World Cup in Qatar: the shock wave

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08 janvier, 2023
Leslie Varenne

For non-soccer fans, the World Cup in Doha was to be dull, with its litany of expected polemics such as the choice of this country to organize the global event, democracy, human rights, boycott, etc. But nothing happened as expected. The Western narrative was disregarded, the reality of the Arab world escaped from the stands and it was the fans who dictated the narrative, trapping everyone, Westerners and leaders of Arab states alike. The river has burst its banks, and if the first consequences are already being felt, who can predict how far the shockwave will spread?



"Palestine won the World Cup"

No one, and the Qatari leaders in the first place, imagined that this World Cup would become a megaphone for the "Arab street" and the defense of the Palestinian cause. All the supporters of Arab countries have raised the emblems of Palestine alongside their national flags, including citizens from the states that signed the Abraham Accords in 2020: the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco. If the Western media barely reported on this, the rest of the press has widely commented and analyzed the phenomenon. While the Middle East Monitor headlined: "Notice: Palestine has won the World Cup", a Brazilian newspaper judged that "it had become the third most popular and massive sports team". The heads of states that had put aside their public opinion on this issue and had normalized their relationship with Israel, or considered it, like Saudi Arabia, were contrite, to say the least. Mohamed VI above all, who did not expect such fervor from his fellow citizens.

And this is not the only lesson of this World Cup. There was an Arab jubilation in front of Morocco's exploits, pride that one of their countries was hosting a cup so well organized, and the thrill of feeling pan-Arabism, that was thought to be dead, rise anew. The Algerians cheering the Moroccan team’s victories, despite the political tensions between the two countries, was one example.

The first consequence came quickly. On the night of December 30 to 31, a resolution at the United Nations asking the International Court of Justice in The Hague to determine "the legal consequences" of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories was adopted.  With 87 votes in favor, 26 against, and 53 abstentions, the vote triggered Israeli anger that "this is a moral stain on the United Nations”.  All Arab countries, including those who signed the Abraham Accords, voted in favor... After the provocative visit of the new Israeli Minister of Security, Ben Gvir, to the al-Aqsa mosque, the United Arab Emirates decided to postpone Netanyahu's visit to Abu Dhabi and requested an emergency meeting of the Security Council. As for Morocco, it has just conditionned the planned opening of its embassy in Tel Aviv on the recognition of Western Sahara, an issue Israel has refused to commit itself on until now. To be fair, it is possible that these decisions and this vote would have been identical without the backlash of the World Cup, but on one hand, this is not certain, and on the other hand, it is no longer possible for these leaders to ignore the "Doha effect".

Tectonic shift in the Near and Middle East

Moreover, this World Cup took place at a time when the region is in the midst of reconfiguration. For more than a year, attempts at reconciliation have been taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their respective foreign ministers met in Baghdad last December, a first since diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed in 2016. Ultimately, this could help the peace process in Yemen and Syria's return to the Arab League.

But, without question, the most important movement of the moment is the Syrian-Turkish reconciliation. Turkey, seeking to normalize its relations with Arab countries and get out of the mess it got itself into in 2011, has been trying to make overtures to Damascus for more than a year. The intelligence chiefs of the two countries met in September. On December 28, the two defense ministers met in Moscow in the presence of their Russian counterpart. A new meeting is scheduled in January between the three foreign ministers, probably in the United Arab Emirates. A meeting between Bashar al-Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already been announced, the date and place remain to be defined. The issue is complex, with a mountain of problems to solve, the fate of the Kurds, that of thousands of jihadists in Idlib, that of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Nevertheless, this Syrian-Turkish reconciliation would mark the end of a conflict that has lasted for 12 years. And it would sign the failure of the American neoconservatives "Greater Middle East project" which consisted, as its name does not indicate, in recomposing the region in a jigsaw manner between small entities based on communities and/or religions.

And this is what Doha was all about. Through the defense of Palestine and in the freedom given to them by the stands, the supporters have asserted their Arab identity, their Arab solidarity, which was thought to be dead and which in reality was only anaesthetized. This also and above all means a return to the pre-eminence of politics over religion. This world cup effect, associated with the geopolitical upheavals underway, could generate considerable transformations well beyond the region.

Leslie Varenne