How football created the biggest crisis in the Middle East for decades

What has long been suspected was this week confirmed by Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan when he tweeted: 'If the World Cup leaves Qatar, the crisis will go away…because the crisis is created to break it'

Anthony Harwood
Thursday 12 October 2017 14:27 BST
Qatar was controversially handed the 2022 World Cup in 2010 when Fifa was under Sepp Blatter’s stewardship
Qatar was controversially handed the 2022 World Cup in 2010 when Fifa was under Sepp Blatter’s stewardship (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

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Finally, the cat is out of the bag. The real reason a Saudi-led alliance launched a blockade of Qatar four months ago was to strip the tiny Gulf state of the 2022 World Cup.

It was jealous that the biggest sporting show on Earth was going to be hosted by an Arab rival, and so it manufactured a “crisis” as a pretext for demanding the whole thing be called off.

Any crisis threatening the World Cup has been caused by four countries – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – cutting off all trade and diplomatic links with Qatar. So, one way to make the tournament secure would be for this alliance to call off its boycott.

But life isn’t like that. You can’t keep politics out of sport, especially in the Middle East, it seems.

It’s actually the United Arab Emirates, not Saudi Arabia, which has been the driving force behind the operation.

The UAE and Qatar have vied with each other for years in a constant battle of one-upmanship for influence in the region. In August we learned through the hacked emails of the UAE ambassador to Washington how in 2011 both countries had competed to be the one opening a Taliban office, so they could be bigger players in the region when it came to peace talks with the US.

As it turned out, Obama chose Qatar and now the UAE calls the presence of a Taliban office in Doha as proof of Qatar’s support for terrorism.

UAE: Diplomacy will be given 'one or two more chances' before they 'part ways' with Qatar

At the outset it was UAE which, according to US intelligence sources, hacked the Qatar News Agency to plant those incendiary quotes from the country’s ruling Emir which started the dispute, the spark which lit the fuse if you like.

And what has long been suspected was this week confirmed by Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan, Head of Dubai Security for the UAE when he tweeted: “If the World Cup leaves Qatar, the crisis will go away … because the crisis is created to break it”.

His comments came two days after a management consultancy firm, Cornerstone Global, had produced a report claiming there is “an increasing political risk that Qatar may not host the World Cup in 2022”. “Given the current political situation, it is certainly possible that the tournament will not be held in Qatar,” it said.

President Trump says Qatar is a major funder of terrorism

Predictably, the Doha government cried foul claiming the authors had an “affiliation to the countries blockading Qatar”.

It’s true the report’s impartiality was being questioned due to a stream of anti-Qatar comments from Cornerstone Global’s founder and owner on social media. Ghanem Nuseibah, a visiting fellow at King’s College, London, claimed Qatar posed a “bigger risk” than either al-Qaeda or Isis, as well as expressing support for the Saudi blockade.

He also described Al Jazeera reporters as state employees with no journalistic ethics. What does that make those working for the Saudi station, Al Arabiya?

When the diplomatic and transport blockade of Qatar was launched back in June by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, it was accompanied by a string of demands. One was that Qatar should close Al Jazeera, another that it should stop cosying up to Iran and a third to end support for extremism, which the Doha government denies.

Saudi Arabia cuts ties with Qatar over terror links

Due to its vast wealth, Qatar has been able hold firm, refusing to be told what to do by its much bigger and more populous rivals. After all, it argued, it’s a sovereign nation and if it wants to send ambassadors to Iran, with whom it shares a huge natural gas field, then it should be allowed to.

Then this week, the UAE’s chief attack dog changed tack. Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs, said Qatar should not be allowed to host the World Cup if it did not stop supporting terrorism and extremism. All of a sudden, acquiescing to one of the quartet’s original demands is made a pre-condition for hosting the World Cup. The two have never been linked before.

Qatar denies the charge and has signed a “memorandum of understanding” on combatting terrorist funding with the US which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described as “very strong”.

Sounds good enough to me, but that did not stop the attacks.

Qatar clearly also believes it’s all about the World Cup, as shown by its statement yesterday when it said demands by the quartet for it to be stripped of the tournament were “founded on petty jealousy, not real concerns”. The statement from the Qatari government communications office went on: “The World Cup, like our sovereignty, is not up for discussion or negotiation”.

With five years until the opening game it does not bode well for the future of one of the biggest crises to erupt in the region for years.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail

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