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Religious ultra-conservatism has a field day in Pakistan. It puts Saudi Arabia on the Spot

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Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism is having a field day.

Barely three months after the Taliban claimed victory in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the second most populous Muslim-majority state, is moving to join Kabul in becoming an outpost of religious intolerance and Muslim supremacy.

In doing so, Pakistan, alongside Afghanistan, has come down on the side of countries like Turkey and Iran that advocate various forms of political Islam and public adherence to the faith as opposed to Gulf states and movements such as Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama that project themselves with various degrees of sincerity as beacons of a tolerant and pluralistic interpretation of the faith.

That has not stopped Pakistan from forging ties with both sides of the divide. In doing so, Pakistan benefits from shifting battlefields in the Middle East as rivals seek to dial down tensions to avoid conflicts from spinning out of control.

In the latest move, Saudi Arabia revived its financial support to Pakistan, including US$3 billion in deposits to the central bank and up to $1.5 billion worth of oil supplies with deferred payments. Saudi Arabia had suspended aid last year because of Pakistani criticism of the kingdom’s lack of support in its dispute with India over Kashmir.

However, the kingdom’s renewed support results from a desire to counter tightening military and cultural relations between Pakistan and Turkey as well as Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban in the wake of the group’s victory in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is reportedly giving the Taliban intelligence and technical support in its fight against the Islamic State’s South Asian affiliate, Islamic State-Khorasan. Much of the international community is concerned about the Islamic State but has been unwilling to engage with the Taliban publicly to counter the jihadist group.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Javid Ahmad, who was Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until the Taliban takeover, suggested that Pakistan was well-positioned to do so because of “its tactical presence in the Taliban units, especially the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network.”

Quoting pre-Taliban Afghan intelligence, Mr. Ahmed said that its Pakistani counterpart had an “elaborate network of human informants in major cities, involving local travel agencies, commercial banks, restaurants, hotels, bakeries and taxi drivers.”

The renewed Saudi support calls into question Saudi aspirations to lead the Muslim world in its embrace of tolerance and moderation. It came a couple of days after the Pakistani government caved in to demands of a supposedly banned, militant ultraconservative group that advocates draconian implementation of an archaic blasphemy law.

Saudi Arabia competes for leadership in the Muslim world and the ability to define Islam in the 21st century with the UAE, Qatar and Nahdlatul Ulama. The latter is the only non-state actor in the mix and the only entity to have taken practical steps to anchor principles of tolerance in Islamic jurisprudence.

The competition has particular significance for the kingdom that for decades waged the world’s largest public diplomacy campaign, investing some $100 billion globally in support of ultra-conservative, anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of Islam. Pakistan’s history from the state’s creation in 1947 positioned it to be the foremost success story of the campaign that was designed to counter Iran’s revolutionary Islam.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, since coming to power in 2015, has sought to steer the kingdom away from its global support from ultra-conservatism by sharply reducing funding, liberalising some social mores at home and seeking to replace a religion-infused Saudi identity with one that emphasises nationalism.

However, Prince Mohammed has stopped short of putting into practice his promotion of religious tolerance and inter-faith dialogue by failing to legalise non-Muslim worship and the building of non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s renewed financial aid package throws Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan a temporary lifeline as he seeks to ensure continued support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for his country’s troubled economy.

Stabilising Pakistan’s finances and reforming its economy is, however, likely to prove an uphill battle without significantly upgrading the country’s education system and creating an environment that encourages creative and free thinking. Mr. Khan’s recent moves appear to be designed to achieve the exact opposite.

This week’s backtracking by the government on an agreement with militant Islamists who threatened to storm the capital, leading to violent clashes in which four police officers were killed and about 250 people wounded, may have laid down a temporary marker but the government’s inclinations are evident.

The initial agreement handed victory to the purportedly outlawed far-right group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) that has leveraged its self-declared position as a defender of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed to repeatedly persuade the government to meet its demands. The group uses mass protests that besiege Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, as its battering ram.

The religious cloak has turned the TLP into the Pakistani version of populist far-right movements and politicians in Europe and elsewhere. The “TLP has packaged this appeal as an unassailable religious tenet – but the white hot core of TLP is rage against the elites,” tweeted columnist Mosharraf Zaidi. He added that the group’s support was “anchored in real socioeconomic appeal.”

In the latest government cave-in, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed had agreed to release from prison members of the group, including those responsible for past killings of law enforcement personnel as well as its leader, Saad Rizvi, and unfreeze its bank accounts.

