The 41st summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which took place in the Saudi heritage site of Al-Ula on January 5, 2021, briefly diverted attention, especially in the US, away from the flailing ending of the Trump presidency as it saw the lifting of the blockade of Qatar that had been imposed on June 5, 2017, by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt.
While Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup was neither a stated cause of the decision to launch the blockade nor among the sweeping 13 demands put to Doha by the blockading quartet in June 2017, the tournament nevertheless loomed large at points in the 43-month standoff. In the social media “war” that accompanied the blockade, one of the early hashtags that trended was #UAEwillhosttheWorldCup. In October 2017, Dubai’s outspoken security chief, Dhahi Khalfan, tweeted (without providing any supporting evidence) that “If the World Cup goes out of Qatar, the crisis in Qatar will end because the crisis was made to break it.”
Allegations of “dirty tricks” also emerged periodically in media reporting about Qatar’s suitability to host the tournament under blockade and at a time of political isolation, as well as an aborted push to bring forward the planned expansion of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams from the 2026 tournament to 2022.
During the blockade, the Qatari authorities completed work on many of the stadia as well as infrastructure projects such as the Doha Metro, proving that the closure of the only land border (with Saudi Arabia) was not an insurmountable obstacle to construction supply chains. Qatar also hosted the Gulf Cup of Nations in December 2019, for which limited exemptions to the travel restrictions placed by the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini governments were made for games involving their national teams.
The lifting of the blockade and apparent resolution of the deepest rift in the 40-year history of the GCC has several implications for the World Cup, which is still nearly two years away. The first is that the reopening of borders means that football fans from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt will be able to attend games in Qatar in 2022. The passion for football among supporters is such that authorities in the four countries could have faced a backlash had they tried to prevent their nationals from traveling to a World Cup on their doorstep, especially if any of the four were to qualify for the final tournament, as Saudi Arabia and Egypt may well do.
The second consequence of the lifting of the blockade is that it will help make the Qatar World Cup a tournament for the entire region, as was pledged by the bid team back in 2010. This links to a third potential outcome, which is that significant numbers of football supporters may choose to base themselves elsewhere in the region, especially Dubai, and fly into Doha on game days. Given the damage inflicted by the pandemic to Dubai’s already struggling economy, a boost from the 2022 World Cup would be welcome and could assist in the repairing of fractured relations between Qatar and the UAE.
Article by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. He is the author of five books on the Gulf States, most recently Qatar and the Gulf Crisis (Hurst & Co., 2020).
Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.