Saudi-Qatari rivalry spills onto the football pitch

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JAMES M. DORSEY

Unable to persuade Qatari leaders to drop their support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, Saudi Arabia appears determined to deprive its tiny neighbor of its regional football supremacy.

A recent decision to build 11 stadia under the auspices of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco), one of the country’s most efficient, forward-looking institutions, constitutes an effort to rival Qatar that is developing at least eight of the Middle East and North Africa’s most advanced facilities in advance of its hosting of the 2022 World Cup. It also signals the end to a debate in the kingdom on whether to emphasize individual rather than team sports in its five-year national sports plan in a bid to prevent pitches from becoming venues of protest as elsewhere in the region.

The Saudi decision to battle Qatar on the pitch followed the withdrawal five months ago of the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain from Doha. It came as Gulf rulers acknowledged that deep-seated differences notwithstanding, they needed to cooperate in confronting the most significant threat facing them: the rise of the Islamic State, a militant jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq with a population larger than that of several of the wealthy, oil-rich sheikdoms.

A crisis meeting in Jeddah this weekend of Gulf leaders focused on countering the Islamic State threat avoided mention of the rift with Qatar, one of the most serious crisis in the almost three-decade old history of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which brings together Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. A flurry of meetings in recent weeks including a visit by Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to Saudi King Abdullah and talks last week in Doha between Tamim and a Saudi delegation that included Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, intelligence chief Prince Khaled bin Bandar and Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef failed to narrow the Qatari-Saudi gap.

The decision to build the stadia and the significance attributed to it by assigning the task to Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer, which has been tasked in the past with key projects such as the development of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a research-focused institution that is not bound by gender segregation and other religious restrictions, highlighted the deep-seated roots of football in the kingdom.

Unlikely are suggestions that the kingdom would field a credible candidate for next year’s election of a president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Saudi Arabia is more likely to support the re-election of Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a national of Bahrain, which is closely aligned with the kingdom. Salman last year defeated, among others, a Saudi national in an interim AFC election.

Prominent Saudi businessmen, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a prominent member of the Saudi ruling family and one of the world’s wealthiest men, and football officials recently grumbled over government guidance in the awarding by SAFF of broadcast rights to Middle East Broadcasting Center Group (MBC) in a deal worth 3.6 billion Saudi riyals or $960 million.

The deal with MBC, which is chaired by Sheikh Waleed Bin Ibrahim al-Brahim, an in-law of Saudi Arabia’s ruling al-Saud family, was rushed through in an effort to preempt a possible bid by beIN Sports, the sports channel of the Qatari state-owned Al-Jazeera network. MBC’s flagship, Al Arabiya, was founded as a counterweight to Al-Jazeera. SAFF president Ahmed Eid al-Harbi justified the decision as having been taken in consultation with senior government officials because there were national issues involved that were “larger than football.”

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