Football Might Help Restore GCC Unity

It was on June 5 that Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates [UAE] and Egypt decided to boycott Qatar for a number of reasons, but principally for harbouring, funding and supporting terrorist and extremist outfits and individuals, and for strengthening relations with Iran though the latter has had running battles and issues for a number of years with nearly all the six Gulf Cooperation Council states.

Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also jointly fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are backed by Iran. The rebels recently fired an Iranian-supplied missile aimed at a Riyadh palace.

There have been many and consistent attempts by Kuwait – one of the GCC constituents – and a number of other countries, topped by the US, to resolve the impasse, but in vain. There has been little progress on the score of the list of 13 demands handed to Qatar by the Arab Quartet.

But there is hope in certain quarters that this might change in the wake of the Gulf [Football] Cup, a biennial fixture since 1970, with its latest edition currently being played in Kuwait [22 December – 5 January]. It would have been originally played in Qatar since it was the winner of the last tournament but due to the impasse, Doha agreed to transfer its rights to Kuwait.

One has to be in the Gulf to realise how devoted every Arab, young or old, is to the game of football and what passions it arouses when teams win or lose whether in local fixtures or in the international arena.

gulf football cup.
Gulf football cup

Of course initially Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE indicated they were not going to take part due to the presence of the Qatari team and major doubts had hung over its fate. But Kuwait, which has been playing the intermediary ever since the crisis started and which incidentally has lifted the cup a record 10 times, persuaded them and the tournament started off like normal.

One has to see the mingling of the Qatari and other countries’ teams in the stadiums in light of the fact that since June the airspace of the Arab Quartet remains closed to Qatar Airways flights, the only land border of Qatar [with Saudi Arabia] remains closed, there are no exports from the Quartet to Qatar, not even of essentials such as milk and vegetables, the Saudis have even sent back home Qatari cameleers coming for winter foraging, and Qataris have to face a strict visa regime on landing at any of the Quartet’s ports. Couples with either of the spouse being a Qatari are facing a bad time.

But the feeling among the Gulf-watchers is that if the Saudi, Bahraini and UAE teams are playing with Qataris that means the ice has broken. Let us not forget that a 2009 football match had brought together Turkey and Armenia, when the Armenian president asked the Turkish president to sit with him during the World Cup qualifier. Days later, an accord was signed.

Football fans are said to be taking to Twitter, expressing the hope that the Gulf Cup will end the row. In 2014 a similar match helped resolve a Saudi-Qatari diplomatic row.

Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don’t usually hear from the middle east country.