The only demand rejected by the government was that Pakistan should expel the French ambassador because of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in 2015 by a satiric magazine. Mr. Ahmed said the government would put the issue to parliament.

Militants attacked the magazine’s Paris offices in 2015 and killed 12 of the publication’s staff. The online Pakistan edition of Saudi Arabia’s Arab News appeared to be seeking to undermine anger at France by reporting that French companies wanted to invest in Pakistani tourism infrastructure despite the volatility in the country.

“It is not the job of the state to use the stick,” Mr. Rashid said in justifying the government’s initial surrender.

The government’s handling of the crisis, despite its reversal, was unlikely to inspire confidence in its ability to either reign in the Taliban in Afghanistan as demanded by Pakistan’s partners or properly counter money laundering and funding of militancy and political violence.

Pakistan has since 2018 been on the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, because it failed to meet the group’s standards.

With Mr. Khan’s government seeking to Islamicise Pakistani education and establish a body to monitor the curriculum, syllabi and social media for “blasphemous” content, columnist Zahid Hussain noted that “there seems to be little difference between the TLP’s religious extremism and the PTI government’s policy of encouraging religiosity,” Mr. Hussain was referring to Mr. Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.

Mr. Hussain went on to warn that the “government’s policy of appeasement has increased the terrorist threat to the country. Surrendering to terrorist groups will have very serious consequences for the country’s security and stability.”

With the Taliban installed in Kabul, that amounts to a field day for ultraconservatives whether they are jihadist or not.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Protest emerges as a mixed blessing for World Cup host Qatar

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Protest on the soccer pitch has proven to be a mixed blessing for World Cup host Qatar, exposing double standards in the Gulf state’s position as well as that of its critics.

Qatar embraced protest when it supported Qatari policies, such as the Gulf state’s increasingly assertive denunciation of double standards in Western criticism of discrimination against LGBT people or its refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in the absence of a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, protesters and foreign media quickly encountered the limits of Qatari tolerance and notions of freedom of expression when they touched on politically sensitive issues, ranging from support for LGBT rights to solidarity with demonstrators in Iran, who have defied a brutal crackdown by security forces in more than two months of anti-government manifestations.

As a result, the debate on double standards at times amounted to the kettle calling the pot black.

That is not to question the legitimacy of criticism levelled by Qatar and its critics at each other. However, it is to note that both parties’ credibility is in question because of their inconsistencies and failures to put their own houses in order.

“On one level, the World Cup is unfolding smoothly. On another, we go from crisis to crisis,” said a journalist covering the tournament for a major Western news organisation.

Photographers were often on the frontline as Qatari authorities stopped them from snapping pictures of security forces preventing fans from wearing clothing to matches or taking into stadiums paraphernalia that signalled support for Iranian protesters or LGBT rights.

‘The real test case will be when the United States plays Iran. That could be the crescendo in the clash over what protesters and media can and cannot do,” said another journalist.

The November 29 match is likely the World Cup’s most politically charged game, with talks to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme all but dead and Iraq-mediated negotiations with archrival Saudi Arabia suspended.

Iran accuses the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel of inciting the sustained anti-government protests.

The US Soccer Federation joined the fray with Iran ahead of the two nations’ World Cup match when it briefly displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, saying the move was in support of protesters in Iran.

Iran accused the federation of removing the name of God from their national flag and said it would complain to FIFA. However, US Soccer later restored the Islamic republic’s flag on social media.

Meanwhile, Qatari nationals, intending to protest against Western double standards in criticism of the Gulf state, didn’t encounter problems entering the stadium to watch Germany’s group stage match against Spain.

During the game, Qataris displayed pictures of former German national team player Mesut Özil, a German-born descendant of Turkish immigrants, while covering their mouths in protest against German double standards.

Mr. Özil quit the German team after becoming a target of racist abuse and a scapegoat for Germany’s early World Cup exit in 2018.

The Qatari demonstration was in response to Germany’s team covering their mouths at a group photo in advance of an earlier match against Japan in protest against FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s banning players from wearing One Love bands during games.

In the same vein, prominent Qataris wore pro-Palestinian armbands to the Germany Japan match to counter the pro-LGBT One Love band sported by German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser during the game.

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, signalled the Gulf state’s greater assertiveness in countering criticism when he lamented some three weeks before the kickoff of the World Cup that Qatar had been “subjected to an unprecedented campaign,” scrutiny, and scorn “that no host country has faced.”

