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Qatar’s thrashing of UAE gives Doha a little taste of justice amid Gulf crisis

The blockade has been about insecure little men with feelings of inadequacy. And then it took to the football pitch

So much of this Gulf Crisis has been so petty, so childish, so frivolous. Like little boys squabbling over toys, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been picking on Qatar for having something almost approaching an independent streak - and then roping in Egypt, the neighbourhood bully, to back them up.

Bahrain’s like that scrawny kid on the block who hides behind the bigger boys while making threatening gestures with his fists, safe in the knowledge he’ll never be tested alone.

All about ego

The blockade has never been about terrorism. It’s never really been about foreign policy or geopolitics. It’s been about ego. It’s been about status. It’s been about insecure little men with feelings of inadequacy.

Qatar began to step out of the shadow cast by its Gulf brothers and started to make a name for itself in the regional neighbourhood around the turn of the millennium, as Al Jazeera grew in influence across the Arab world. Qatar’s projection of soft power slowly expanded, with the Saudis and Emiratis cautiously wary that their little brother was growing up.

Doha’s coming of age, however - when its reputation first really started outgrowing the neighbourhood - began in 2010, when Qatar was awarded hosting rights for the 2022 football World Cup.

The blockade has never been about terrorism. It’s never really been about foreign policy or geopolitics. It’s been about ego. It’s been about insecure little men with feelings of inadequacy

Suddenly, Qatar had burst onto the international stage. It was leaving its bigger brothers behind and blazing a trail on its own. And the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE did not like that one little bit. Football's World Cup is one of the globe’s biggest events.

It is a massive status symbol for a host country. It says: “We have arrived. We stand equal among the world’s cultural landmarks. We are as developed, as capable - as ‘civilised' - as any of the world’s nations."

It also brings with it attention, both good and bad. The international press has written about workers being treated as "slaves" in Qatar. An investigation by The Guardian found that staff recruited from poor nations were suffering a raft of labour abuses in supremely opulent hotels.

The reaction from Qatar's neighbours has instead been driven by jealousy. 

Obviously, to say the Gulf Crisis and blockade of Qatar is solely down to Doha’s hosting of the World Cup is a massive over-simplification. But nothing else provides as clear an example of the pettiness of this conflict. 

Football diplomacy

Football diplomacy has been kicking off in the Gulf in recent years, and with no shortage of foul play. The Gulf Cup, an eight-team football tournament held every two years, was due to be hosted by Kuwait in 2016, after Iraq understandably backed out of holding the competition due to its financial crisis and the Islamic State (IS) group’s take-over of around a third of the country. 

But then Kuwait - once upon a time the stars of Asian football - were booted out of FIFA amid allegations of government interference in the national football association.

Emirati fans react to the score during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup semi-final football match between Qatar and UAE at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on 29 January, 2019 (AFP)

The Gulf Cup was delayed by a year and handed to Qatar, at the half-way point of its preparations for World Cup hosting duties. Of course, by then, the Saudi-Emirati-led blockade of Qatar was in full swing. 

Diplomatic relations had been severed, the Saudi-Qatar land border (through which 60 percent of Qatar’s food imports had entered the country) had been sealed, regional airspace had been shut to Qatari flights. Qatar had pulled out of the coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain were withdrawn from the 2017 tournament, having failed to respond to invitations from the Doha-based organisers. World Cup administrators at FIFA were rightfully concerned about the potential impact on 2022, when millions of football fans were expected to travel from across the region to Qatar.

The 4-0 footballing lesson doled out by the Qataris was a lesson in overcoming petulance. It wasn’t just a victory for 11 men on a field, but an example of the futility of this entire blockade

If the Gulf Cup fell apart, it would set a worrying precedent for the blockading countries to lead and/or enforce a boycott of the World Cup in 2022. And there is a lot of cash and pride at stake in making sure each World Cup is a huge money-spinner for organisers, sponsors and tourism facilities.

Finally, the Kuwaiti government passed a law blocking any state interference in the domestic FA. Qatar agreed to hand back hosting rights to Kuwait, the blockading countries announced their participation and everyone at FIFA breathed a sigh of relief. Qatar, incidentally, then just a few months into the reign of coach Felix Sanchez Bas, hammered Yemen 4-0, but it was to be their only victory of the tournament, which was won by Oman (who beat the UAE on penalties in the final).

The dark horse

Fast forward a year and a bit, and we find ourselves at the Asian Cup 2019 - the continent’s premier international football tournament. The UAE was awarded hosting rights in 2015, and so the cream of Asia’s footballing elite headed for Abu Dhabi. Except, of course, for the Qataris. With the full-scale economic blockade still in force, Qataris have essentially been banned from travel to the UAE.

Australia, South Korea and Japan were among the favourites to take the title, but nevertheless, the hosts outperformed expectations, winning their group to qualify for the knockout stages, where they saw off Kyrgyzstan, and, amazingly, Australia, to reach the semi-final. 

Qatari fans cheer after their national team defeated UAE to qualify to the final of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup on 29 January, 2019, in the Qatari capital Doha (AFP)

Qatar, too, despite having practically no supporters in the stands, began to acquire a “dark horse” status, sweeping away Saudi Arabia (not exactly known for their footballing prowess) and demolishing North Korea to progress from the group stage. Comprehensive wins against Iraq and a South Korea featuring Tottenham superstar Son Heung-min, saw Felix Sanchez’s men qualify for one of the most hotly anticipated semi-finals in Asian Cup history.

The stage was set for the Blockade Derby in Abu Dhabi. To ensure a feisty, if not outright hostile environment in the stadium, Emirati officials block-bought as many as 18,000 tickets and gave them away free - ostensibly as a charitable act, but one which had the obvious consequence of making sure very few “neutral” Qatar fans would get a seat.

Schools in the UAE closed early so the children of the nation could watch what should have been a glorious moment in Emirati sporting history.

A little taste of justice

What followed on Tuesday afternoon was, however, nothing short of a national humiliation.

In the first half, both teams had played a pacy, attractive brand of football - and the 2-0 scoreline in Qatar’s favour may not have accurately reflected the passage of play, with their first goal the result of a goalkeeping error - even if Qatar’s second, scored by the Sudan-born Almoez Ali after excellent teamwork, really was top class.

In the second half, the Emiratis simply broke down and lost all discipline - both on the field and in the stands. In the UK, the BBC still shows clips of England crashing out of European football competitions in the 1990s. It’s the sort of collective shame that takes a generation or more to come to terms with.

And let’s not beat about the bush, this absolute thrashing was worse than anything the England football team has had to face.

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Having stacked the stadium with their own fans, who screamed insults during the Qatari national anthem and threw missiles, including shoes and bottles, at Qatar's players; having consigned Qatar to a total blockade for 18 months; having thrown baseless accusations at Doha; having threatened military invasion - the UAE still got beaten silly.

The 4-0 footballing lesson doled out by the Qataris was a lesson in overcoming petulance. It wasn’t just a victory for 11 men on a field, but an example of the futility of this entire blockade. 

A win against Japan in the final on Friday would be almost irrelevant after this heroic match. The defeat of UAE will go down in history for passion, projectiles - and, maybe, a little taste of justice.

- James Brownsell is the managing editor of The New Arab. Follow him on Twitter:@JamesBrownsell.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Qatar's defender Hamid Ismeil (R) celebrates his goal during the 2019 AFC Asian Cup semi-final football match between Qatar and UAE at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on 29 January, 2019 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.