Doha (AFP) – An Abu Dhabi football ground may seem an unlikely venue for a rare let-up in a protracted diplomatic crisis, but a match between Qatari and Emirati clubs marks a first since Doha’s neighbours imposed a crippling blockade.
On Monday, the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium will see the United Arab Emirates’ Al Jazira take on Qatar’s Al-Gharafa in the group stage of the AFC Champions League.
That will be the first time since the bitter dispute began on June 5 that sports teams from rival sides face each other on their respective territory.
“It’s the one and only breach of the diplomatic and political boycott of Qatar since June,” said James Dorsey, a specialist in Middle East football and politics and a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut all ties with Qatar over its alleged support for Islamist extremists and proximity to Shiite Iran — charges Doha denies.
Simon Chadwick, a professor of Sports Enterprise at the United Kingdom’s Salford University and a member of a Qatari government sport think tank, said Monday’s game and others “won’t just be a football match, it will be a geopolitical episode”.
Asian football’s governing body, the AFC, last month refused Saudi and Emirati requests to play group stage matches on neutral turf.
Matches between “clubs from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should be played on a home and away basis in 2018 as per the AFC regulations,” it insisted.
The Saudi and Emirati football associations reluctantly agreed.
That was in contrast to the December Gulf Cup, in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain refused to play matches in Qatar, forcing a last-minute switch of venue to Kuwait.
– Political football –
Gas-rich Qatar’s neighbours imposed a blanket travel ban that has been rigidly enforced by Saudi, UAE and Bahrain.
Last month Qatar and the UAE traded accusations of airspace violations by planes from each others’ countries.
The hostile context has turned the Champions League into a political football.
The AFC decided to keep the traditional home-and-away format of the tournament’s group stages after “an independent safety and security assessment” in Qatar, which is preparing to host the 2022 World Cup.
But further political landmines lie ahead.
Al-Gharafa, which recently signed Dutch international Wesley Sneijder, will be the first Qatari side to host a team from a boycotting nation when they play Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli on March 5.
Al Ahli were sponsored by Qatar Airways but scrapped that deal the day the crisis started
An April 2 match between the UAE’s Al Wasi and Qatar’s Al Sadd will be at the Jassim bin Hamad stadium, where Qatar’s national team in June warmed up for a World Cup qualifier wearing t-shirts supporting Qatar’s emir, resulting in a FIFA fine.
– ‘Unhappy fans’ –
The Saudi and Emirati clubs’ decision to defer to the AFC reflects the huge popularity of football in both countries, Dorsey said.
“Football is the single most popular sport in the region,” he said.
“If the Saudis and UAE said we are not going to play then you would have a lot of unhappy fans.”
He said accepting AFC terms may have been a bid to portray a better image of the two countries, marred by regional crises including the war in Yemen.
The AFC has other political minefields to navigate: it rejected a request from Iran for its teams to play “home” matches in Qatar when they face sides from Saudi Arabia, its regional arch-rival.
The Sunni kingdom’s teams also refuse to play in Iran over safety fears.
Some have claimed the crisis with Qatar was caused by its selection to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, saying the impasse could end if Doha gave up that right.
Dorsey said the only solution to the Gulf crisis would be “a face-saving solution that allows both sides to declare victory”.
But he said sport’s record in easing political tensions is patchy and there is little reason to believe this case will be different.
“I don’t see any indication from either side backing down and getting out of the current diplomatic crisis,” he says.