Persian Gulf Standoff Starts to Thaw on the Soccer Field

Persian Gulf Standoff Starts to Thaw on the Soccer Field

DOHA, Qatar — To make it to the big game, the Saudi soccer fan resorted to unusual measures.

He first flew to Kuwait, where he told his parents he was going on vacation. Then he boarded a plane to Qatar, the site of a major soccer tournament this week. Officially, it was a forbidden journey: for over two years Saudi Arabia has led a strict diplomatic and trade embargo of Qatar, and its citizens are barred from traveling there.

But the subterfuge and secrecy employed by the fan, Majed al-Qahtani, 29, turned out to be unnecessary. The bitter standoff in the Persian Gulf has softened in recent weeks amid a sudden flurry of peace talks between Saudi and Qatari leaders.

Arriving in Qatar, Mr. al-Qahtani found hundreds of other Saudi soccer fans, all mingling easily with their Qatari hosts, apparently with a wink and nod from their government — the most visible sign yet of a recent thaw between the oil-rich countries.

“The conflict is an issue between governments,” he said, sitting in the lobby of the ornate hotel where his sports heroes were staying. “Believe me, ordinary people have no issues with each other. We are brothers.”

Qatari and Saudi officials have started talks to end the embargo, which has blocked Qatar’s planes from flying over its Gulf neighbors and shut its only land border, with Saudi Arabia.

Last weekend President Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, attended a major conference in Doha, Qatar’s capital, as did the Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who urged the two sides to mend fences. Among Gulf experts and western officials, speculation is rife about possible concessions such as easing airspace restrictions on Qatar, or even reopening the border with Saudi Arabia.

All sides stress that the talks are tentative, and there are signs that the Saudi’s main ally, the United Arab Emirates, is far less receptive to softening its stance. Still, the talks are the most promising opening yet, and soccer has already rushed into the breach.

“We’re hoping this will end soon, maybe in a couple of months,” said Saud Khalid, a 25-year-old Saudi paramedic, who was in the stands of Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on Tuesday night. “The atmosphere in both countries is becoming more optimistic.”

Behind him, another Saudi fan jumped to his feet and held aloft a Saudi flag — an unthinkable sight in Qatar only last summer.

Soccer and diplomacy are closely intertwined in the Gulf, where the world’s most popular sport has become a conduit for the ambitions, political differences and intrigues of jousting Gulf rulers. Just as the leaders of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have splurged vast sums on the world’s most expensive paintings or on building elegant museums, so has soccer become the focus of a kind of sports arms race.

In January 2018, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, permitted women to attend soccer matches, the first concrete step in a series of reforms aimed at loosening the kingdom’s ultraconservative laws and social codes, such as allowing women to drive and permitting cinemas to open.

Political passions sometimes spilled onto the field. When Qatar played the United Arab Emirates in the Asian Cup last January, Emirati fans flung their shoes at celebrating Qatari players after they scored a goal. When Qatar thrashed North Korea 6-0 in another match, only one supporter in the near-empty stadium was wearing Qatar’s colors: a woman from South Korea.

Prince Mohammed has not hesitated to use soccer as a tool to advance his regional rivalries.

In September, the world soccer body, FIFA, said it had proof that a Saudi company had been pirating the television stream of beIN Sports, a Qatari state-owned company that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for the exclusive TV rights to major soccer matches in the Middle East.

The furor over the pirate Saudi service, known as beoutQ, peaked in 2018 when it stole and broadcast the World Cup across the Middle East, costing the Qatari company a fortune in lost revenues. When FIFA tried to sue beoutQ in the Saudi courts, it could not find a Saudi lawyer willing to represent it.

The competition in Qatar this week, the Club World Cup, is a dry-run of sorts for Qatar’s effort to host the World Cup in 2022 — an immense coup for a tiny country of 300,000 citizens, and one which demonstrates its ambition to use its vast gas wealth to project its image on the global stage. Inevitably, the 2022 competition was sucked into the confrontation between Qatar and its larger neighbors.

After the regional crisis erupted in 2017, with Qatar’s foes accusing it of financing terrorism and interfering in their domestic affairs, charges Qatar denies, Emirati ministers called on FIFA to strip Qatar of the World Cup. In London, well-financed lobbying efforts with links to Qatar’s rivals started a campaign that amplified concerns over workers’ rights in Qatar, as well as accusations that Qatari officials paid extravagant bribes in order to win the right to host the World Cup.

In 2014, the United Arab Emirates hired a former National Security Agency analyst to hack the computers of Qatari and FIFA officials in the hope of finding damaging information about Qatar’s World Cup bid, Reuters reported last week. The hacker tried to lure targets, including the head of Qatar’s World Cup coordination body, with a phishing scam featuring attractive “World Cup girls,” Reuters said.

In recent months, as tensions have begun to ease between Qatar and its neighbors, the change has also been seen on the soccer field.

The thaw started in October when, at the 11th hour, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Bahrain allowed their soccer teams to travel to Qatar to play in the Arabian Gulf Cup. When Saudi Arabia beat Qatar 1-0, no shoes were thrown. When Bahrain won the competition, the emir of Qatar presented the team with the cup.

After a top Qatari player took a Saudi player for a friendly car ride, a video of the ride went viral.

When he slipped into Qatar last weekend, Mr. al-Qahtani and his friend Khaled al-Anqari mingled in Souk Wakif, a popular district in central Doha with upmarket cafes, falcon dealers and buildings festooned with giant pictures of the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

They befriended a 19-year-old Qatari, Tamim al-Marri, who invited them for coffee and dates, and then brought them to his home for a meal. “They are our cousins and our brothers,” said Mr. al-Marri, a military trainee.

Such warm encounters are a stark contrast with the early months of the crisis, when Qataris and Saudis insulted each other using harsh language on social media. Now, though, some say they are turning away from social media feeds that are often controlled by their own governments.

“I think social media is controlled by the intelligence,” Mr. al-Qahtani said. “Now you see, the language is changing. It has become softer.”

While their presence in Qatar was still technically illegal, the two young Saudis were not worried about repercussions at home.

If challenged about the trip, Mr. al-Anqari said, “I could say that I went there to support my team Al Hilal in the World Cup.”

That evening, they attended the semifinal match between Al Hilal and a Brazilian team, Flamengo. On the way there, a crowd of boisterous Brazilian fans in Doha’s new metro ribbed the Saudis, at one point picking up Mr. al-Qahtani and hoisting him on their shoulders.

Al Hilal lost. The young Saudis said they would stay in Doha through the tournament final on Saturday. Once they get home, they said, they’ll tell their families where they have really been.

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