Football and Politics in the Gulf
The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off this week in the Qatari capital Doha. The tournament comes at a time of fast-evolving politics in the region. Just a few years ago, a spat within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) saw Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) break diplomatic ties with and blockade Qatar, frustrated in part by Doha’s support for Islamists across the Middle East and North Africa. The crisis was mostly resolved in early 2021, and diplomacy ahead of the World Cup has further calmed intra-GCC relations, though differences remain, particularly between Qatar and the UAE. The World Cup also comes amid other changes nearby: Iran is convulsed by mass protests; talks involving Tehran and world powers over Iran’s nuclear program have fizzled out; and Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to return to power in Israel at the helm of the most right wing government in the country’s history – all at a time when Gulf monarchies have taken some steps to calm tensions with Iran and, in some cases, improve relations with Israel. It also comes amid Saudi-U.S. friction. Riyadh’s decision, together with other oil producers, to cut oil production against Washington’s wishes has further tested relations that were already strained over the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for which U.S. intelligence blames powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
In this episode of Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood is joined by Joost Hiltermann and Dina Esfandiary, Crisis Group’s Middle East & North Africa director and senior adviser, respectively, to talk about the World Cup and Gulf Arab states’ external relations. They discuss how ties between countries in the region have evolved since the GCC spat and their different interests in the region. They examine how Gulf Arab countries view developments in Yemen and Iran and the changing relationship between some Gulf capitals and Israel. Finally, they look at the ups and downs of U.S.-Saudi ties during U.S. President Joe Biden’s tenure in office thus far. They talk about how Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are navigating Washington’s changing role in the region, big-power tensions and multipolarity. They discuss Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plans for Saudi Arabia and ask what the future holds for relations between Riyadh and Washington.
For more on the situation in the Gulf region, check out Crisis Group’s extensive analysis on our Gulf and Arabian Peninsula regional page.
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