Qatar and Saudi Arabia Use World Cup to Patch Up Rough Relationship

LUSAIL, QATAR - NOVEMBER 22: Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani watches the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia at Lusail Iconic Stadium in Lusail, Qatar on November 22, 2022. (Photo by Fareed Kotb/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Fareed Kotb/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, made a point on Tuesday of getting himself photographed waving the flag of Saudi Arabia during the Saudi match against Argentina at the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament.

The show of friendly support was part of a charm offensive that included inviting the de facto chief executive of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to attend the tournament in his country.

The Saudi team went on to defeat Argentina by a score of 2-1, a stunning upset commemorated in dramatic terms by the New York Times (NYT) on Tuesday:

For Argentina, losing to Saudi Arabia, 2-1, was not just a defeat; it was an embarrassment, an ignominy, a stigma scarred into Argentine skin in front of 88,000 people, streamed live on television and beamed around the world. By the end, as the delirious Saudi substitutes swarmed onto the field, Argentina’s players seemed visibly diminished, their faces drawn, their eyes haunted.

The NYT poured some lemon juice on that nice Argentinian paper cut by recalling MBS himself doubted the Saudi team would fare well at the World Cup, advising them to focus on “enjoying themselves” than collecting trophies.

MBS arrived in Qatar with an impressive retinue of senior officials and diplomats. The Saudi ruler sent a cable expressing “profound thanks and appreciation” to al-Thani for the invitation.

The friendly exchanges between MBS and al-Thani marked a considerable improvement from Saudi-Qatari relations only a few years ago, which were so tense that Saudi Arabia’s partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) felt obliged to assure reporters their goal was not “regime change” in Qatar. The Saudis were so displeased with Qatar that they seriously considered a plan to chop it off the Arabian peninsula by digging a huge canal along the Qatari border.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) effectively blockaded Qatar in 2017, in response to Qatar allegedly working to destabilize their governments by supporting extremists and working with Iran. The Qatar imbroglio quickly became the most serious diplomatic crisis in the Middle East.

Qatar withdrew from the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) at the end of 2018, ostensibly because Qatar felt unfairly constrained by OPEC production and price controls.

The embargo of Qatar concluded in January 2021, with a good deal of prodding from the outgoing Trump administration and Kuwait, which wanted to bring Qatar back into the GCC fold and please the U.S. government while maintaining good relations with Saudi Arabia. Kuwait might also have been a bit nervous about the way smaller states in the GCC were being treated by heavyweights like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Some analysts thought the UAE was actually more determined to ostracize Qatar than the Saudis, because the Emiratis accused Qatar of supporting Islamist extremist groups that wanted to overthrow the UAE monarchy, especially the transnational Muslim Brotherhood.

The World Cup tournament was clearly a high-profile opportunity for the Saudis and their allies to mend fences with Qatar, and perhaps to send a message of regional unity to the U.S. and Europeans and a moment when the oil market has given exceptional leverage to the Middle Eastern petroleum states.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) suggested last week that the World Cup could be a chance for the GCC countries to demonstrate they have remained prosperous and stable while the rest of the Middle East is “floundering badly”:

In neighboring Iran, protests, brutal regime repression, and risks of nuclear proliferation are the order of the day. To the south, the truce in Yemen has expired and the country risks renewed conflict, which would exacerbate one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. To the north, Iraqi state dysfunction – as highlighted by the tumultuous year-long process to form a new government – is feeding profound challenges. In Syria and Lebanon, state collapse continues apace, with ruling elites – and the brutal Assad order in particular – focused on individual and regime interests over those of the wider populations. The latest difficulty is a deadly outbreak of cholera in both countries.

Across North Africa there is increasing economic deterioration in Egypt and Tunisia, debilitating rivalries in Libya, and heightened tensions between Algeria and Morocco. Throughout the region, food insecurity, inflation, and the collapse of core public services are common themes. And, while the threat of new popular revolts may have subsided amid widespread fatigue and effective authoritarian repression, many of these states are hollowing out from the inside.

By this reckoning, the 2017-2021 embargo crisis might have convinced Qatar that Iran’s agenda is a losing bet. Haaretz proposed in January that Qatar weathered the crisis and convinced the GCC it could not easily be pushed around, but may also have decided unity and stability among the Gulf states is worth making a few compromises to preserve. Waving a Saudi flag while the Saudi soccer team was in the process of delivering one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history was probably not too painful for the emir of Qatar.


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