Political scientists define war as “intensive policy”; this is something that applies to sport in the Arab world. It reveals deep crises, both between states and in their foreign relations, as much as it contributes to their escalation or resolution.
This has been evident in the Gulf crisis, which is in its third year, as sport was its first victim. We have all seen the hostility between Qatari and Emirati footballers in the Asian Cup hosted by the UAE; the pirating of beIN Sports channel; the boycott of sports events in Doha; and plotting against Qatar’s right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Hence, the news that the national teams of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are going to participate in the Gulf Cup football tournament in Doha is an “intensive policy”. It was followed by leaks on social media about an imminent breakthrough in the crisis. Regardless of the accuracy of these leaks, it reflects a desire to create the atmosphere for a breakthrough, or the desire for some parties to sabotage such efforts. What is certain, is that the decision to take part is political, just as boycott decisions are political too.
The speech made by the Emir of Qatar in the Shura Council outlined the prospects for resolving the crisis, as Doha has overcome the worst of the blockade. It is now in a position to make choices, and is not desperate regarding a solution.
“Since the outset of the crisis,” explained Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, “we have expressed our readiness for dialogue to resolve differences between the Gulf Cooperation Countries [GCC] and within the framework of its charter on four bases: mutual respect, common interests, avoidance of dictating a foreign policy, and non-interference in internal affairs.”
These are the foundations of any future solution to the crisis, and any solution beyond it, as is the case with the 2014 Riyadh Agreement. This is because it is the export of problems, rather the solution to problems. The foreign policies of different countries can only be identical when the logic of dictatorship is employed. It is natural for states to differ and manage their differences in a civilised manner. In the history of Gulf relations, there has never been a consensus on foreign policy, but this does not prevent the existence of unified positions on major issues. Agreeing to support the Palestinian cause does not prevent disagreement on the Libyan issue, for example.
Last week, we witnessed a practical answer to the possibility of separating political disputes from the interests of the people of the region, with the announcement of Qatar’s launch of the Egyptian Refining Company in the Mostorod refinery. Qatar Petroleum owns 38 per cent of the $4 billion project, which started in 2012 and has not been affected by the political difficulties between Doha and Cairo. We should remember that Qatar’s financial support to the Egyptian government was extended during the Military Council’s rule in Cairo.
No solution to the Gulf crisis will change history, but it will change the future. What happened, despite all of the bitterness, should be a lesson upon which to build relations, not to accumulate hatred and revenge. A treacherous attack was carried out against Qatar, targeting its very existence, but it managed to overcome its impact without bearing any hatred or grudges. Now, from a position of stability and choice, not desperation, it is able to turn over a new page, and build upon what has happened.
It is in the interest of the Arab world to end the crisis that has exhausted the region, regardless of who initiated the reconciliation. “The better of the two is the one who is the first to greet the other,” said Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
The solution will be a reproduction of the crisis, if it is built on the Riyadh Agreement and other truces that did not last long. Any solution will not eliminate a bitter period in Arab relations that brought out the worst of the region in terms of antagonism as much as it brought out the best of its courage, patience and balance.
It is in Saudi Arabia’s interest to distance itself from the reckless Emirati policy, which Hamad Al-Mazrouei still insists on promoting on Twitter even as late as yesterday, using the ugliest words, in anticipation of any solution. In recent months, Saudi Arabia seemed to be moving away from the UAE and instead adopting a problem-solving rather than a problem-making policy. This was reflected in the Riyadh Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council. Saudi Arabia’s major problems are not with Qatar, but rather with the rivalry between Iran and the US. The Jamal Khashoggi case did not come to an end before the Twitter hacking attack emerged and was followed by the visit of CIA Director Gina Haspel to Riyadh without meeting the Saudi Crown Prince.
In the light of the upcoming Gulf Cup, therefore, we hope that politics are tamed rather than sports becoming politicised. The teams undoubtedly have differences, but they must show good sportsmanship and respect the rules of the game.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 14 November 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.