The news that the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are to participate in the Gulf Cup football tournament was a surprise to most people. Ever since the blockade was imposed on Qatar in 2017, the blockading countries have refused to enter any negotiations. The region has witnessed a cold war amplified with public engagements, political events and social media all used to construct multiple narratives against Qatar through the engagement of academics, politicians and media personalities.
The blockading countries did not take part in the 2017 Gulf Cup, while the Asian Cup hosted by the UAE in February this year generated heated emotions. Qataris could not attend their team’s matches in the UAE, and Qatar’s eventual victory caused dismay amongst Emiratis. We even saw some supporters at the final throwing shoes at the team and crying as a reaction to Qatar’s win.
That was the first time since the blockade began that Qatar found itself face to face with the blockading countries, even if it was on a football pitch rather than across the negotiating table. It was a political confrontation by proxy, where both governments were really playing against each other. From the reactions of the crowd in the stadium it certainly did not seem then that the blockade would end any time soon; the raw divisions were obvious. Eight months later, the 24th Gulf Cup looks set to prove this prediction wrong.
The announcement that the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are taking part generated an immediate response on social media. Hashtags on twitter indicated a positive atmosphere, with Gulf citizens viewing this eagerly as a sign that the crisis will be resolved soon.
Will this happen? Can football really demonstrate the willingness of politicians to resolve a much larger rift and ease the political and social tensions in the Gulf created by the blockade? Well, yes… and no.
The football is by no means a purely sporting initiative. Sports diplomacy has often played a significant role in promoting political and cultural relations among nations. It often represents the state’s wider visions and agendas. In the Gulf’s case, it represents a new phase in the crisis and a fundamental shift in regional relationships.
The decision to participate in the Gulf Cup is neither sudden nor purely sports-oriented, though; it is the outcome of deeper discussions behind the scenes about the whole crisis. The easing of political tensions vis-à-vis sports is the strategy to announce these changes to a larger audience. This became evident when Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a prominent Emirati academic, tweeted that a solution to the blockade will be figured out sooner rather than later.
Qatar’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Thani, explained in his recent interview with Farid Zakariah on CNN that his country has always been open to all blockading states, and the only real effect of the blockade was the separation of families. His statement, as well as Qatar’s decision early on in the blockade not to impose any travel bans or prevent business opportunities for the blockading countries in Qatar, proves Doha’s consistent willingness to work out a solution to the crisis. The football match suggests that the blockading countries may be ready to talk, but it is too early to tell whether or not the result will be a complete resolution of the issue.
A thaw in relations between the Gulf States is not simply goodwill on anyone’s part, but a response to the increasingly tense and changing political and security landscape in the region. Saudi Arabia’s growing internal instability, for example, as well as the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, attacks on oil facilities and tensions with Iran have highlighted the need to rebuild a security bloc within the Gulf Cooperation Council. GCC members cannot respond collectively to what they perceive as a security threat if they do not have common interests.
Similarly, the UAE recently pulled out of the Yemen conflict and has improved its relations with Iran. This indicates the changing interests and a lack of unity amongst the blockading countries.
Behind all of this lies the uncertain relationship with America. The Trump administration’s unpredictability and policies raise serious questions about the US presence and motives in the region now and in the future.
Amidst such serious security issues, the question of survival and stability for the Gulf States comes first and foremost. So, yes, in light of these developments, it is no surprise that their governments have been talking behind the scenes and a football tournament may provide the unlikely new narrative in the Gulf Crisis.
Although there are positive perceptions and excitement about the tournament, which illustrates the deep cultural ties between the Gulf States, the social damage done by the politics of the blockade should not be underestimated. Culture and politics are interconnected and the mere fact that such participation in the Gulf Cup is happening confirms a highly politicised culture; Emiratis and Saudis are able to express their opinions in favour of a solution to the blockade only because their governments approve of such opinions. In other words, cultural and public opinions have been swayed by these government, as was witnessed at the beginning of the blockade when the UAE passed a law that banned their citizens from showing any positivity towards Qatar.
It is therefore imperative not to fall into the trap of Gulf essentialism that it is forever united, as portrayed by the Kuwaiti video being promoted on twitter which celebrates the unity of Gulf countries despite the crisis and political rows. Is it realistic to assume that the deep-seated political tensions, human rights violations, divisions and psychological harm done through the blockade can be forgotten or remedied so quickly and easily? Can and will Qatar ever be able to trust or rely on its neighbours as it did before the blockade?
This new narrative and direction of the Gulf crisis and the move towards a solution also raises important questions about the future of the GCC as an institution and its role in the region. The crisis created two blocs within the GCC: Oman and Kuwait, tended to side with Qatar, while the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain boycotted Qatar completely.
The GCC as an institution has been unable to provide any solution or mediation for the crisis. What will its new role be if the crisis comes to an end? It is possible that it will become a forum for creating a security network for the Gulf States and some economic collaboration, but the GCC will have no real political or cultural clout.
The Gulf Cup, therefore, may indicate a shift in regional politics and policy outlook. While the local culture may remain united in many ways, the politics will be more formal and pragmatic, and motivated by bigger questions of security. The new Gulf may stand united, but the structure and motives of this new unity will certainly be very different.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.