In an indication that human rights, labour, and LGBT groups may be losing leverage, the emir said that “we initially dealt with the matter in good faith, and even considered some of criticism as positive and useful… (But) it soon became clear that the campaign tends to continue and expand to include fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”

The critics’ problem is their past failure to tackle with equal ferocity issues of human rights, prejudice, and bigotry in the run-up to the 2018 Russian World Cup, as well as to separate the wheat from the chafe by distancing themselves from criticism of Qatar that was laced with bias and racism.

In doing so, critics are as much their own worst enemy as they have been drivers of social change in Qatar.

By allowing Qatar to deflect criticism by calling into question critics’ credibility, activists have enabled the Gulf state to take its counteroffensive to the next level.

A week into the World Cup, Qatar was reviewing, according to the Financial Times, its substantial investments in London after the city’s transport authority suspended advertising from the Gulf state because of the controversies over worker and LGBT rights.

Qatari investments include London’s landmark Harrods department store; The Shard, an iconic 72-storey skyscraper; and Canary Wharf, part of the city’s central business district. Qatar also owns Chelsea Barracks, the Savoy and Grosvenor House hotels, 22 per cent of Sainsbury’s supermarkets, six per cent of Barclays bank, and 20 per cent of Heathrow airport.

“Countries like…Qatar…view their investments as strategic bribes to mute criticism and resist reforms,” said Radha Stirling, a London-based lawyer who represents expatriates in the Gulf who run into legal difficult

To be fair, Qatar was one of 11 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia that were banned in 2019 from advertising by Transport for London on the grounds of human rights violations. Nevertheless, the agency allowed some Qatari advertising promoting the Gulf state as a tourist destination until last week’s World Cup kickoff, when it decided to implement the ban fully.

Even so, the list reinforced the notion of double standards by failing to include China at the height of its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang; Russia that was annexing Ukrainian territory, repressing LGBT people, and attempting to assassinate its critics at home and abroad; and Israel with its increasingly racial policies towards Palestinians.

Qatar is likely to be the first of numerous rights-focussed Middle Eastern battlegrounds, with countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt hosting or preparing bids to host multiple major sporting events, including Asian Cup competitions, the 2030 World Cup, and the 2036 Summer Olympics.

The bids constitute a rich and legitimate hunting ground for human, worker, and LBGT rights activists. However, their effectiveness will, to a significant extent, depend on their ability to put their own house in order.

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Iran on the Threshold of Another Syrianization

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Image source: Wikipedia

In the last few years, a new word has been added to the political vocabulary “Syrianization”. This new word means turning a country into a land without a government, in the common sense of a burnt, lawless land, every part of which is under the control of an armed mafia group.

The leaders of the Islamic Republic, who are now shaken by the mass movement of the Iranian people, are warning to save themselves that Iran may also be destroyed. In other words, our choice is limited to living or half-living under the rule of jurisprudential tyranny or falling into the second Syria.

How did Syria become Syrian? In the beginning, nearly 12 years ago, a group of Syrian youths came to the street in Daraa city to protest the continued suffocation, the spread of unemployment and the darkness of their life horizons. This demonstration was completely peaceful. The protesters didn’t set fire to anything and didn’t shout any incendiary slogans. If Syria had a government in the conventional sense that day, the wise way to respond to these protests would be to send a delegation from the central government in Damascus to listen to the protesters and find ways to fulfill at least part of their demands.

But the government of Bashar al-Assad, the president, was not a normal government. This was a government monopolized by a military-security-commercial minority, which itself was a minority within the framework of the Nasiri religious minority, which is also a minority in Shia Gholat, which is also a minority in the Islamic religion. Thus, accepting the Daraa protesters as equal citizens was not acceptable for the minority in question. In the political sphere of Assad and his Baath Arab Socialist Party, the government commands and the people, who are degraded to the level of subjects, obey. In this world, the answer to protest is bullets or prison.

However, the bloodbath that occurred in the valley did not end the protests. Within a few days, the Syrian people’s movement reached Hama, Aleppo, Sweida and Damascus. This time, some prominent figures of the Baathist regime demanded a political response to the protests in secret meetings with the regime leaders. But a regime that knows nothing but lies and repression could not take advantage of the tools offered by politics to solve society’s problems and get out of crises.

At a critical stage in 2012, Bashar al-Assad thought to save the entire Baathist regime by leaving the scene. The mood of those days was described by Brigadier General Hossein Hamdani, one of the officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran who was sent to Syria, in a long conversation, a year before his death in Syria. According to Hamdani, they packed their bags to leave in Damascus because at that time a part of the Syrian army had broken away from the Assad regime and hoped to conquer the capital by establishing the “Free Syrian Army”.

