Analysis: At Qatar World Cup, Mideast tensions spill into stadiums

  • Iran’s games are hotbeds for pro- and anti-government fans
  • Emir Tamim raised the Saudi flag in the Argentina game
  • Qatar has allowed Israeli fans to fly to the Cup
  • Doha hopes a smooth Cup will boost global influence

DOHA, Nov 28 (Reuters) – The first World Cup in the Middle East has become a showcase for the political tensions that crisscross one of the world’s most volatile regions and the often ambiguous role played by host Qatar in its crises.

Iran’s matches have been the most politically charged, as fans at home support protesters who boldly defy the religious leadership. They have also proved diplomatically sensitive to Qatar, which has good relations with Tehran.

The pro-Palestinian sentiment among fans spilled over into the stadiums as the four Arab teams competed. Despite Qatar allowing Israeli fans to fly directly for the first time, Qatari players wore pro-Palestinian armbands.

Even Qatar’s emir made a politically significant move by flying the flag of Saudi Arabia in the historic defeat of Argentina – a visible show of support for the country as it mends relations strained by regional tensions.

Such gestures have heightened the political dimension of a tournament already mired in controversy over its treatment of migrant workers and LGBT+ rights in the conservative host country, where homosexuality is illegal.

The stakes are high for Qatar, which hopes that a smooth tournament will cement its role on the world stage and in the Middle East, which has remained a sovereign state since 1971 despite numerous regional upheavals.

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Qatar, the first Middle Eastern nation to host the World Cup, has often been seen as a regional maverick: it hosts the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, but has previously had little trade ties with Israel.

It has given a platform to Islamist dissidents seen as a threat by Saudi Arabia and its allies, while befriending Riyadh’s nemesis Iran and hosting the largest US military base in the region.

“INNER CONFLICT”

Tensions have been reflected inside and outside the stadiums since more than two months of protests erupted in Iran after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was arrested for violating a strict dress code.

“We wanted to come to the World Cup to support the people of Iran because we know it’s a great opportunity to speak for them,” said Shayan Khosravani, a 30-year-old Iranian-American fan. After Iran participated in the Games, it canceled its plans due to protests.

But some say stadium security has prevented them from showing support for the protests. During Iran’s match against Wales on November 25, security officials turned away fans carrying Iran’s pre-revolutionary flag and T-shirts emblazoned with the protest slogans “Woman, Life, Freedom” and “Mahsa Amini”.

After the game, there was a confrontation between opponents and supporters of the Iranian government.

Two fans, who have been at loggerheads over stadium security over the confiscations, told Reuters they believed the policy stemmed from Qatar’s ties to Iran.

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A Qatari official told Reuters that “additional security measures have been taken at matches involving Iran following recent political tensions in the country.”

When asked about confiscated materials or arrested fans, a representative of the organizing committee referred to Reuters to FIFA and Qatar’s list of banned items. They prohibit content that contains “political, offensive or discriminatory messages.”

Controversy also raged around the Iranian team, which supported the protests by not singing the national anthem in the first game, and it was observed that they did not sing it before the second match.

Quemars Ahmed, a 30-year-old lawyer from Los Angeles, told Reuters that Iranian fans were struggling with an “internal conflict”: “Do you support Iran? Do you support the regime and the way it suppresses protests?”

Ahead of Tuesday’s decisive US-Iran match, the US Soccer Federation temporarily displayed the Iranian national flag on social media without the Islamic Republic’s emblem in solidarity with protesters in Iran.

The match only added to the significance of the tournament for Iran, where the clerical leadership has long declared Washington the “Great Satan” and accused it of fueling the current unrest.

PROUD ANNOUNCEMENT

Palestinian flags, meanwhile, are regularly seen in stadiums and fan zones, and sold out in shops even though the national team failed to qualify.

On November 26, during the match against Australia, Tunisian supporters en masse raised the banner “Free Palestine”. Arab fans reject Israeli journalists reporting from Qatar.

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Omar Barakat, the football coach of the Palestinian national team, who came to the World Cup in Doha, said that he carried his flag to the matches without stopping. “It’s a political statement and we’re proud of it,” he said.

While tensions have flared at some games, the tournament has also seen some overt acts of reconciliation, such as Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani wearing a Saudi flag around his neck during a Nov. 22 match against Argentina.

Qatar’s ties with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have been frozen for years by Doha’s regional policies, including its support for Islamist groups during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

At the opening ceremony in Doha on November 20, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan shook hands with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, making another attempt at reconciliation between countries that have severed ties with the Arab Spring.

According to Christian Coates Ulrichsen, a political scientist at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States, going into the tournament has been “complicated by the decade of geopolitical competition since the Arab Spring.”

Qatari authorities had to “maintain a fine balance” on the Iran-Palestinian issue, but in the end the tournament “put Qatar once again at the center of regional diplomacy,” he said.

Reporting by Maya Gebeili and Charlotte Bruneau; Written by Maya Gebeili and Tom Perry; Edited by William McLean

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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