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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.”

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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MBS policies: Are a threat to the Washington-led Global Order or not?

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In this photo released by Saudi Press Agency (SPA), Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, greets President Joe Biden, with a fist bump after his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 15, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Amid the Ukraine crisis, Riyadh’s policy towards Washington took a bitter shift. The years-long loyalty of Riyadh towards Washington began to tremble. The Riyadh did not condemn Moscow’s attack on Kyiv, nor it fulfilled the Washington’s expectations by refusing to OPEC Plus’ decision of not increasing the oil production. Whether Moscow’s valiant attempt of opening war against Kyiv, against the will of Washington and NATO, inspired the KSA to take an unpredictable position or Riyadh’s policy shift is owing to its economic and strategic interests, it is quite debatable. This shift not only triggered the minds of researchers worldwide but also caused Biden’s eyebrows to rise. In addition, Riyadh also showed its willingness to join BRICS. In case, Riyadh joins BRICS to ensure its economic and strategic interests; it will challenge the supremacy of petro-dollar, as Saudi Arabia is one of the largest oil exporters. As a whole, it will affect US economy drastically, hence posing serious threats to the Washington-led Global Order.

The wake of the Ukraine war wreaked havoc throughout the globe by destabilizing the global economy. Moreover, this eruption of the conflict increased food and energy insecurity vertically and horizontally. Being a global leader, Washington stepped forward to discourage Moscow and compelled it to withdraw its troops from Kyiv. As a result, Moscow decided to cut off the energy supply to the west. This was just an initiation of the devastation. The clash of interests between Moscow and Washington led to the American use of so-called institutional power, freezing Moscow’s assets. Contrarily, Moscow’s denial to supply energy gave rise to energy insecurity caused by the rising oil and gas prices. Following the primacy doctrine, the global hegemon America took the responsibility to curb this energy insecurity leading to global economic instability. Continuing the long tradition, Washington intended to exercise the influence on the Middle Eastern partners KSA and UAE to supply the energy resources abundantly to fill the energy supply and demand gap.

This time the results were unpredictable, as both of these states defied to enhance their energy production. The unprecedented stance of the Saudi Monarch was to comply with OPEC Plus’ decision to decrease production and increase the prices of energy products. This denial of Riyadh was taken as a serious gesture by Washington. It was perceived that Riyadh’s refusal was a gesture for having goodwill for Russia, consequently creating the situation of “Either you are with us or against us.” In other terms, we may conclude that it was a shift in loyalties.

The whole debate revolves around the question, “Whether Riyadh’s policy has strength to shake the foundations of prevailing Washington led global order or not?” Is the global order a volatile structure to be transformed so easily just by shifting a policy of one state, or does this policy shift have some potential challenges? Before directly coming to the horror impacts of this policy, we should better discuss the worth of energy security and its irrefutable importance for the stable global economic system. If the fuel prices aren’t lowered, it will halt or lower the industrial processes of major industrialized states, including the U.S., consequently drastically affecting the states’ GDP and Per capita income. The vulnerabilities in economic position will surely lead to chaos and internal instability.  

The other facet of this debate, “Whether Riyadh is shifting towards Russia or not? Is Russia capable enough to serve the strategic interests of Riyadh? If not, then what does this policy shift mean?” The ultimate strategic interests of Riyadh always centered on attaining regional hegemony by countering Tehran. At the same time, Moscow is already enjoying better diplomatic ties with Tehran. Moscow will adopt a balanced approach between Riyadh and Tehran. Contrarily, there may be some possibilities of extension of this Riyadh-Moscow cooperation from energy to Economic and military cooperation because Russia is capable of providing the defense technology to Riyadh but unable to provide security in the region. Most importantly, Washington’s institutional hold can be used against Riyadh. These threats still can restrict Riyadh from standing up with Moscow. 

The other important frontier of this debate is KSA’s willingness to join BRICS. As the world’s largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia has played a central role in the Petrodollar system. The country has used its vast oil reserves to maintain a strong influence on the global economy and has largely adhered to the practice of only selling oil in exchange for U.S. dollars. This has helped to ensure the continued global demand for U.S. dollars and has contributed to the dollar’s status as the dominant global currency. One potential outcome is that Saudi Arabia and other BRICS countries could agree to use a different currency for oil trade, such as the Chinese yuan or a new currency specifically for use by BRICS countries. This could lead to a decrease in global demand for U.S. dollars and potentially negatively affect the U.S. economy.

Saudi Arabia’s recent policy shift towards BRICS and Russia has raised questions about the stability of the current global order, particularly about the stability of Petro-dollars and global energy security. While it is debatable whether the shift is motivated by economic or strategic interests, it is clear that this move is a serious concern for the United States and has the potential to impact the contemporary Washington-led global order significantly. It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia will follow through with its potential decision to join the BRICS group and how this will affect its relationships with other countries, particularly Russia and the United States. In a nutshell, major global order changes are expected to occur if Saudi Arabia joins BRICS because it will affect the supremacy of Petro-dollars and consequently lead to the decline in U.S. economic power.

