Qatar’s Asian Cup Victory Is Likely to Intensify Tension in Gulf

Qatari football team. Photo Credit: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Rabat – Qatar’s recent victory at the Asian Cup is an instance of the inescapable link between politics and sport and may deepen regional tension, according to experts.

On Friday, February 1, Qatar made history by beating Japan 3-1 and winning the Asian Cup for the first time.

In a run of an impressive month-long display of footballing prowess, Qatar emerged victorious from a continental tournament featuring countries with more footballing pedigree. The team scored 19 goals, conceded only 1, and collected individual prizes for best goalkeeper, best player, and top scorer.

Blockading countries embittered by Qatar’s win

Qatari striker Almoez Ali, whose nine goals set a new record for the number of goals scored at an Asian Cup, won global admiration. On social media, even the Argentinian ace Lionel Messi joined the conversation on Ali’s brilliant performance.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen of Rice University recently told Al Jazeera that traditional narratives of football as a venue for social cohesion and peace are naive and irrelevant in the context of the ongoing Gulf crisis. Qatar’s victory, he explained, is more likely to deepen tension than defuse them.

“Any sense of embitterment in Abu Dhabi at the way the tournament they hosted turned out may translate into an escalation of rhetoric against Qatar.” The point was a striking reference to the fact that, en route to its continental crown in the final, Qatar thrashed the UAE, the host country, 4-0.

But the bitterness at the defeat by Qatar is not the only element of the potential escalation of tensions, according to Ulrichsen. He explained that the celebratory mood that greeted Qatar’s triumph in other Arab countries, such as Kuwait and Oman, is bound to outrage Abu Dhabi and Riyadh even more.

“Omanis and Kuwaitis have rejoiced in Qatari success and have done so in extremely public fashion, visibly emphasizing their rejection of the blockading states’ attempt to isolate Qatar in the region.”

More than just sport

Other experts who spoke to the same newspaper agreed with Ulrichsen’s grim reading of the implications of Qatar’s victory for Gulf geopolitics.
More than a mere instance of footballing joy, Qatar’s triumph in Abu Dhabi is “a modern-day sporting parable soaked in geopolitics and symbolism,” noted the enthusiastic Al Jazeera report.

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies, buttressed the media outlet’s enthusiasm. He said the victory was an emphatic message to blockading countries that “Qatar can stand on its own, whatever the obstacles.”

The Qatar-UAE game gave some hints of the expert’s pessimism for peace prospects in the Gulf. Not only did Qatar play without fans because of the UAE’s travel ban on Qataris, but the Qatari squad was booed and greeted with projectiles of shoes and bottles when they celebrated their goals.

Referring to that incident in which Almoez Ali and company kept their composure, Salford University’s Simon Chadwick suggested the tournament could be seen from the perspective of a public relations competition. In that case, Chadwick elaborated, Qatar improved its public image at the expense of its “rancorous rivals.”

“Qatar’s image and reputation has gained advantage over its rivals, especially given the apparent calmness on Qatar’s team when faced with sometimes rancorous rivals.”

Two days before the Al Jazeera report, the Guardian reported the arrest of a British citizen by UAE authorities for showing up with a Qatar jersey at one of the Asian Cup games. The report noted that “promoting” sympathy for Qatar is an “offense” punishable by imprisonment or a “substantial fine.”