2019 AFC Asian Cup reheats the Gulf crisis

Published 11.02.2019 00:15

Last fall, some analysts speculated that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis was possibly beginning to cool down. In a rare occurrence, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) spoke positively about the Qatari economy at the "Future Investment Initiative," commonly known as "Davos in the Desert," in October. MBS's remark about Qatar fueled optimism that Riyadh would consider lifting, or at least easing, the blockade in the interest of attracting Qatari investments for Vision 2030. The following month, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi affirmed Cairo's commitment to the stability of each GCC member, including Qatar, while speaking before the World Youth Forum. Ten days later, Egypt's Minister of Manpower Mohamed Saafan praised Qatar for its treatment of Egyptian laborers in Doha.

At this juncture, however, it is beyond evident that such optimism was misplaced. The GCC summit in December 2018 underscored how the two sides – Qatar and the so-called Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ) consisting of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – had not moved closer to reconciliation since the crisis erupted in May/June 2017. The same month as the council's annual summit, Qatar announced its decision to leave the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Doha Forum's featuring of Iran and Turkey's chief diplomats said much about Qatar's new geopolitical orientation in the Middle East a year and a half into the Gulf crisis.

Last month's Asian Cup AFC semifinal, in which the UAE lost 4-0 to Qatar, is reheating the GCC crisis. After the Emiratis suffered a humiliating loss on home soil, which occurred despite the UAE taking measures before the match to guarantee that the crowd would have virtually no one cheering for Qatar, officials in the Emirates have been accusing Qatar of winning the semifinal unfairly before achieving a historic win at the start of this month, defeating Japan 3-1.

The UAE is accusing Qatar of fielding two ineligible players in the extremely politically charged semifinal, maintaining that Almoez Ali, a 22-year-old Qatari striker with Sudanese roots, and Bassam al-Rawi, a 21-year-old defender with Iraqi roots, do not meet national requirements established by the AFC. The Guardian has reported that the UAE has published documents on the internet claiming that Ali and Rawi's mothers were not born in Qatar, which would make them ineligible to play as the rules require that the players born outside of the UAE have to have at least one parent or grandparent born in Qatar; Qatari officials maintain that both players' mothers were born in the Gulf country.

Within hours of the final match kicking off, the AFC cleared Qatar and dismissed the UAE's protest. What the UAE had hoped for was a different result in which Qatar's 4-0 victory in the semifinal would have been overturned, and the country would have been disqualified from the final match against Japan. Yet, the issue might not be over as the UAE soccer federation may pursue appeals in Switzerland at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. This process would probably last for months. Regardless of how this legal battle ensues, a narrative about Qatar illegitimately becoming the champion of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup will almost inevitably become a new talking point in media outlets in the ATQ states, especially in the UAE.

Indeed, Saudi and Emirati media outlets' reporting on Qatar's win was remarkable. A number of these two Gulf states' media outlets omitted the word "Qatar" while focusing only on Japan's loss with headlines such as "Japan comes up short in Asian Cup final" and "Unlucky Japan loses AFC Asian Cup final." One of these articles that did mention Qatar simply said, "It was a sad end to the biggest Asian Cup tournament for Japan as Qatar won the title." Other outlets finished reporting about the tournament altogether after the Emiratis' humiliating loss in the semifinal, which was even more painful given that the UAE was the host country.

Oman's role

Interestingly, throughout the tournament the role of Oman and its fans caught many observers' attention. The Omanis cheered the Qatari team throughout the competition given that Qatari citizens were denied the right to fly to the UAE to back their team. In the semifinal game against Qatar, the Abu Dhabi Sports Council bought the remaining 18,000 tickets and gave them out to "loyal" fans free of charge. Yet, fearful that Omani nationals attending the semifinal would cheer for Qatar, the council did not give any of these free tickets to Omanis.

After Qatar won the championship, its players were forced to return to Doha via Sohar, Oman, rather than flying back directly to Qatar from Abu Dhabi. Upon arriving in the Sultanate at 3 a.m. after a three-hour bus ride, the players received a warm welcome from Omanis. Unquestionably, given the political dynamics of Qatar's victory in the semifinal and final matches, the Omani support for the Qatari team underscores the strong relationship between Omanis and Qataris on both political and social levels, which appears to have strengthened since the GCC crisis broke out in mid-2017.

From an Omani perspective, Qatar's win was not only about an underdog cast as the tournament's "Blackhorse" coming out on top, but also a major achievement for all Arab/Islamic countries. On the other hand, the UAE's treatment of Qatar in the AFC highlighted a dim reality in this current era, in which sports in the Gulf and greater Asia are never truly removed from global politics. Moreover, within this highly charged environment, global sports have the potential to exacerbate political divisions more than heal them. Most likely, Qatar's triumph in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup will serve to only push Doha and the ATQ farther away from reaching a settlement to the GCC dispute.

With the Maroons having brought home their first major trophy, putting them on course for 2022, Qatar's historic victory came as a major boost to the morale of the country 20 months into the blockade. Looking ahead to the FIFA World Cup, which Qatar will host, Doha seems on the right track to successfully complete the needed infrastructure within the required time. Yet, with almost three years remaining to the big event, Qatar's defense against UAE's smear campaigns to strip it of the 2022 World Cup or force it to co-host it with other countries seems to be far from over.

* International relations analyst and political adviser

** The CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

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