Although it can be said that Hamedani has exaggerated the importance of Tehran’s involvement, there is no doubt that the message of the leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to Bashar al-Assad was not ineffective in changing the opinion of the dictator of Damascus to leave the scene. Khamenei’s message was simple: stay and resist! We give whatever you want!

In the decade since that day, the Islamic Republic has spent more than 20 billion dollars in Syria, according to experts’ estimates. Tehran has also created several military units to fight against the Syrian people and for the benefit of Bashar al-Assad: the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the Zainbiyoun Brigade, and the units of the Morteza Ali movement belong to this category. Along with them, units from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, another branch of Khamenei’s proxy forces, have also fought in Syria. Iranian “volunteers”, who are called “defenders of the shrine”, have also been and are present alongside Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani and Iraqi mercenaries.

To add to the chaos in the country, Assad released more than 20,000 imprisoned Islamic “terrorists” to open a new front against the freedom-loving protesters. It was these freed terrorists who quickly participated in the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). At the same time, Assad promised the more than 1.5 million Kurds who had lost their Syrian citizenship that he would restore full citizenship to them. In this way, a part of the Syrian Kurds under the influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose main base is in Turkey, entered the battle against the Syrian freedom groups.

But all these measures were unsuccessful in suppressing the Syrian people’s movement. In 2014, Tehran made contacts with Russia to push Vladimir Putin into war in Syria. These calls came to fruition and Putin assigned the Russian Air Force to suppress in Syria. The price of this service to Bashar al-Assad was a 45-year contract according to which Russia obtained an air-sea base on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean and was able to expand its military presence to that strategic sea for the first time after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Putin used the same tactic in Syria that he used in Chechnya: bombing cities across the country. Thus, Aleppo, the second most populated city in Syria, like Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, became a mountain of rubble.

Gradually, “Syrianization” was formed as a political-historical concept. Destruction means widespread devastation in a country where half of its population has either become displaced and refugees or has become homeless within its own land. “Syrianization” means maintaining control of a part of the capital and fighting with dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of other armed groups across the country to formally recognize a regime that no longer exists. “Syrianization” also has another meaning: the division of two facts of a country into the sphere of influence of several foreign powers. Right now, part of Syria is controlled by Turkey, while the other part is controlled by the United States under the guise of its Kurdish allies. A third part is controlled by Russia and the Islamic Republic has the fourth part in the desert bordering Iraq. The fifth sector is also dominated by Druze armed forces with the help of Jordan Hashemi. Bashar al-Assad and what he calls himself the Syrian government are displaying their shadow legitimacy in a sixth section in Damascus.

Thus, the joint plan of Bashar Assad, the Baath Party, part of the Nasiri (Alawi) minority, Ayatollah Khamenei, Major General Qassem Soleimani, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are being destroyed. But another actor has played a role in this ominous show: the leadership of the Syrian people’s protest movement. This leadership was never able to present a clear strategy to gain power. This leadership lured the Western powers with mouth-watering promises and thought it was done taking pictures with the French president and receiving a message from the US secretary of state – endless seminars in more than 30 capitals, from Tokyo to Ottawa, where the real political work is done and took the cities and villages of Syria. A group of exiled figures who had been around Syria for years suddenly came under the global spotlight as the future leaders of Syria. Their work was consecutive interviews with Western media, often in suites of 5-star hotels in Paris, London, New York, etc. It is interesting here that many of the leaders of the Baathist regime, who were cut off from Bashar al-Assad, joined this shaved leadership in order to compensate for their lost political virginity and to take a share if there is a reconciliation.

“Syrianization” should be considered a new type of tragedy-comedy of human societies in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of idealistic, sincere and selfless people come to the field to overthrow an autocratic, and corrupt system, hoping to build a free and law-based society and justice. But, in the end, they are reduced to the level of a tool for the profit of the alleged leaders on the one hand and the battle of foreign powers on the other.

“Syrianization” could not have become a reality without Bashar al-Assad, Ali Khamenei, Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and the ignorant or profit-seeking leaders of the popular movement. Today, Syria, this stateless land, is a breeding ground for the worst elements that threaten a modern society: various terrorists, looters, commercial and religious mafias and mercenaries. To rebuild this ruined country, more than three trillion dollars of capital is needed, a capital that will never be collected without the establishment of a government in its normal sense. In this way, Syria is faced with the question “came first the chicken or the egg”: capital comes first or the normal government?

