FIFA and the politics of a Gulf feud

FIFA is being dragged into the Gulf’s internal rivalries and that does not bode well for the federation.

Gianni Infantino
FIFA President Gianni Infantino attended the AFC Asian Cup final where Qatar faced Japan at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi on February 1, 2019 [Reuters/Suhaib Salem]

In late January, a British football fan was arrested in the United Arab Emirates for wearing a Qatar t-shirt at an Asian Cup match played in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi. Ali Issa Ahmad was allegedly unaware of a decree that could have forced him to pay a large fine and seen him jailed for up to 15 years for displaying sympathy for Qatar. Perhaps he also did not clock that there were no Qatari fans in the stands.

That is because in June 2017, the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain, launched a land, air and sea blockade of their Gulf neighbour. Qataris living in the four countries were abruptly kicked out and not allowed back. The “no sympathy” decree followed shortly thereafter.

The unfortunate fan probably also found it curious and possibly upsetting that the Qatari national anthem was drowned out by boos and that each time Qatar scored, the team was showered with verbal abuse, shoes and plastic bottles. A few days later, in a moment of karmic justice, Qatar whipped the UAE 4-0 and then went on to claim the cup with another convincing win against Japan.

Rather like that fan, FIFA, I am sure, had no inkling when it awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar in 2010 that it was about to enter the twilight zone of Gulf politics.

Shortly after the announcement, allegations that the Qataris had bribed their way to football and sports’ most prized asset started circulating. This coincided with an FBI investigation in the US of a dozen FIFA officials accused of receiving illegal payments for distributing media and marketing rights in the Americas.

More allegations were made against Qatar, which it categorically denied. Since then, the Qataris have been assiduous in shoring up support and addressing issues concerning the World Cup. One of their biggest critics, the International Trade Union Confederation, is now onside after Qatar agreed to dramatically improve conditions for the million migrants working on cup infrastructure.

The Qatari authorities and various media organisations have also started uncovering evidence of a premeditated smear campaign against the country, aimed at revoking its award of the 2022 World Cup.

The UAE, in particular, has never quite gotten over the thought that it should have been it and not Qatar that secured the first World Cup to be played in the Arab world, despite the fact that it never got around to putting a bid in. The Qatari-Emirati rivalry started way before the 2017 blockade and dates back to the early 1970s when the two countries were established. It extends to various fields: from economy to regional politics, world standing and clout, and now even sports.

The UAE would like nothing better than to see the World Cup pulled from Qatar. It has launched numerous initiatives to that effect, including fake news sites and “independent” reports aimed at spreading the narrative that Qatar cannot manage the cup.

Abu Dhabi has also recently stepped up its game with FIFA President Gianni Infantino. It is pushing to expand the number of teams from 32 to 48, an idea that the new FIFA president has encouraged. Emirati officials have repeatedly declared that they are ready to “cohost” the World Cup, while Infantino has suggested that if Qatar agrees to share the matches, it could enjoy better regional relations.

In getting involved in the dispute between Qatar and the UAE, the FIFA president is going against a major principle the federation has been committed to – keeping politics out of football.

Last year, despite the diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West, FIFA went ahead with the World Cup as planned. It also showed little tolerance for politics on the pitch. It disciplined three Swiss players for political gestures aimed at the stands and fined the Serbian Football Federation after their fans displayed “discriminatory banners and messages” during a match against Costa Rica. The Argentine Football Association was also slapped with a fine after its fans were involved in “fights, throwing objects and homophobic and insulting chants” following their 0-3 defeat by Croatia.

Given its tough stance on these incidents, the FIFA leadership cannot overlook the unacceptable behaviour of the Emirati fans at the Asian Cup and the fact that it was very much provoked by official government views and the Emirati media whipping up anti-Qatar feeling. It should observe closely how its regional body, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) deals with the problem.

FIFA should not allow the AFC to go easy on the Emirati football authorities. The fact that the president of the AFC, Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, is a senior member of Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family, which is deeply indebted to the UAE for helping keep their battered economy afloat, should not influence the confederation’s decision.

With the Emiratis and the Saudis showing no interest in ending the feud with Qatar, Infantino may want to think a little more before allowing FIFA to be drawn into the dispute. The organisation he heads is still reeling from the corrupt mess left by his predecessor Sepp Blatter. His focus should be on cleaning up FIFA’s Augean stables, not blithely accepting the Emirati push to expand the World Cup pool by a third in 2022. That is a political trap he and FIFA would do well to avoid.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.