Should Pakistan support Qatar against Saudi Arabia

Sport as a global political strategy

Two years ago, Asia's most important football tournament took place in the United Arab Emirates, in one of the wealthy oil monarchies on the Persian Gulf. Fans of the small neighbor Qatar were not allowed to enter. In the semifinals, spectators of the host threw shoes and bottles at the Qatar players. Nevertheless, Qatar also won the final against Japan and became Asian champions for the first time.

"Football is a reflection of the tensions in the Gulf," says Jassim Matar Kunji, former goalkeeper in the Qatari league and now a journalist for the Al Jazeera television station. "Sponsorship agreements between the countries were terminated and player transfers were canceled." An old conflict had come to a head since 2017: Saudi Arabia imposed an economic blockade on Qatar. The UAE, Bahrain and Egypt joined and also suspended relations with Doha. Her accusation: Qatar supports terrorist groups and is too close to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. Saudi Arabia stopped importing food to Qatar. Families were separated by the interruption of important travel routes. "Many Qataris believed an invasion of Saudi Arabia was possible," says Jassim Matar Kunji, citing a cautionary example. In 1990, the mighty Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the USA had to move to liberation.

In the smaller states, the awareness prevailed that they would be clearly inferior in a comparable attack. The army of Saudi Arabia has 200,000 soldiers, Qatar's 12,000. To compensate for this difference, Qatar is pursuing a strategy of soft power: with investments worth billions in culture, science and football, with major events, club participation or sponsorship partnerships at Paris Saint-Germain or at FC Bayern Munich.

Hosting the 2022 World Cup is the most important part of this strategy. But the Club World Cup, which has been running since the beginning of this week, also offers the emirate an important stage in the middle of the pandemic. Champions League winner FC Bayern will enter the competition on Monday with the semi-finals against Africa's Champions League winner Al Ahly SC from Cairo.

So it is worthwhile to look at the sporting and thus also political rise of Qatar. In 1971, the year of independence from Great Britain, the emirate had only 100,000 inhabitants and was under the military protection of Saudi Arabia for a long time. But Qatar wanted to break out of its grip and began modernizing it in the mid-1990s. The emir built the news channel Al Jazeera and opened the economy to foreign investors. »The Gulf States want to develop new branches of the economy. Because traditional sources of income oil and gas are finite, ”says sports scientist Mahfoud Amara from Qatar University. "Sport serves as a strategy to make other sectors such as tourism, trade or transport better known."

The Qatari ruling house had one of the largest and most modern sports academies in the world built, the Aspire Cademy opened in 2005. Dozens of well-known competitions are now held in Doha every year. It made headlines around the world in December 2010 with the award of the 2022 World Cup. Shortly afterwards, Qatar acquired the majority of the Paris Saint-Germain football club. Qatar Airways also became the first shirt sponsor of FC Barcelona. To date, Qatar has invested more than a billion euros in European football. Criticism of this is high in Europe, but Qatari influence is growing in the Arab world. “That annoys the long-standing regional power Saudi Arabia,” says Simon Chadwick, founder of the Center for the Eurasian Sports Industry: “An agency wanted to prove how unsuitable Qatar was for the World Cup. Then it turned out that the campaign was funded by Saudi Arabia. "

In the Gulf region, Qatar competes for investors, tourists, skilled workers and start-ups, especially with Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two most influential small states in the UAE. Larger Dubai focuses on shopping centers, family entertainment and major events such as Expo 2021. The state airline Emirates is active as a sponsor in major European leagues. The smaller Abu Dhabi followed suit in 2008 and bought into Manchester City. "We're seeing a massive shift in power eastward in the football industry," says Chadwick. Sport is the starting point for many new trade relationships.

There is always great political distrust among one another. Qatar took a stand during the Arab Spring in 2011 and afterwards: for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, for Islamic forces in Tunisia, for the rebels in Libya against Gaddafi and in Syria against Assad. Saudi Arabia took revenge, also in football: for example with the pirate channel “BeoutQ”, which illegally siphons off the program of the Qatari sports channel “BeIN Sports” and distributes it itself. This spiral of hostilities would probably have continued, but then Corona came. The already low oil price collapsed, foreign investments fell, and tourists stayed away. At the beginning of January, Saudi Arabia finally ended the blockade against Qatar after three and a half years. "It's a fragile peace," says Middle East expert Kristian Ulrichsen, who wrote a book about the Gulf crisis. "The Gulf states have realized that they are dependent on cooperation in these difficult times." Riyadh and Dubai also want to benefit from the 2022 World Cup. If not with tournament games, then with training camps, sponsorship events or the accommodation of fans.

None of the states on the Persian Gulf is governed democratically, there is no separation of powers. In the ranking of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders for 2020, Qatar ranks 129th out of 180 countries.Wenzel Michalski from Human Rights Watch is critical of the fact that clubs from democratically governed countries like FC Bayern enhance Qatari politics with their partnerships: "If European clubs do not want to forego profit, then they could show the few critical activists on the ground more interest."

At the center of the debate: labor rights. The Qatari ruling family allows the 250,000 citizens to share in the prosperity. They enjoy privileges in education, health care and job allocation, and their per capita income is one of the highest in the world. But the rapid development was made possible by hundreds of thousands of guest workers from India, Bangladesh or Pakistan - almost without rights. Many of them fell ill or died. In the meantime the protection of workers has been improved and a minimum wage has been introduced, officially. But human rights activists criticize the fact that the implementation of the reforms is inadequately monitored.

Only ten percent of the 2.5 million inhabitants have a Qatari passport. In no other country is the proportion of immigrants so high. "Some business people are concerned that the World Cup could open up Qatar too much," says political scientist Mehran Kamrava from Georgetown University in Doha. They fear that football fans drink alcohol in public and that gays do not hide their sexuality. In 2018, the emir massively increased alcohol prices through taxes, and at Qatar University he replaced English as the main language with Arabic. Concessions to conservative circles, because only with internal political stability can soft power be exercised in foreign policy.

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