Let’s go back to the propaganda of Khamenei and his accomplices about the “Syrianization” of Iran. At first glance, the presence of some agents of Syrianization, including Khamenei himself and his mentor, Putin, a part of the Revolutionary Guards and mercenaries of the Islamic Republic in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, makes the danger of Syrianizing Iran appear serious.

But several important factors, I think, protect Iran against the risk of becoming Syrian. The first factor is the deep roots of Iran as a nation. Before 1948, Syria never existed as an independent nation-state and was always a collection of ethnic, geographical and cultural entities within the framework of various empires from Chaldea and Assyria to Rome, Byzantium, Ottoman and finally, France. On the other hand, Iran has passed through the crucibles of the constitutional movement and has become familiar with the concept of freedom within the framework of the law during 150 years, although intermittently, before Ayatollah Khomeini took office. The role of the institution of the Kingdom of Iran in strengthening the national solidarity of Iranians cannot be ignored either.

Most importantly, the current movement of the Iranian people, unlike the protest movement of the Syrian people, which had a religious undertone – with the strong presence of the “Muslim Brotherhood” – does not have a religious or sectarian aspect, and is a movement that goes beyond religious, professional and ethnic concepts and demands a return to the path of constitutionalism. It means creating a society based on the law and serving the citizens. In recent months, the field leaders of this movement have displayed an encouraging maturity and political tact and have shown that, unlike the Syrian protesters, they are not waiting for a “green light” from Paris, London and Washington. Thus, those who want to help this movement must enter into the game with the conditions and regulations of this movement, not to impose their own conditions and regulations on it.

Today, Iran seeks to end the rule of Syria builders like Khamenei. Those who have played a role in Syrianizing Syria cannot scare us from becoming Syrian.

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The Qatar World Cup: Soccer upsets, politics, and sensitive situations

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Barely out of the starting blocks, the Qatar World Cup has already produced a fair share of upsets as well as politically and personally sensitive situations and incidents.

Qatar’s 2:0 loss to Ecuador in the tournament’s opening match will have reinforced critics’ conviction that the Gulf state should never have been awarded World Cup hosting rights, among other things, because of its alleged lack of a soccer legacy.

Leaving aside the merits of the allegation and Qatari disappointment, the jury remains out on what Qatar’s return on its massive investment in organising the World Cup will be regarding reputational capital.

For Qatar, the ultimate evaluation of the return will largely depend on how it manages the tournament and potential flare- and hick-ups as dissidents try to turn Iranian matches into venues of protest, activists seek to capitalise on the opportunity to campaign for their cause, and fans refuse to play to Qatari soft power objectives, let alone possible incidents of intoxication, rowdiness, and LGBT-related issues.

So far, the picture constitutes a mixed bag.

Addressing Iranian concerns, Qatar refused to accredit for the World Cup, Iran International, a Saudi-backed, London-based satellite television broadcaster, that the Islamic republic accuses of fomenting months-long anti-government protests that security forces have been unable to squash.

Similarly, to prevent matches from turning into platforms for protest, Qatar stopped Iranian fans from bringing Iran’s pre-revolutionary flag into the country’s first World Cup match against England.

The flag, dating from the time of the shah, toppled in the 1979 Islamic revolution, is viewed as a symbol of protest against Iran’s theocratic government.

That didn’t halt fans holding up signs in the stadium demanding freedom in Iran and pictures of demonstrators killed by security forces.

However, there was little Qatar could do when the Iranian national team refused to sing the country’s national anthem at the beginning of the game.

“I would like to express my condolences to all bereaved families in Iran. They should know that we are with them. And we support them. And we sympathize with them regarding the conditions,” the team’s captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, told journalists hours before the match.

While Qatar’s state-run domestic broadcaster avoided showing female supporters with their hair uncovered in the stadium, Iranian state television interrupted its live broadcast as the Iranian and Ecuadorian anthems were played.

For weeks, footballers have signalled support for the protesters by not celebrating Iranian League goals, wearing black wristbands, and expressing support for the Iranian people without mentioning the protests to evade government retaliation.

Nevertheless, current and former players have been questioned by authorities, detained, or charged with “acting against national security.”

The refusal to sing the national anthem and the team’s embarrassing 6:2 loss to England fed the Iranian government’s worst fear that the World Cup would turn out to be a global platform for dissent rather than a moment of unifying national celebration.

The national team was emboldened by their manager, Carlos Queiroz, who, breaking with FIFA’s fictional separation of politics and sport, insisted that “players are free to protest as they would if they were from any other country as long as it conforms with the World Cup regulations and is in the spirit of the game.”

