Qatar Asian Cup soccer victory may deepen Gulf tensions, experts warn

Qatar Asian Cup soccer victory may deepen Gulf tensions, experts warn

United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both beaten by Qataris during championship run, likely to step up opposition to 2022 World Cup in response

Qatar's players celebrate with the trophy after winning the 2019 AFC Asian Cup final soccer match between Japan and Qatar at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, on February 1, 2019. (Roslan RAHMAN/AFP)
Qatar's players celebrate with the trophy after winning the 2019 AFC Asian Cup final soccer match between Japan and Qatar at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi, on February 1, 2019. (Roslan RAHMAN/AFP)

DOHA, Qatar (AFP) — Qatar’s remarkable Asian Cup soccer victory may have been a sporting triumph that sparked wild celebrations in Doha, but it is almost certain to come at a political price, analysts say.

The win — in the hostile capital of the United Arab Emirates, one of its opponents in a bitter regional dispute — is expected to lead to further animosity between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc of rival nations.

And even just days after Qatar beat Japan 3-1 in the final, the Gulf diplomatic impasse may be more entrenched.

“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,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at Rice University.

He added: “The response to Qatar’s run in the Asian Cup has, if anything, deepened the split within the Gulf.

“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.”

Soccer and geopolitics

Qatar’s first ever Asian Cup win is an astonishing story on numerous levels — a modern-day sporting parable, soaked in geopolitics and symbolism.

It is a powerful Qatari riposte to critics who long ridiculed the 2022 World Cup host for its lack of footballing prowess.

Qatar’s defender Pedro Miguel Correia, 4th from right, celebrates after winning the 2019 AFC Asian Cup group E soccer match between Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi on January 17, 2019. (Khaled DESOUKI/AFP)

The team beat three sides who appeared in the Russia World Cup, scored 19 goals, conceded just one and provided the tournament’s best goalkeeper, player and highest goalscorer.

It is a vindication of the wealthy Gulf state’s huge spending to develop talent at its Aspire Academy — 13 of the 23-man squad were graduates, including top scorer Ali Almoez.

But it is far more than just sport.

Since June 2017, Saudi-led countries have cut ties with Doha, claiming it supports terrorism and wants a better relationship with Riyadh’s arch-rival, Tehran.

Qatar denies the charges, says it is being punished for pursuing an independent foreign policy and its enemies want regime change in Doha.

As a result, few, if any, Qataris traveled to the UAE to watch matches, claiming they were fearful about what would happen to them.

Practically their only supporters were a group of Omanis, subsequently leading Qataris to celebrate with Omani flags in Doha.

Notably, Qatar beat Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the latter victory seeing their players pelted with shoes and bottles by a partisan crowd.

The 4-0 victory over the UAE was, according to some, better than the cup win.

Many Qataris celebrated by holding up four fingers — one for each of the neighboring boycotting countries, said Ulrichsen.

That gesture also matched the one used by Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood supporters following the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in 2013.

Qatar’s victorious team were greeted by Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani when they arrived back home.

He then made his first trip abroad since the victory, notably to regional peace-broker Kuwait, where he presented Emir Sabah al-Sabah with a maroon Qatar soccer shirt.

And there is yet more symbolism, argues James M. Dorsey, author and a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“The victory emphasizes to Qatar that it can stand on its own, whatever the obstacles,” he said.

Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, 5th from left, welcomes the Qatari national soccer team at Doha airport, in Doha on February 2, 2019. (KARIM JAAFAR/AFP)

Salford University professor Simon Chadwick said Qatar’s win also helped polish its tarnished international standing.

“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,” said Chadwick.

‘Very naive’

The “escalation” Ulrichsen spoke about is likely to focus on the 2022 World Cup, said Dorsey.

“I think what you are going to see is Qatar’s victory is going to escalate opposition by primarily the UAE and Saudi Arabia to Qatar hosting the World Cup,” he added.

Construction work under way at the Khalifa Stadium in Doha, Qatar, November 9, 2014. (Rob Harris/AP)

Next month, FIFA will rule on whether the 2022 World Cup will include 32 or 48 teams, and whether Qatar should share games, potentially with neighboring rivals.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s insistence that an expanded World Cup could help ease regional tensions is “very naive,” Dorsey insisted.

He pointed to a previous Asian Cup victory — Iraq in 2007 — where people celebrated during a period of sectarian violence, but trouble soon flared again.

“Sports and politics are inextricably enshrined,” he added.

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