Eurasia Review: Soccer Emerges As The Gulf Crisis’s Potential Icebreaker – Analysis

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It
was on the soccer pitch that 2022 World Cup host
Qatar definitively shrugged off the UAE-Saudi-led economic and
diplomatic boycott of the Gulf state as the crisis entered its third
year with no prospect of
resolution.

World
soccer body FIFA’s abandonment of Saudi-United
Arab Emirates-backed plans to expand the 2022 World Cup from 32 to 48
teams just days before the boycott’s June 5 second anniversary could not
have come at a
more opportune moment.

The
FIFA decision came on the heels of Qatar’s
unexpected winning of the Asian Cup and was followed by reports that the
Gulf state’s sovereign wealth fund was negotiating the acquisition of
British club
Leeds United.

The
acquisition would give Qatar a second top European
team after Paris Saint-Germain and potentially take the soccer aspects
of the rift to the English Premier League, home to UAE-owned Manchester
City, at a
time that soccer has emerged as a battlefield in the Gulf rift. So would
a possible Saudi acquisition of Manchester United.

The
soccer pitch has been but one venue on which Qatar
has been scoring points. Three years into the boycott, Qatar’s
detractors – Saud Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — have failed to
either force Qatar to
accept demands that would have undermined its independence and
sovereignty or convince the international community of the legitimacy of
their
approach.

On
the contrary. Qatar is thriving economically,
having with the help of Oman, Turkey and Iran compensated for the
rupture in logistics caused by the breaking off of airlinks with its
detractors and the
closure of its only land border with Saudi Arabia.

Moreover,
rather than being internationally isolated,
Qatar has succeeded in deepening relations with the world’s major powers
– the United States, China, Europe, Russia and India – and reinforced
its position
as mediator or key player in conflicts ranging from Afghanistan to Gaza.

Ironically,
Qatar has been able to turn the Gulf
crisis into one of the few issues that the world’s rivalling powers
agree on and fortify the cul de sac in which its detractors find
themselves. Washington,
Beijing, Moscow, Brussels and Delhi all want the Gulf crisis resolved
but have failed to convince Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that everyone would be
best served by
a resolution that allows all parties to save face even if it falls far
short of the boycotters’ demands.

Those
demands reflected a broader Saudi and UAE policy
that aims to shape the greater Middle East, stretching from Central Asia
to the Horn of Africa, in their mould and aims to force governments to
tow a
Saudi-UAE line that promotes autocracy, rejects political participation,
opposes political Islam and violates human rights.

They
boycotters demand that Qatar align its military,
political, social and economic policies with those of other Gulf states,
shutter its Al Jazeera television network and other Qatar-funded media
outlets, end
military cooperation with Turkey and close down a Turkish military bases
in the country.

In
a rebuke of the boycotters who also demanded that
Qatar revoke citizenship granted to political refugees from Saudi
Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, the Gulf state, on
the third
anniversary of the boycott, issued the region’s first asylum law.

The
law applies explicitly to human rights defenders;
journalists, writers and researchers; political, religious and ethnic
minority activists; and former or current officials opposed to their
government’s
policies who are threatened by persecution.

To
be sure, Qatar’s positioning of itself as a
defender of human rights has holes in it that make it look like
Emmenthaler cheese. Domestically, press freedom is non-existent. The
government abruptly in
May closed the Doha Centre for Media Freedom after firing its first two
directors for taking the organization’s goal literal. As free-wheeling
and
hard-hitting as Al Jazeera can be in its regional and international
reporting, as careful it is not to cover Qatar’s warts or take reporting
to wherever the
chips fall when it touches on Qatari interests.

It
took widespread criticism for Al Jazeera to suspend
two journalists and pull a recent seven-minute, Arabic language video it
posted to its social media channels that claimed Jews exploit the
Holocaust and that
Israel is the genocide’s “greatest beneficiary.”

To be fair, the network said the video “contravened
its editorial standards” and mandated that all staff participate in a bias and sensitivity training.

The
contradiction between Qatar’s advocacy of
political change everywhere but at home is rooted on the one hand in the
recognition that transition is inevitable, and that Qatar is best
served by being in
front of the cart rather than behind it and on the other the seemingly
naïve belief that the Gulf state itself can remain immune.

And that’s what explains the crisis and the boycotting
alliance’s demands.

If
Saudi Arabia and the UAE strive to maintain
region’s autocratic status quo to the degree possible by suppressing
dissent and activism and projecting military as well as soft power,
Qatar’s strategy
embraces degrees of change but is wholly built on soft power.

