‘A reason to get along’: World Cup jeers turn to cheers from Qatar’s Gulf rivals | Qatar

Before the biggest event the Middle East has ever hosted, few regional states seemed to share in their neighbor’s excitement.

As the host country, Qatar, 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’s giant-killers 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 enemies 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 leveler.”

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 ever 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.”

Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, poses with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, at the opening ceremony in Doha on Sunday
Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, poses with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, at the opening ceremony in Doha on Sunday. Photograph: Balkis Press/ABACA/Rex/Shutterstock

Buoyed up by its team’s 2-1 win over Argentina, Saudi Arabia is now fully behind the event. Prince Mohammed was seen praying and embracing relatives after the game, and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, briefly draped himself in a Saudi flag – an unthinkable gesture during the former political crisis – winning broad praise across social media. “In our neighborhood, personal dignities are paramount and gestures like this can have historical implications,” said Nowf al-Saud, a Riyadh-based student.

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 continues to draw scathing headlines.

There is little buy-in to either criticism across the Gulf, which was largely built on migrant labor 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 social standing of the host was 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. “We want to sustain our way of life, why are we hated for that? Do you think there is no abuse in Europe?”

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.”

Belgium supporters wear rainbow T-shirts at the team's match with Canada on Wednesday
Belgium supporters wear rainbow T-shirts at the team’s match with Canada on Wednesday. Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP

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 labeled the most controversial World Cup ever and organizers 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.”

Additional reporting by Michael Safi

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