The axiom that sports and politics don’t mix has been turned on its head in the World Cup in Qatar. In the Gulf state, where the month-long football extravaganza opened on 20 November, sports and politics are not only mixing but gelling. The two increasingly appear inseparably entwined.
Take the handshake between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his Turkish opposite Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the opening of the World Cup in Doha on Sunday evening. It was the first ever meeting between the two leaders who have been at political odds since Al-Sisi ascended to power in the summer of 2014, a year after the 30 June Revolution led to the removal of Mohamed Morsi, Erdogan’s close ally.
For over six years, Ankara and Cairo were engaged in a regional confrontation over the role of political Islam in the Arab world. Egypt was in a strong alliance with the UAE and Saudi Arabia while Turkey allied with Qatar. In the course of the confrontation, Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain blockaded Qatar, though Cairo maintained its economic ties with Turkey.
Things started to change in January 2021 with the Al Ula Summit in Saudi Arabia. The four Arab allies ended their five-year boycott of Qatar, which had started officially in June 2017, and the emir of Qatar arrived in Saudi Arabia to attend the summit. Emir Tamim bin Hamad also visited Egypt and the two countries resumed diplomatic representation at the ambassadorial level. Doha agreed to rein in the criticisms that its influential satellite channel Al-Jazeera was levelling against Egypt and to stop hosting political meetings by Islamist politicians opposed to Cairo. Qatar also extended valuable economic help, depositing $1 billion with the Central Bank of Egypt.
Meanwhile, Egypt and Turkey were engaged in political consultations and there was speculation about a full upgrade of diplomatic representation. According to Egyptian and Turkish political sources, the two countries moved some way to sorting out their differences, including the scope of Turkey’s military and economic presence in zones of strategic significance for Cairo, including Libya, the Sahel and Sahara, East Africa, and the Nile Basin. Egypt, for its part, agreed that it was enough for Turkey to suspend the Istanbul-based political and media operations of Islamists opposed to the regime in Cairo rather than asking for them to be expelled or handed over to Egypt.
“I think it is safe to say that Turkey and Qatar realised that their support for political Islamist movements must have limits to avoid harming their relations, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia, more than the UAE, decided that the political and economic cost of animosity with Turkey and Qatar was too high,” said an informed Egyptian diplomatic source. He added that it would be wrong to state that all differences have been resolved. It is just that pragmatism has won out.
All the previously opposing leaders were present in the front row of the opening of the World Cup in Doha except for Mohamed bin Zayed of the UAE, which was represented by Vice President Mohamed bin Rashed. Jordan’s King Abdullah, who had declined to take sides during the boycott and often acted as a mediator, especially between Egypt and Qatar, was also present. Few, though, could have predicted the remarkable handshake between Al-Sisi and Erdogan.
According to the same Egyptian source, “a quiet and persistent Qatari mediation allowed for the handshake to take place. Doha had been working on this mediation for over a year but we were not sure that it would happen until it happened.”
The source added that it was only during a COP27 meeting between Al-Sisi and Tamim that the president of Egypt expressed his willingness to have a corridor meeting with Erdogan. Later, it was agreed that Al-Sisi and Erdogan would hold talks while they both attended the inauguration of the World Cup.
So what next?
The Egyptian diplomat said “more economic cooperation and more negotiations over political issues on both the bilateral and regional front” can be expected, and for the time being Egypt is generally satisfied with the restrictions Turkey has placed on the Islamists it is hosting. He said that what counts most for Egypt now is economic cooperation, which is an equal priority for Turkey. Both countries are suffering serious economic hiccups. And the issue of upgrading diplomatic representation, he revealed, “is in the works”.
The politics and social dimensions of this World Cup are evident to everyone. For months Qatar has been bashed in the media for almost everything except football, from its World Cup bid and changing the games to winter, to migrants’ and gay rights. The criticism reached a crescendo in the last few days building up to the tournament.
FIFA and Qatar finally flashed some teeth. On Friday, in a sudden U-turn two days before the opening game, Qatar banned the sale of beer at most points in World Cup stadiums. The 11th hour decision threatened to disrupt the operations of a major World Cup sponsor but the sentiments shared by many Qataris and other Muslims is that Qatar made the right call.
FIFA also flexed its muscles, threatening to punish European players who planned to wear One Love armbands with a multi-coloured, heart-shaped logo on the field, warning them that anyone who appeared on the pitch in the bands would immediately be shown a yellow card.
Following the warning, English skipper Harry Kane and the rest of the federations backed down. A yellow card is a warning, but two yellows would see a player sent off the field for the rest of the game and banned from the next. The players were not willing to take that chance.
A lame response, certainly when compared to the Iranian team which, in its opening match against England, refused to sing the national anthem in an apparent expression of support for anti-government protests in their home country in which more than 400 protesters have been killed and 16,800 others arrested in a crackdown by Iran’s security forces. For disrespecting their flag, Iran’s players could face severe punishments when they return. They know what might be in store for them, and that they could go to jail. But still they stood in silence.
Kane and company, on the other hand, were clearly more afraid of a yellow card which could force them to miss a match. But what’s the point of a protest if you don’t actually make a sacrifice?
There are so many political overtones to this World Cup that at times they have threatened to drown out the matches, although some normalcy returned to the tournament as the games got underway.
In Qatar, politics and football have come together, sometimes bumping against each other, but at other times simply coexisting.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.