Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab Unity in Qatar’s World Cup, Explained

The current World Cup has helped bridge the gap between the West and the Middle East by allowing all nationalities to delve into Arab culture.

Arab Unity World Cup
Morocco fans celebrate after their country’s win of the Qatar 2022 World Cup football match between Morocco and Portugal at Souq Waqif in Doha on December 10, 2022. MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

Dana Hourany

As a fan of the Brazil football team, Nour Safadi, 22, has been eagerly awaiting the start of the 2022 World Cup, held in Doha, Qatar. Her expectations were exceeded, early on upon seeing the performances of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Morocco. The Lebanese medical student told Fanack that her love for the region’s teams has overshadowed her support for Brazil.

“I was surprised by Saudi Arabia’s performance against Argentina. I wasn’t expecting that,” Safadi said. “I wasn’t planning on cheering for any other team other than Brazil until I saw the potential of the Arab teams this year.”

Known as the world’s third-best football team according to FIFA’s rankings, featuring renowned players such as Lionel Messi and Ángel di María, and among the top favorites team cheered on by fans, Argentina was expected to breeze through Group C of the World Cup. However, Saudi Arabia gave the Argentinians a shock when the Green Falcons defeated them by 2-1 on 22 November.

“It was exhilarating!” Safadi recalled. “My friends and I were glued to our TV screens cheering together and supporting each other throughout the entire match.”

The euphoria however was short-lived, as the Falcons exited the world cup after losing 2-1 against Mexico on 30 November. That same day, Tunisia managed to defeat France in a shocking 1-0 victory, which was unfortunately not enough to secure them a spot in the round of 16.

The sole remaining MENA country is currently Morocco who defeated Portugal 1-0 on 10 December, making it to the semi-finals, after beating Spain on 6 December by 3-0 in the penalty round.

The first World Cup to be held in the region has been hailed as a win by Arab nations, according to observers and commentators. And Arab football fans and spectators alike are cheering the Atlas Lions across social and political divides.

Qatar as a host

Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup over the United States, South Korea, Japan, and Australia in 2010. The Gulf nation was formerly classified as “high risk” due to lack of sufficient infrastructure and its sweltering summer heat. To prepare for hosting the biggest sports event, the Qatari government reportedly spent billions of dollars.

The country built seven new stadiums, hotels, and expanded its airport, rail network and highways ahead of the tournament. However, there has been widespread criticism regarding the human rights situation in Qatar namely because of the country’s treatment of migrant workers.

Reports show that migrant workers have been denied or delayed wages since 2010, given deplorable living conditions, and often barred from leaving the country due to sponsorship rules. According to CNN Sport, however, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said Qatar’s labor reforms have seen great progress, and the country’s nondiscriminatory minimum wage is the first in the region, as described by the International Labor Organization.

Human Rights Watch issued a report in 2016 alleging that migrant workers had been trafficked into the country through brokers who offered them jobs with higher wages than what they were expecting. According to the report, thousands of workers were tricked by shady middlemen who coerced them into working long hours without pay. Despite these concerns, the World Cup has proved to be a commercial success for Qatar, generating millions of dollars in revenue and providing a boost to the country’s tourism industry.

Despite the controversies, Doha’s hosting of the World Cup has forged an atmosphere of unity among Arab audiences who share geographic, cultural, religious, and linguistic ties. This solidarity was also expressed online where fans from across the MENA region voiced their passionate support for the Moroccan team.

Football as an act of solidarity

The current World Cup has helped bridge the gap between the West and the Middle East by allowing all nationalities to delve into Arab culture, particularly Qatari culture, according to Dany Makki, a football enthusiast and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

“We’ve been seeing a different type of tournament this year,” Makki told Fanack. “Non-Arabs are embracing Qatari culture, wearing the traditional headdress, and expressing their love for the language.”

In a similar jubilant manner, many Qatari, Saudi and Tunisian fans have taken to the streets of Doha to celebrate Morocco’s wins after their respective teams were eliminated.

“The MENA region, which is by-and-large tied to political unrest particularly in the Western media, now has Morocco as a role model,” according to Makki. “Moreover, they are supported because they are underdogs facing big teams with huge fan bases.”

While oil-rich Gulf States are generally stable, other MENA states suffer socioeconomic development challenges.

“Sports is the one thing that can overshadow politics in a region rife with political tensions,” Makki said. “While politics have certainly been expressed, especially with the Moroccan team’s hoisting of the Palestinian flag, and with many sports fans refusing to appear on Israeli media, the games present an opportunity to escape from daily mundane problems.”

“Additionally, Arab footballers who triumph in competitions against foreign juggernauts can become a source of inspiration for children in crises-affected countries, such as Syria, Yemen and Libya,” Makki adds.

Causes at the World Cup

Arab fans attending Germany’s game against Spain on 27 November held up posters of former German international Mesut Özil, who left the team in 2018 citing racism in the nation’s footballing establishment.

The German-born football player of Turkish origin said he was scapegoated for Germany’s early elimination from the 2018 World Cup.

He was famously quoted at the time as saying: “I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.”

This, in Makki’s opinion, calls into doubt Germany’s stance on diversity and football. According to federal statistics, the number of Syrians who became German citizens increased by 74% to 6,700 in 2020. It is estimated that there are over 700,000 Syrian refugees overall, according to Reuters.

“Will football teams be accepting Syrians in their national teams or will we be seeing a rise in right-wing nationalism?” Makki asks.

The Palestinian struggle has also been a major focal point of the World Cup. The country’s flag can be seen everywhere including on the flags, T-shirts, and scarves of the competing teams. Arab and international fans have been documented showcasing their support of the occupied country and chanting “Free Palestine!” waving “Free Palestine” banners, and cheering in support of Palestinian rights and against recent Israeli aggression against Palestinians.

“The Palestinian cause is Arab par excellence, representing the continued struggle against a colonial enterprise. Arabs don’t generally disassociate the Palestinian cause from the modern anti-colonial fight that began in the 20th century,” British scholar and analyst H.A Hellyer told Fanack.

“Moreover, Jerusalem, as a holy site for Arab Christians and Muslims alike, is tremendously symbolic. It is unsurprising that the Palestinian flag is being hoisted as a sign of Arab unity,” he added.

Makki points out that countries with governments that have normalized relations with Israel, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Sudan, Bahrain, and Morocco, the top-performing Arab team at the World Cup, do not represent the views of their populations, as is shown by the resounding support that these nations’ peoples have demonstrated for Palestine during the competition.

Double standards

Nihal El-Aasar, an Egyptian scholar and writer, argues that in addition to Qatar, other countries with an unfavorable human rights record have hosted the World Cup, including Russia in 2018 where at least 21 construction workers lost their lives building World Cup venues.

“The working circumstances that the workers in Qatar were subjected to must be mentioned. Nevertheless, the World Cup proved to be a fantastic demonstration of how Arabs can come together for the same goal,” El-Aasar added.

The researcher claims that her support of the Western Sahara territory and her love of Moroccan football do not clash. The Polisario independence movement and the Moroccan government have been contending for sovereignty over Western Sahara for decades. Polisario fought a 15-year war for the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, which ended after a 1991 ceasefire.

“The Arab unity we’re witnessing is also an extension of the support and friendliness we share among ourselves, but on a smaller scale,” El-Aasar explained.

Due to the current political divisions and socio-economic disparities in the MENA region, Hellyer believes current Arab unity must not be exaggerated. He argues that a game between two Arab countries would have naturally led to rivalries between the nations.

“I don’t think we should overplay the importance of this kind of sentiment. It’s a sports tournament, not a grand political alliance, right?” Hellyer said.

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