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China’s role to make FIFA 2022 Successful

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Image source: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera

Argentina won the World cup in FIFA Football World Cup held on 20 November – 18 December 2022, in Doha Qatar. FIFA 2022 attracted global attention and since the beginning Foot Ball lovers spared time, either to travel to Qatar and watch the matches or sit in front of TVs and watch live transmission. Big LED screens were used to attract Foot Ball Lovers worldwide. It was really a festival mode in many countries. Analysis, Debates, and Arguments also took place, regarding the expected Champion. French was pretty sure to retain its previous title “World Champion” which they got in FIFA 2018, held in Russia. Brazil, Germany, Argentina, and many other nations were keeping high expectations. Even, though some were guessing that Morocco to be World Champion, strong arguments were given that in FIFA 2018, actually, the French team consisted of many Morocco-origin players, with very few original French. As a matter of fact, France has attracted good players from its former colonies and offered them immigration, and used them in FIFA 2018, to win the Championship. There was certainly a strong argument that if Moroccan can make France World Champion, they can also possess the potential to become World Champions.

The FIFA World Cup, often simply called the World Cup, is an international association football competition contested by the senior men’s national teams of the members of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport’s global governing body. The tournament has been held every four years since the inaugural tournament in 1930, except in 1942 and 1946 when it was not held because of the Second World War. The reigning champions are Argentina, who won their third title at the 2022 tournament. But the history goes back to Prior to the Lipton competition, from 1876 to 1904, games that were considered the “football world championship” were meetings between leading English and Scottish clubs, such as the 1895 game between Sunderland A.F.C. and the Heart of Midlothian F.C., which Sunderland won.

The World Cup is the most prestigious association football tournament in the world, as well as the most widely viewed and followed single sporting event in the world. The viewership of the 2018 World Cup was estimated to be 3.57 billion with an estimated 1.12 billion people watching the final match.

Seventeen countries have hosted the World Cup, most recently Qatar, which hosted the 2022 edition. The 2026 tournament will be jointly hosted by Canada, the United States, and Mexico, which will give Mexico the distinction of being the first country to host games in three World Cups.

It was a matter of great prestige and honor for Qatar to host FIFA 2022. It is the first World Cup held in the Arab world and Muslim world, and the second held entirely in Asia after the 2002 tournament in South Korea and Japan.

In 2010, the State of Qatar, having been awarded the rights to host the FIFA 2022 World Cup, embarked on remarkable projects in different fields to meet the expectations outlined in the bid document. It is worth mentioning that Qatar has a population of around 3 million and almost 1.5 million people from all over the world have visited FIFA 2022. A country’s preparations to host an international sporting event need serious consideration. Many aspects must have taken care of including but not limited to changing existing legislation, building infrastructure, workers’ rights and immigration, sponsorships, consumer protection, tourism, free trade, intellectual property (IP) rights, accessibility to stadia, taxation, counterfeiting, gambling, betting, to name but a few. Any country has to meet FIFA’s standards to host such an event. Qatar has the option of introducing new laws, amending existing legislation, and have concluded mutually beneficial bilateral agreements with FIFA. Qatar has directly employed more than 26,000 people to prepare the stadiums only. It is pertinent to note that in the wave of massive infrastructural developments legislation was not left out. Countries such as Russia and South Africa enacted new laws to meet FIFA’s standards and Qatar has also done similar measures to satisfy FIFA Organizing Committee.

The successful hosting of FIFA 2022, has projected and elevated Qatar in the global community, especially in the region. Direct and indirect, tangible and intangible impact of such a mega event will elevate Qatar’s stature and benefit its reparation in the days to come.

However, China was behind the success story as there were 10 ways in which China quietly worked behind the scenes at the Qatar World Cup:-

  • World cup buildings got green electricity from a next-generation power station that harvests only solar energy, built by the Power Construction Corporation of China.
  • People were taken where they need to go in a fleet of 888 fully electric buses, made by Yutong Bus, a Chinese firm that has quietly become, as far as I can tell, the world’s biggest bus maker.
  • The main stadium was built by China Railway Construction Corporation: a firm that pops up in Africa and Europe and around the planet, known for its extraordinary ability to create infrastructure in difficult environments.
  • What’s a sporting event without souvenir merchandise? It’s estimated that almost 70 percent of World Cup-related goods, from footballs to flags to jerseys to whistles, came from a single location in China, a southeastern city called Yiwu.
  • A purpose-built extra-large reservoir provided clean drinking water for sports people and fans. It was constructed by the Gezhouba Group, from Wuhan.
  • The stadium-building operations needed huge amounts of heavy equipment, from massive earth movers to cranes – nearly 100 of these were supplied by China’s Sany Heavy Industry, one of the world’s biggest construction firms.
  • The most innovative venue was Qatar’s Stadium 974, which can be disassembled and reassembled anywhere. Designed by a Spanish architect, the 974 building blocks were made by China International Marine Containers.
  • Notice all the LED floodlights everywhere? They came from the Unilumin Group of China.
  • Most people say air conditioners are a must for survival in that environment – and China’s Midea Co supplied 2,500 air cons for the event.
  • Last but not least, this was the most expensive sporting event in world history and needed a lot of support from businesses.
  • Nineteen China firms signed up to sponsor the event.

