Arab teams’ performance, especially of the giant killer Saudi Arabia has changed the mood among the foes of Qatar, as they now share excitement which was earlier limited to small Gulf State, says The Guardian in report.
The newspaper says few regional states seemed to share in its neighbour’s excitement before the biggest event the Middle East has ever hosted.
As the host nation frantically completed its plans, there were even hints of glee as finishing touches fell short. Potholed atriums, expensive rooms, an overrun airport and even the last-minute beer ban were met with knowing smirks from many Gulf citizens who refused to share in the bonhomie.
But four days into football’s showpiece, with Arab teams performing beyond expectations and Saudi Arabia in particular shining bright, the World Cup has come to life across a region that is taking a belated collective pride. From the United Arab Emirates to Morocco and most points in between, the global sporting event of the year is now being fully embraced.
“Not long ago, we were all foes with Qatar,’’ said Salah al-Oleimi, a Saudi businessman from Jeddah. “Their airspace was closed, trade was banned, and there were no diplomatic ties,” he said of the three-year boycott by four Middle Eastern countries led by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. “Everything shut down. We didn’t see a Qatari for five years.
“But now things are in the past. Football is a great leveller,” the Guardian quoted him as saying.
In Dubai, a 30-minute flight from Doha, there was next to no sign of the approaching World Cup just days out from the opening match. But cafes along the city’s Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard were full on Wednesday as Germany lost to Japan, and teeming with fans a day earlier after the Saudi side’s memorable win over Argentina.
Political rivalry had never been far away from how the Gulf states viewed Qatar’s winning bid to host the World Cup and had been central to its ambivalence since.
“The GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] is a bunch of feuding cousins who don’t really like each other,” said an Emirati official. “But football’s given us a reason to get along for a while.”
In Kuwait, another GCC member, there was much praise for the performances of Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Tunisia, and some satisfaction at rival Iran’s drubbing by England. But there was also a touch of envy about Qatar playing host.
“May God bless them and help us. We’ve had no achievements to celebrate,” wrote one Kuwaiti fan on Instagram. “I swear we are bothered by all the Gulf countries,” wrote another Kuwaiti. “They show a commitment to football and fans, and we have the biggest support base in the region.”
Buoyed up by its team’s 2-1 win over Argentina, Saudi Arabia is now fully behind the event. “In our neighbourhoods, personal dignities are paramount and gestures like this can have historical implications,” said Nowf al-Saud, a Riyadh-based student.
However, the newspaper notes that the growing embrace of the World Cup is in contrast to the reaction in the UK and in many European countries, where Qatar’s record with migrant workers who built its seven stadiums and attitude to LGBTQ+ rights continue to draw scathing headlines.
There is little buy-in to either criticism across the Gulf, which was largely built on migrant labour and where homosexuality remains outlawed. “Let’s just concentrate on sport,” said a Bahraini merchant, Ahmad Fakhro. “The cultural issues are for another day. When this event was awarded, the societal stands of the host were known. The values they promote are those of this region.”
Qataris have framed the scrutiny their country has received as racist or part of a hostile campaign directed by foreign enemies.
“It is systematically orchestrated,” said a businessman in the gas industry who declined to be named.
Mubaraka al-Marri, a businesswoman and social activist in Doha, said: “We know the media is one of the tools which is used to affect people. It’s like a war. You don’t need to use guns or fight countries or harm these countries, you use the media.”
Mohammad al-Qassabi, 22, a graduate from a Doha university, said: “What I’ve noticed is that many have some stereotypes about some Gulf countries and some of them are wrong.” But he claimed to see an upside: “When the European and western media is describing the World Cup as a failure, but then it happens to be a success, everyone will be impressed. If they have low expectations, it’s easier to impress them.”
Outside the region, the event has routinely been labelled the most controversial World Cup ever and organisers have been accused of ignoring FIFA directives banning discrimination and offering equal access. World football’s global body has been accused of ignoring its own values. Rainbow flags and scarves have been confiscated from fans outside stadiums and guards have stopped displays of public affection.
“This is a clash of values,” said an Emirati fan in Dubai. “Let’s move past it. I hope the clash of teams is remembered more.”