Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Gulf Cup brings Joy to Iraqis, but not without Grief

The Gulf cup offers a chance to unite the MENA region after years of violence, much like the World Cup did.

Gulf Cup
Stadium security teams monitor the seating of football fans ahead of the evening’s final match of the Arabian Gulf Cup between Iraq and Oman at the Basra International Stadium in Iraq’s eponymous southern city on January 19, 2023. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Dana Hourany

The 25th Arabian Gulf Cup kicked off on 6 January in the Iraqi city of Basra and run until the 19th. It is Iraq’s second time hosting the tournament, having held it in 1979 for the first time.

This tournament features eight teams divided into two groups. Four countries are included in Group A: Iraq (host), Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen. Each one of these teams will compete in the Basra International Stadium (also known as the Palm Trunk Stadium), while the other four nations in the group B—Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE—will compete at the Al-Mina Stadium.

This competitive sporting event for the Gulf region comes after the conclusion of the World Cup, in which four Arab nations—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Tunisia, and Morocco—participated from November 20 to December 18, 2022. The latter garnered a good amount of popularity for reaching the semifinals and inspiring Arab pride, as expressed by fans and supporters.

Even though the Gulf Cup is much smaller in scale than the World Cup, sports analysts and observers believe that the event will have a significant impact on Iraq, where changes in the country’s economy and tourism industry are already visible.

Iraqi authorities and communities in Basra have worked extensively to prepare adequately for the tournament they had previously been barred from hosting and attending. Due to security concerns, FIFA forbade Iraq from hosting international matches between 2003 and 2018.

Since 2010, Basra has been chosen to host three different Gulf Cup competitions; however, the location was changed each time due to security concerns. The only time Iraq hosted the Gulf Cup was in 1979, the year Iraqi team won.

Despite political and economic unrest, Iraq is now taking center stage as a tournament host, relying on public and private aid to deliver a memorable experience.

What is the Gulf Cup?

53 years ago, the Arabian Gulf Cup was inaugurated in Bahrain. At the time, only Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar participated. The number has since doubled to include four more nations.

Kuwait has dominated the winning streak, which was only interrupted by Iraq in 1979 – the year Yemen was admitted to the games. Kuwait regained the title in 1982 when the UAE hosted the sixth cup.

Iraq won the 1984 edition of the tournament, which took place in Oman, as well as the ninth tournament in 1988, held in Saudi Arabia, after Kuwait won the 1986 tournament in Bahrain.

A series of back-to-back victories between Iraq and Kuwait came to an end in 1990 when Kuwait won, and Iraq withdrew. Then Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, severed diplomatic ties with his Gulf neighbors following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, preventing Iraq from attending the tournament.

In 2004, Iraq regained its access after Saddam Hussein was removed from power. FIFA’s decision to allow Iraq to host the games marks a break from previous civil unrest that rocked Basra and the country throughout the past years.

A revived Basra

Once a lush green region with a vibrant community of farmers, landowners, and fishermen, Basra, in the southern region of Iraq, is facing severe desertification as a result of climate change. Clashes among rival Shiite Muslim militants have also taken place in Basra, worsening the political crisis between the supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr and Iran-aligned Shiite parties.

However, the city has been overtaken by the excitement of hosting the event. Visitors are greeted by billboards, monuments, and posters bearing the flags of the Gulf States as they enter the city. Football supporters from throughout the Gulf region throng the streets of the city to dance and chant in support of their preferred teams, creating a festive mood that permeates the entire city.

In addition to food and accessory vendors offering mementos and treats, Basra’s celebrations feature music, performances, and fireworks.

Azhar Al-Rubaie, an Iraqi journalist and researcher, believes that this event is helping Iraq emerge from a protracted state of social, political, and athletic isolation.

“We now have people from Gulf nations as well as other parts of Iraq who have never been to Basra before,” Al-Rubaie said.

He claims that Iraq is being perceived in a different light as a result. In contrast to the unstable, destitute past image, a joyful, well-planned, and welcoming occasion paints a different picture.

“Visitors are flocking to museums and engaging with locals, which is helping Iraq, a country long associated with conflict,” he said.

Street vendors and small businesses are also thriving. According to the journalist, the daily influx of tourists brings in money for souvenir shops, sweets and food vendors, taxi drivers, and other daily workers.

Joy but not without grief

In the final day of the event, the state news agency INA reported that a stampede near the Jaza’a Al-Nakhla Stadium, where Iraq and Oman were expected to play in the Arabian Gulf Cup final, resulted in one death and 60 injuries, CNN reported.

The cause of the stampede is yet to be determined.

“Thousands of supporters showed up early to the finale taking place at 7 pm which resulted in a huge stampede of people where many struggled to breathe and one person was confirmed dead,” Al-Rubaie said.

“The responsibility falls on the organizers and the security forces who did not do their job properly to ensure a safe and secure environment for the fans to be in,” he added.

A few bumps in the road

Initially, Iraq had to ensure that the required modern sports facilities were available and up to code in order for it to be given the chance to host the championship. Nevertheless, as soon as the city was confirmed as the host, the majority of hotel rooms were reserved for national team members, media personnel, celebrities, and political delegations.

As a consequence, many Iraqis welcomed guests into their houses for free.

“Families, tribes, and businesspeople all worked together to make sure that either their residences or temporary lodgings like tents were accessible for guests,” Al-Rubaie told Fanack.

“Many volunteers, of all ages, helped prepare the welcoming ceremony. Even school children and women had their part in promoting the event, either on social media or television,” he added.

Tickets were originally offered for an amount ranging between $10 and $30, but the writer claims to have seen people purchasing $60 to $100 worth of “black market” tickets in order to attend the event.

According to sports journalist and analyst Mohamed El-Gharbawy, the Gulf tournament offers a chance to unite the MENA region after years of violence, much like the World Cup did.

“Even while there are still tensions and occasional acts of violence, conditions seem to be getting better. The situation in their country needs to change, especially for the Iraqis. They desire harmony, more tourists, and investments that will help their nation thrive,” El-Gharbawy said.

A minor dispute arose on January 11 when Iran voiced its displeasure over Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Sudani’s usage of the term “Arabian Gulf [cup].” Iran prefers the term “Persian Gulf [cup]” – a detail that has been a point of contention between Tehran and Gulf nations for many years.

Why we need sports

El-Gharbawy points out that media attention, particularly by international outlets, will influence how the sporting event is portrayed to Western audiences. Similar to the World Cup, different outlets may emphasize faults and negative Arab tropes depending on their agendas.

One particular moment that has gained traction on social media, aside from the posts of celebrations, was a video of Yemeni players exchanging shin guards when being substituted during their Gulf Cup match against Saudi Arabia.

Sports events, according to El-Gharbawy, can boost the MENA region’s economy and draw in outside investors – only if properly overseen by an adequate government.

“Hosting these events could benefit all sectors, so long as governments do not view them solely as sources of pride but opportunities for proper investment,” he added.

According to Al-Rubaie, the tournament could lead to Iraq hosting more sporting and entertainment events in the future, helping the country’s economy and reputation as a tourist destination in the region. Or it might swing in the opposite direction.

“People frequently find peace as well as amusement during sporting events. MENA nations are divided by small differences, but these opportunities help bridge the divide between us all. Additionally, nations may draw inspiration from one another to host and organize sporting events in the future,” he added. “Despite everything, I have hope.”

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