Definitely, credit goes to China too.

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The Chinese maritime theory of linking and networking the five seas in the Middle East

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What mattered most to China regarding its three joint summits at the end of December 2022 with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and the region, was the deepening of Chinese influence and maritime cooperation, especially with regard to the maritime side, and the emphasis of Chinese think tanks and research on the need for the success of the idea (connecting or networking the five seas in the region), namely are:

(The Mediterranean, Black, Caspian, Persian Gulf and Red Sea)

 And that is with all that it entails politically, economically and socially to unify the efforts of the countries of these seas and achieve their interests, and thus confront the American and Israeli project that aims to fragment the region.

  In this context, the Chinese White Papers document on defense, issued by the Politburo of the ruling Communist Party of China in 2013, stressed the need to develop the “Chinese naval fleet” in order to “defend the near sea and protect the distant seas”.  China’s establishment of a Chinese military base outside its borders for the first time in the state of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, as well as the militarization of the Pakistani port of Gwadar, contributes to the growth of China’s military presence near important sea lanes in the region and the Arabian Gulf, especially in the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab, and nearby  From the Arabian Gulf region.

  The Chinese-Saudi-Gulf summit comes with the expansion of China’s involvement in the Middle East region economically and diplomatically, and China’s attempt to deepen security cooperation.

 Likewise, with China and its intellectual and research centers officially announcing in August 2019, regarding China’s intention to participate in a Gulf maritime security alliance, the beginning of Chinese thinking about a deeper level of military participation in the Middle East.

 Chinese analysts believe that the alliance between China, Russia, the countries of the region, the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in the face of the United States of America is getting stronger and more solid due to the impact of a “cold war” between the West and China, especially with the confirmation of Chinese Foreign Minister “Wang Yi” after the success of his tour in the Middle East.  Clear signs that China intends to shift to play a pivotal role in the affairs of the region.

  We cannot fail to emphasize the “Chinese approach to the Palestinian cause”, and its desire to play a pivotal role in that issue, and it is clear that China is launching something like a counter-diplomatic attack to penetrate the ranks of the allied countries of the United States of America in the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, in addition to China’s attempt to form political alliances.  New ones to restrict US alliances in China’s regional and geopolitical strategic scope, such as the Okus nuclear defense agreement between Washington, Australia and Britain, and the Quad Quadruple agreement between the United States of America, India, Australia and Japan, to form a kind of bipolarity between China and Russia in the face of the United States of America.  We find that after the Corona pandemic, the world officially entered the second Cold War, this time between the West and China.

Accordingly, the future US policy in the Middle East is linked to what will be the Chinese behavior in the region.  With China’s attempt to rush to play new security roles, and seek hegemony in the Middle East and North Africa region.

 Likewise, China’s desire to strengthen the security and military aspect of its relations with the countries of the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, by strengthening military cooperation and joint military exercises, and cooperation in combating terrorism, through comprehensive measures to address its roots.  In addition to the Chinese desire to cooperate with countries in the region to confront what is known as non-traditional security threats, such as supporting the region’s efforts to combat piracy, continuing to send warships to the Gulf of Aden and the coast of Somalia to maintain international maritime security, and cooperation in the field of cybersecurity.

  Therefore, the importance of these three joint Chinese-Gulf-Saudi summits is to greatly enhance China’s partnerships, economically, politically and commercially, with the countries of the region, especially in the Gulf region.  Therefore, China today is emerging as a central player through direct investments, partnerships, trade and development.

  Perhaps in the future, China will intervene militarily, or seek to have a security footprint in the region, as it did in the Horn of Africa through its military base in Djibouti.

   Also, given the American influence in the Arab Gulf region, Beijing may change its security policies in the region, if Washington tries to obstruct the flow of oil to China, especially in the event that Chinese energy security or vital shipping lanes used by China are threatened, China may have to expand  Its military naval presence in the Indian Ocean near the Persian Gulf.

  Accordingly, the declared clear Chinese strategy has become to transfer the arena of competition with the United States of America to the Middle East and Africa, in order to avoid strategic competition with Washington and its allies in its immediate regional neighborhood.  By analogy, the expansion of Chinese influence in the Middle East region is a challenge to the existing American hegemony.

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