It
is a strategy that is built on diversified gas
sales; maintaining relations with all parties to position Qatar as a
go-to-mediator; projecting the Gulf state as a global, cutting-edge
sports hub;
situating Qatar as a transportation hub connecting continents with a
world-class airline; turning the Gulf state into a cultural hub with
dazzling museums
and arts acquisitions; and investing in Western blue chips and
high-profile real estate.

Alongside
diplomacy, economics, media and football,
gas is increasingly emerging not only as a battlefield but also as a
driver of the Gulf crisis. Gas may also prove to be a gauge for the
timeframe that Saudi
Arabia supported by the UAE has in mind and one reason why they have so
far refused to contemplate unconditional negotiations and
compromise.

The
significance of gas was highlighted when The Wall
Street Journal recently disclosed that US officials had prevented Saudi
Arabia prior to the declaration of the boycott from invading the Gulf
states and
seizing Qatar’s operations in the world’s largest gas field.

Taking
control of Qatari fields would have not only
forced Qatar, the world’s largest liquified natural gas (LNG) exporter,
to effectively surrender, but also turned Saudi Arabia into the world’s
second-biggest exporter overnight.

If
gas proves to be a major driver of the rift, then
recently announced Saudi plans to become a major gas player suggest that
the dispute could take at least another six years, if not a decade, to
resolve.

Amin
Nasser, the chief executive of Saudi national oil
company Aramco said during the World Economic Forum in January that he
expected US$150 billion to be invested in the Saudi gas sector over the
next ten
years. Mr. Nasser envisioned gas production increasing from 14 billion
standard cubic feet to 23 billion by 2030.

Saudi
energy minister Khalid al-Falih said in April
following the disclosure of recently discovered major reserves in the
Red Sea that the kingdom may achieve its goal in five to six years.

In
the meantime, Saudi Arabia is pushing to become a
major gas trader and marketeer, primarily in the spot and short-term
markets, by partnering with producers across the globe, including in the
Russian
Artic.

The
kingdom has expressed an interest in acquiring a
30 percent stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic LNG project. Access to the
project’s gas would allow Saudi Arabia to negotiate long-term deals
and/or sell
cargoes on the spot market or increase domestic supply.

Aramco
agreed in May to a buy a 25 percent stake in
Sempra Energy’s Texas liquefied natural gas terminal in one of the
biggest gas deals ever. The deal involves a 20-year agreement under
which Saudi Arabia
would buy 5 million tons of gas annually from Sempra’s Port Arthur
plant, due to begin operations in 2023.

Qatar has partnered with Exxon Mobil Corp. in a $10
billion LNG plant in Texas and has plans to pour a total of US$20 billion into US oil and gas fields.

The Saudi Qatari gas rivalry is also playing out
elsewhere.

An
Aramco delegation visited Pakistan in April to
discuss gas sales as a way of addressing the South Asian country’s
energy shortage as it opens its multiple gas fields to foreign
investors. Qatar responded
by lowering the price of its offering in a move that appeared to give it
an advantage despite the kingdom’s increasingly hefty investment in
Pakistan.

The
prospect that Saudi Arabia and the UAE may only be
willing to seek an end to the Gulf crisis once the kingdom has secured
its position as a major gas exporter would mean that their boycott of
Qatar would
still be in place when the Gulf state hosts the World Cup in 2022.

That,
more than FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s
unsuccessful ploy to persuade Qatar to agree to an expansion of the 2022
tournament from 32 to 48 teams, could prove to be a potential
icebreaker.

The
tournament puts Qatar’s detractors in a bind. It
will be the first time that the world’s foremost mega sporting event is
held in the Arab world, a soccer crazy region and even more poignantly,
in the
boycotting Gulf states’ backyard.

Yet,
the boycott bans nationals of the boycotting
states from travel to Qatar. Even if fans were to defy the boycott, they
would have to go to greater expense and accept more complicated
logistics because of
the rupture in air and land links.

As
a result, boycotting states, in a bid to cater to
domestic demand and stave off potential protests, could be forced to
breach their own embargo and potentially create an opportunity to put an
end to the
boycott.

For now, that may seem a long shot and much can change
in the coming three years. But if the status quo remains unchanged, soccer could emerge as the Gulf’s best hope.

This story was first published by
Global Village Space.

Eurasia Review


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