Overall, Iran has lost in more ways than just on the pitch.

At the start of the year Iran, which sits across the Gulf, had hoped to attract World Cup tourists like the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman, and proposed the crafting of a joint tourism plan with Qatar. Tehran even agreed to forgo the visa requirement for World Cup visitors.

That hope was dashed by the anti-government protests, the failure to revive the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s inability to complete necessary infrastructure on its Kish Island.

The match against England could prove to have been a cakewalk compared to potential friction when Iran meets the United States on the Qatari pitch on November 29 in what is likely to be one of, if not the most politically charged match of the World Cup.

Similarly, Arab fans, reflecting sentiments among some Qataris, made clear that the World Cup would not be a bridge-building event, at least not when it came to relations with Israel and Israelis.

Arabs largely refused to be interviewed by Israeli media. Footage circulating online showed two Saudi fans, a Qatari shopper, and three Lebanese fans walking away from Israeli reporters in a demonstration of the limitations of soccer as a vehicle to build bridges. In another incident, Palestinians chanted “go home” when approached by Israeli reporters.

Qatari media published some videos of sharp encounters between Arab fans, Qatari nationals, and visiting Israelis with the caption: “No to normalization.”

“Sure, most countries in the Arab world are heading towards normalisation – but that’s because most of them don’t have rulers who listen to their people,” said Saudi football fan and oil worker Khaled al-Omri, who travelled to Qatar to support the kingdom’s national team.

The fans’ refusal to engage with Israeli reporters dashed hopes that ten Israeli charter flights ferrying up to 20,000 fans from the Jewish state to the World Cup, the first ever between Tel Aviv and Doha, would herald a new milestone in the normalisation of Arab-Israeli relations following the 2020 establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, has made the conversion of informal ties into formal relations conditional on a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Under FIFA rules, Qatar was obliged to grant entry to fans irrespective of whether the Gulf state recognizes the country issuing a supporter’s passport.

In line with the rules, authorities allowed Israeli channels to broadcast from Doha, but unlike other major foreign networks did not provide them with a formal studio.

Protest was not the preserve of Iranians and pro-Palestinian Arabs. Prominent Qataris made statement of their own by wearing a pro-Palestinian armband at the Germany-Japan match after being told that German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser would sport a One Love pro-LGBGT band.

Ironically, Ms. Faeser was sitting in the stadium’s VIP section next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who had just banned players from wearing the One Love band on the pitch in support of LGBT rights.

In response, Germany’s players covered their mouths for the team photo before their opener against Japan.

Mr. Infantino, unmoved by Ms. Faeser’s gesture, apparently saw no contradiction between his ban and FIFA’s opening days later of disciplinary proceedings against Ecuador over homophobic chanting by their fans in the match against Qatar.

Meanwhile, the Qataris had likely forgotten their loss in the euphoria sparked by Saudi Arabia’s 2:1 defeat of favourite Argentina 2:1 the first of two initial World Cup upsets.

“Looking forward to the Japan-Saudi final,” quipped Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer after Japan, in a second soccer upset, beat Germany 2:1.

The New York Times noted in a tweet that the Saudi upset put Argentinian player Lionel Messi, widely viewed as one of soccer history’s best players, in “a strange position” given his agreement to promote Saudi tourism and potentially the kingdom’s joint bid together with Egypt and Greece for the hosting of the 2030 World Cup.

Mr. Messi would potentially be campaigning against his home country, with Argentina planning a rival joint bid with Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile. So far, Spain, Portugal, and Ukraine are the only ones to announce their joint interest officially.

The tweet and a headline in The Athletic, a sports publication that was recently acquired by the Times that accused Mr. Messi of selling himself to the devil, sparked a furious tweet by Mohammed Alyahya, former editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya English.

Staggering racism. It implies Arabs are incompetent & can’t win. It accuses a Latino world hero of corruption. Messi is the greatest footballer today, wealthy & only concerned about legacy. But according to the NYT, he’s a venal traitor in a shady deal with rich Arabs. Shameful,” Mr. Alyahya said.

Contrasting the Saudi victory with the Iranian defeat, author Lee Smith opined:

“The people of the Middle East recognize a strong horse when they see one: That horse is clearly not Iran. By attempting to reenter the Iran deal, fill the regime’s war chests with billions of dollars, and legitimize its nuclear weapons program, the Biden administration is doing something even worse than backing sectarian tyrants who spread death and destruction. It’s backing losers.”

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