For Qatar, the World Cup is a high-stakes test and a show of clout

Explanation

DOHA, Qatar — In a country where wealth and ambition often raise questions about its identity — whether it’s a mediator or an instigator, a state bridging conflicts or a separatist effort — the Qatar National Museum offers a succinct and glowing assessment.

Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the country’s emir, said that “Qatar has changed from a country that some people forcefully put on the map to a major player in politics, economy, media, culture and sports around the world.” in words projected on a black background and difficult to argue with.

For all of Qatar’s progress, it will be tested over the next month as it hosts the World Cup – an event that has rarely seen the country’s level of scrutiny and criticism, threatening the global image it has carefully cultivated over the years. diplomacy, humanitarian work and business endeavors such as sports sponsorship.

The families of migrant workers who died in Qatar are waiting for an answer

Recent weeks have brought renewed attention to the plight of migrant workers who suffered or died building the event’s infrastructure, and concerns about how LGBTQ fans will be received in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. In the last two days, the debate has turned into anger over the decision to ban beer in stadiums.

Qatari authorities have strongly objected to much of the criticism, arguing that the country is being unfairly segregated, pointing to undercurrents of racism – and that it ignores the divisive nature of the race.

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“Hosting the first major football event in an Arab and Muslim country is a truly historic moment and an opportunity to break stereotypes about our region,” Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said in a text message. “Football has the power to strengthen bonds of friendship and overcome barriers of misunderstanding between nations and people.”

And for Qatar, a successful tournament could serve to validate its countless efforts over the years to increase its global status and increase its influence.

Abdullah al-Arian, professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar and editor of the new book “Soccer in the Middle East: State, Society and the Beautiful Game,” said the World Cup “is part of a broader strategy.” intends to position Qatar as an important regional factor.

“It is carving out a space for itself outside the shadow of neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. And this is done in part by investing in major development projects, as well as media, popular culture, education and medicine. The World Cup fits that,” he said.

Before this tournament, Qatar faced an even tougher test. The story at the Doha museum – an incubator of national developments – is told in an exhibition about the “Ramadan Siege”: the siege of Qatar by its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in 2017, which lasted for almost four years. .

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The blockade has divided the Middle East, separated families from Gulf states with cross-border ties, and put Qatar – a country with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes – under unprecedented pressure as it suddenly struggles to provide for its citizens. and provided the residents with food and other things.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have accused Qatar of terrorism, which it has denied. Their anger stems from Qatar’s support for Islamist groups across the region, its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera news network and its general refusal to get along with its neighbors. The conflict ended last year, with Qatar refusing to comply with a list of demands from the Saudi-led bloc, including shutting down the Al Jazeera network. But the tension continues.

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Mohamed said there was agreement on “common threats” in the region. “However, sometimes we don’t agree on the methods” to confront them, he admitted.

For now, Qatar seems to have other priorities. Before being overwhelmed by the demands of the World Cup, Qatar returned to the role of regional mediator, helping the United States as a third interlocutor with Iran and the Taliban, including helping to evacuate US citizens and allies during the country’s chaotic withdrawal. from Afghanistan.

Qatar hosts a major base for the US military’s Central Command and has avoided confrontation with the Biden administration, even as its neighbors grapple with what they see as America’s withdrawal from the region in pursuit of closer ties with China and Russia. have been

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The United States “has other priorities. We can’t blame it on isolation,” Mohammed said. Regional governments, he added, “must start taking more responsibility.”

“Qatar’s international role has matured in the last decade,” said Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Center for Gulf Studies. He said the blockade came as a “shock” but that Qatar had still managed to achieve “several diplomatic victories”, including in conflicts on behalf of the United States.

“The ideal scenario going forward for Qatar would be one where it can balance its foreign policy ambitions while avoiding another breakdown in regional relations with its neighbors,” he said.

When the tournament kicks off, Qatar will now host its neighbors and thousands of fans from across the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, will be attending the tournament and are due to send one of the largest contingents of ticket holders – a remarkable turn of events. after hostilities broke out during the siege.

As fans flocked from all over the region, including Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis, it gave the tournament a “unique flavor”, al-Arian said: The latest example, if all goes smoothly, of Qatar’s mediating role.

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