International relations, Arts, culture & society | The World, Asia

4 January 2019

Two feuding nations will meet in the Asian Nations Cup in January, and the stage is set for something more than just a game, Simon Chadwick writes.

Ordinarily, a meeting between Omar Hawsawi and Hassan Al-Haydos wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows across the world. Even when they do next meet, on 17 January, most people probably won’t notice or care. However, as the two shake hands, their encounter will be hugely symbolic, potentially fractious, and closely watched by many.

Hawasi is likely to captain Saudi Arabia and Al-Haydos will probably fulfil the same role for Qatar when the two nations’ football teams play against one another in their countries’ Asian Nations Cup clash, which will take place in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

There are numerous other eye-catching matches during the tournament – Iran versus Iraq, for instance  – though it is the contest between the Gulf region’s current arch nemeses that is likely to be the most significant battle.

Since June 2017, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been engaged in a feud that, at one level, is the result of simmering, long-running tensions between the two. At another level, it reflects government attitudes in Riyadh towards its counterpart in Doha, which were emboldened by Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May of that year.

The consequences of this standoff have been bitter, sometimes juvenile, but also hugely damaging to the Gulf status quo and to the region’s image and reputation. From Saudi Arabia’s public relations proxy war and its threat to dig a channel between the two countries to Qatar’s bullish, ostentatious spending (on everything from Italian-built warships to Brazilian footballers), it has been a bruising confrontation.

And the spat is ongoing. In December Qatar’s Emir snubbed an invitation to attend a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh (hardly surprising given that diplomatic relations between the two countries have been severed since June 2017). In the same month, Qatar announced that it will leave OPEC (the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries).

More on this: Stalemate in the Arabian Gulf

Although a gas-rich country, oil has provided a dwindling contribution to the Qatari economy. Even so, for Doha to walk away from a group in which Saudi Arabia plays a major part merely adds still further to the deepening rift now blighting the Gulf region.

So, when Al-Nassr’s Hawsawi and Al Sadd’s Al-Haydos shake hands at the game’s kick-off, it will be a rare face-to-face meeting between high profile figures from the two countries.

But it won’t be the only story playing out – it will also be interesting to see who is in the Zayed Sports City Stadium, as Qatari citizens have been subject to a UAE entry ban for the duration of the feud.

In July 2018, the UAE’s government nevertheless issued new guidelines for Qatari citizens seeking to enter the country, instructing them to obtain prior permission for a limited-duration stay (although only to be granted at the discretion of the UAE government). That said, some Qataris have complained about problems they encountered when, for example, seeking entry to perform the Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Consequently, it is not inconceivable that there will be few away fans in the stadium on matchday, especially as Qataris are not particularly predisposed to supporting their national team at overseas matches. It could be something of a tense, challenging and isolated evening for Al-Haydos and his teammates.

On the face of it, the game should be something of a dead rubber. In the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia is football aristocracy currently placed 69 in FIFA’s rankings (having also qualified for last summer’s World Cup in Russia). Meanwhile Qatar, a country of little more than 2.5 million people (of which Qataris only represent around ten per cent), is down in 93rd place and has never qualified to play in the World Cup.

However, one suspects that this game will have rather more spice to it than might normally be the case between two such apparently mismatched nations. Winning the match will presumably not only take one of them closer to qualification for the Asian Cup’s next phase, it will also confer bragging rights upon them.

This might seem a rather simplistic view to take of such an encounter, but as part of the proxy war in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar are engaged both will surely see victory as being strategically important. A win will no doubt be heralded, employed as a statement of strength, and provide ammunition for the information machine that has helped sustain the feud.

More on this: Saudi Arabia’s economic diplomacy

Irrespective of the result, how the game is played could have a more telling effect. Indeed, the soft power successes may be achieved via the spirit and endeavour of those involved. Throughout the conflict, the government in Doha has attempted to present itself as being a convention-busting, outward-looking, progressive, youthful nation. Brand Qatar would no doubt benefit from its footballers playing in a style that is consistent with these qualities.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has adopted a rather more hierarchical, some might even say arrogant, approach to the ongoing battle with its adjoining neighbour. Indeed, for many countries, the Jamal Khashoggi affair has cast government in Riyadh as being aggressive and out of touch with international opinion. The last thing Brand Saudi needs is for its football team to play a cynical game laden with bookings or, even worse, a sending-off.

It should not be this way, but some people’s perceptions of both countries are likely to be shaped by the way players conduct themselves, how they play the game, and ultimately how they respond when faced either with victory or defeat.

Who would have guessed as the Asian Cup draw was being made that important matters of image, perception and attraction would ultimately rest on the staging of just one game?

In the end the impending head-to-head is, well, just a football game. Yet the luck of the draw means that Saudi Arabia versus Qatar is not simply a qualifying match or a high-profile photo opportunity involving handshakes between Omar Hawsawi and Hassan Al-Haydos. It is a potentially barbed encounter in which the geopolitical and soft power stakes are high.

Thus far, it has sometimes been difficult to know who is winning or losing the Gulf feud; 17 January might in part help to clarify this matter.

This piece is published in partnership with the China Soccer Observatory at the University of Nottingham.

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