Sports, politics and history in the Gulf - ZEKERIYA KURŞUN

Sports, politics and history in the Gulf

I was surprised when I went to Qatar for the first time in the late 1990s to do research. It was a small country and its relations with the world were largely based on oil trade. However, the hottest topic everywhere was sports. At first, I had interpreted this as a mass hobby offered to distract from other matters – as is the case in many other Eastern societies. However, as the archive I was studying is inside the palace, I saw that the top-level administrators I came across there from time to time shared the same interests, I came to understand that this could not be so easily interpreted.

Sports and politics

Sheikh Hamad, who was in power at the time, was making generous contributions to sports. He particularly attached importance to having certain expensive international sports events held in Qatar. Eventually Qatar reaped the best fruits of it efforts and seized the opportunity to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Following this achievement, despite the objections of surrounding countries and some Western countries allied with them, mobilization was declared in the country. Currently, ongoing major investments have been made. However, Qatar faced accusations that its hosting of the World Cup is shady, and that the conditions of the employees working on the construction of the sports complexes is inhuman. In addition to all this, four countries, backed by the U.S., launched a blockade in mid-2017. Against all odds, Qatar achieved what it wanted in the Asia 2019 Cup semifinals played last Tuesday in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Qatar, achieving a score of 4-0 against the UAE, won the right to play against Japan in the finals.

The UAE-Qatar match has shown once more how sports can serve as an important tool in politics and, and as a matter of fact, sometimes in the fight for sovereignty, as it is important for friendship, brotherhood and peace.

The significance of Sheikh Hamad’s investment in sports despite the conditions at the time and surrounding pressures is once again better understood in retrospect. The UAE declared yesterday’s match as a national cause; by announcing school holidays throughout the country and buying all unsold tickets and distributing them for free, it has given a political significance to this match. The timing of Qatar’s message by referring the ban of blockading countries on its products to the World Trade Organization (WTO) ahead of the match, carried the showdown from sports to politics.

Sports and History

There is a serious relationship between Sheikh Hamad’s sports politics and the region’s history. The Qatar peninsula is a country stuck between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Since the rise of the current ruling family in particular, Qatar has felt the pressure of other powers in the region. Because even before Saudi Arabia and the UAE were founded as states, Qatar was an area of interest of both sides. Qatar has been one of the expansion areas of Wahhabism, a movement led by the Saudi dynasty in 1744. Hence, despite keeping his distance from politics, the founder of modern Qatar was under the religious influence of Wahhabis.

Similarly, the founders of the UAE we know today, who left Oman and settled in Abu Dhabi in 1763, had also set their sights on Qatari shores for economic reasons. Udeid, which used to be a major pearl hunting region in the past – and currently the area of the U.S. base – was an issue of conflict between Qatar and the UAE. Bahrain claimed rights over Zubarah, northwest of Qatar, and the Hawar Islands right beside it. While the Ottoman Empire strived to ensure peace between the sides, the U.K., becoming a party to these matters as of the mid-19th century, made it an international issue.

Up until World War I, the Ottoman Empire had dealt with all these problems using its own methods, then had to leave to region to the U.K. after the British settled in the area Qatar’s position remained the same. While the Saudis held Qatar under their religious influence, the UAE and Bahrein applied political pressure on Qatar, using the advantage of the relations they established earlier with the British. As a matter of fact, these developments reveal why Qatar rejected the offer for Qatar to be included in the UAE Confederation as the U.K. was withdrawing in the 1970s.

Sheikh Hamad, who graduated from the British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, was aware of all this when he came to power. He also knows how the U.K. sees them in this respect. The U.K. played an important role in the transfer of Hawar Islands to Bahrain during his rule. All that was available to him to be able promote himself to the world and show that there is a state called Qatar in that small region is sports. Thus, he uses sports perfectly for this purpose, with his son Sheikh Tamim following in his footsteps. It will not be an exaggeration to state that the FIFA 2022 to be held in Qatar has determined the world community’s interest and opinion of the blockade the country is facing. The last match played between the UAE and Qatar has loosened the Qatar blockade a little more. A possible win for Qatar against Japan will pave new ways for peace in the Gulf.

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