversees. On top of strategic endeavors, the Qataris have received support from the West, particularly President Donald Trump, who has used Twitter to attack Saudi Arabia’s seemingly lackluster response to terror funding and acknowledging Qatar’s progress on the matter. At home, Qatari-made products line the shelves in local supermarkets and enhanced military continues to undergo exercises on the outskirts of Doha.
Rather than convincing commentators and politicians that Qatar had serious problems it needed to address, the effect of the blockade has largely been the opposite, highlighting that Qatar can in fact stand on its own among the regional power players. In large part, this is due to the quartet failing to anticipate that Qatar would organize an effective public relations campaign of its own in the West.
Yet, while the Qataris are indeed seeing success in their endeavors, they remain unable to amend their regional strife, to which American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appealed to the powers for a conclusion in early January. These victories by Qatar are ultimately a bit too small to ensure a full-fledged victory in the current diplomatic rift but can definitely be used in a strategic way to gain the support of Western powers. With appealing advertisements on major new channels like CNN, Qatar is beginning to reach a global audience during a time where the Arabian Gulf states are seeing publicity for less than stellar accolades.
To turn this into long-term success, the Qatari government is already undertaking the right steps via attracting the mediation of Western powers like that of the United States, but must also continue to remain free of contentious conflict within its foreign policy. Regardless of what Doha will be able to do in the foreseeable future, its success will ultimately remain in the hands of its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, who remains well distracted by geopolitical conflicts around the Middle East to give its full attention to the state it claims disrupts GCC affairs by increasing relations with Iran.
Image: Doha Skyline
Courtesy of Francisco Anzola / Flickr
Kevin Dupont is a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) candidate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he studies International Security Studies and Southwest Asia & Islamic Civilization.
While at The Fletcher School, Kevin serves as a Strategic Communications Consultant for the Fares Center of Eastern Mediterranean Studies. He recently presented a paper covering sectarianism in Bahraini politics at the 2018 CREOR Colloquium: Sources of Religion and Violence, which was held at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Kevin also works with the United States Army on a research project highlighting the effectiveness of Post-Conflict Reconstruction Teams around the globe and the United States Navy as a Strategic Analyst for the Arabian Gulf region. He holds two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Anthropology and International & Global Studies from Brandeis University.