World Cup the Winner in GCC Denouement Though Questions for Sport Remain

11 janvier 2021
By Prof. Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon


Saudi Arabia and Qatar have finally made-up, after almost four years of sometimes bitter diplomatic feuding. Many in sport will consequently be breathing a sigh of relief, not least FIFA (with the World Cup looming) which now will not have to contend with the implications of travel blockades, vicious social media trolling and all manner of outlandish threats.

Relief is also palpable amongst FIFA’s tournament sponsors. Some were caught between activating their deals in 2022, whilst being careful not to antagonise either of the adversaries. As such, the next two years look like they will be easier to navigate than many sponsors had been anticipating.

A thawing of relations between government in Riyadh, its allies (namely the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) and Doha came after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting in early January. As a result, full diplomatic relations and trade ties between the countries have been restored. The began in 2017, prompted by Saudi Arabia and the others accusing Qatar of, among other things, supporting terrorist groups and being too close to Iran, allegations that government in Doha has consistently denied.

An end to the land, air and sea blockade of Qatar, the Qatari withdrawal of all lawsuits against its neighbours, and a cessation of media hostilities are the three main tenets of the agreement. However, there are still details to work through, and therefore plenty for the sport industry to ponder.

The 2022 FIFA World Cup has immediately fallen under the spotlight, for obvious reasons. Staging of the world’s biggest sports mega-event can now take place in a less turbulent and more consensual environment. However, some observers have suggested that January’s agreement is only a temporary truce and that the feud will reignite once FIFA’s bandwagon has moved on.

Still, with borders now open, Qatar’s repeated assertion that the World Cup has always been intended as a regional event can now be fully realised. Lifting the barriers at the country’s only land border, with Saudi Arabia, is good news for the tournament as it has a large and fervent football fan base which will now be able to travel to games.

Similarly, the world’s busiest airport hub, in Dubai (which is only an hour from Hamad International Airport in Doha), is now open for Qatari business again. This immediately boosts transport capacity, promotes tournament access and ensures that all those Gulf airline sponsorships can take on a new sense of importance.

One concern for the World Cup’s organisers has been the potential for accommodation to be in short supply in 2022. Indeed, Qatari plans for addressing this predicament appear to include glamping and specially commissioned cruise ships. The opening of air routes nevertheless helps in easing accommodation problems with, for example, Bahrain no more than forty-five minutes away.

Thus far, there has been considerable speculation that some matches in 2022 will be staged outside Qatar. This speculation was heightened by the appearance of FIFA president Gianni Infantino at January’s GCC meeting. However, given that Qatar has spent ten years and hundreds of billions of dollars getting its stadiums ready, it seems unlikely that match sharing is (or will be) on the agenda.

Instead, it is more realistic to anticipate the sharing of fan zones or training camps, though both would still come with issues. The Qatari Football Association has already agreed a training camp deal with its Iranian counterparts, which could see some qualifying teams being based on Kish Island just off Iran’s coast.

How this sits with the rulers in Riyadh remains to be seen, though even if a compromise can be reached there will presumably be subsequent (likely heated) discussions about which country plays host to which national team. One imagines there being a frenzied pursuit of Brazil and Germany, but a less tepid contest for some other qualifying nations. That said, the (geo)political context in which such decisions could ultimately be made would still be hugely sensitive.

Another area in which we could see cooperation is around legacy and some of the wider challenges facing the region. Qatar’s Generation Amazing is a World Cup legacy project focused upon promoting social cohesion and projecting soft power.

Qatar shares concerns about social cohesion (between males and females, different ethnicities, and often disparate immigrant communities) with its GCC partners, which implies a possible role for Generation Amazing. The soft power dimension may nevertheless prove to be a stumbling block, as it might take Qatari messaging to the front door of nations that don’t necessarily want it.

One assumes that Gianni Infantino will at least be keen on positioning both FIFA and football as forces for good, which suggests some other possibilities. The GCC nations are in the midst of a looming health crisis, soaring rates of diabetes being one cause of this problem. Cross-border cooperation in this area would help enable cordial relations whilst tangibly solving a problem.

Otherwise, there are several other points of convergent interest, whether linked to the World Cup or more generally to the development of sport across the GCC. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are all committed to investing in sport, which has witnessed a spate of innovation hubs being created, events being staged and start-ups businesses appearing.

This merits observation, as there could be some interesting collaborative opportunities ahead. With extensive bilateral investment projects having already been proposed, one can imagine the Gulf region establishing its position as a global hub for esports. Might we even see FIFA staging a parallel 2022 World Cup event in Saudi Arabia, given their respective existing achievements in this area?

Meanwhile, the regional penchant for event hosting could bring the GCC nations closer together, though equally may ultimately drive them apart again. Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are already established members of the global motorsport ecosystem, and Saudi Arabia is fast joining them. For the first time this year, it will host an F1 Grand Prix and for the second time is staging the Paris-Dakar Rally. Qatar also retains aspirations in motorsport, which may lead raises some interesting co-hosting possibilities.

A recent point of contention between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was the hosting rights for the 2028 and 2030 Asian Games, Doha eventually winning the right to stage the former and Riyadh the latter. But another potential flashpoint remains – the 2032 Olympic Games, which both countries have expressed an interesting in hosting. Perhaps a joint Games bid is therefore in the offing?

Before we get to 2024 (when a host for the 2032 Games is announced), there is still much to be resolved amongst which is the not insignificant matter of beoutQ’s pirating of beIN’s content. The subject both of considerable general acrimony and of a World Trade Organisation investigation, this episode suggests that January’s apparent diplomatic denouement must be seen as the beginning of an end rather than a conclusion to the GCC nations’ troubles.

Bring on the Gulf’s new sporting future.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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