The Asian Cup 2019 occupied centre stage in the Gulf over the past few weeks. The football matches between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Qatar and the UAE in particular generated strong emotions and heated reactions in the countries involved. They were the first time since the start of the blockade in mid-2017 that Qatar found itself face to face with the main blockading countries, even if it was only on the football pitch rather than across the negotiating table. This made the tournament unique in many ways, with these matches acting as quasi-political battles.
Indeed, they highlighted the importance of "sports diplomacy" which, historically, has been used to influence relations between countries. Football is often more than a sport; it is a political language, cultural representation and symbol of national honour. This is exactly what the Asian Cup 2019 meant for Qatar. The blockading countries had refused to engage in any negotiations with the government in Doha; defamed Qatar across the world; and underestimated its strength and solidarity. Qatar's victory in the tournament defied its political opponents on their own territory.
The very presence of Qatar in the Asian Cup, and the attitude of its supporters and leadership, illustrated the strength of its "soft power", despite the fact that it is a small country with limited military power. Soft power is the ability to influence others through culture, values, foreign policy and politics rather through coercion. When the blockading countries — notably the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, plus Egypt — threatened Qatar with hard power and military intervention, the leadership in Doha chose to respond by taking the high road of cooperation. This was done through Qatar's diplomatic relations in the international community and the use of values such as respect, integrity and tolerance as a strategy to resist and respond. The tournament hosted by the UAE demonstrated this. The Qatar team proved its ability and boosted its status in world football. Given that Qatari citizens could not travel to the UAE to support to their team, it is significant that Omanis and Kuwaitis cheered on their behalf, providing evidence of Qatar's positive relations with other Gulf countries. It might be under attack by some of its Gulf neighbours, but not all of them, and its continued membership of the Gulf Cooperation Council cannot be undermined.
Furthermore, Qatar's participation and victory in the Asian Cup heightened its citizens' patriotic feelings, strengthening national solidarity and identity. Sport has often been used as an indicator of national honour and pride, although it also reinforces the sense of "us" against "them". For this tournament, national symbols were developed, including a new song for the Qatar team by local singer Ali Abdel Sattar. The Qatari flag, national poetry and celebrations in workplaces, homes, universities and restaurants were all prominent during the matches with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and, in the final, Japan. Many universities cancelled classes on the day of the match between Qatar and the UAE as it took on the status of a national project, in which all citizens and residents were invested equally. A new sense of solidarity was shaped.
One discourse on social media revolved around the reality of the blockading countries preventing Qataris from crossing their borders, and citizens being threatened by security forces and accused unfairly of wrongdoing. The Qatar football team, however, was in one of those countries and, not only that, beat that country's team on the way to winning the tournament. Success, the message seemed to be, was the Qatari citizens' revenge.
When Qatar won the final against Japan, many public figures as well as the Emir of Qatar issued congratulatory statements. Qatar's victory, it was said, was a victory for the whole Arab world. This shifted the focus from Gulf nationalism to Arab nationalism, a crucial development in political relations in the region, with an impact on the wider social and economic relations as well. It also highlighted the links between political rhetoric, identity politics and the shaping of local and regional political narratives. Its own GCC neighbours may have blockaded Qatar, but it is still part of the Arab world, and it is this identity that needs to be prioritised and strengthened now.
The matches between Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were political theatre. These sporting events addressed larger regional tensions surrounding the blockade. Consider, for example, the reaction of Emirati supporters towards the Qatar team's victory against the UAE. Supporters were seen crying on the screen, grieved by Qatar's victory. In the years before the blockade, such a defeat would not have sparked such a negative emotional response; instead, Qatar would have been congratulated as a brotherly Gulf country. What's more, some Emirati spectators threw shoes at the Qatari players. This show of anger and disrespect really signified the huge divide that has emerged between Gulf societies since the beginning of the blockade. In other words, it demonstrated the social outcome of the blockade's political agenda. In contrast, at the beginning of the blockade, many Gulf citizens chose to sympathise with Qatar and did not fully buy into their governments' allegations. It is obvious that the political row in the Gulf has had a negative impact on social relations.
Interestingly, many prominent social media figures and influencers as well as ordinary citizens from the blockading countries congratulated Qatar through statements on Twitter. This was perhaps the first time since the blockade started that citizens from the blockading countries engaged with Qatar in a positive way. This is a crucial development, as the UAE had officially prevented its people from engaging in any positive dialogue with Qataris, even via social media. Such statements have political as well as social implications, but do they signal an improvement in relations?
Sport may well prove to be a more powerful diplomatic tool than formal negotiations. This could be crucial in the run-up to Qatar's hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Asian Cup victory suggests that Qatar is ready to take on this challenge. The question is, are its blockading neighbours?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.