JAMES M DORSEY ANALYSIS —- Gulf football soccer may be giving Bob Dylan’s 1964 hit, ‘The Times They Are a-Changin,’ a new lease on life.
Qatar surrendered its Arabian Gulf Cup hosting rights to Kuwait two years ago, months into the United Arab Emirates-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of the Gulf state, after the boycotting countries said they would not participate in a Doha-hosted tournament.
The boycott remains in place more than two years later but this time round squads from the boycotting countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, have no problem competing in this year’s Gulf Cup in Qatar.
The decision not to boycott is the latest indication that Gulf states may be gradually moving to a reduction of tensions that have divided the region’s conservative energy-rich monarchies, raised the stakes in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and sparked a devastating Saudi-UAE military intervention in Yemen’s civil war.
The decision also bodes well for Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup irrespective of whether Gulf states can resolve their differences before that tournament kicks off. If Dylan’s changing times portend well on the region’s monarchical pitches, they could prove more divisive on its republican fields.
Iraqi anti-government activists hope that the World Cup qualifier between Iran and Iraq will blow new life into mass protests that denounced Iranian influence in their country and the government’s perceived prioritization of Iranian over Iraqi interests.
Protesters blamed Iran and its Iraqi proxies for the harsh response by security forces that has cost the lives of more than 300 people. The protests persuaded world body FIFA to move the match from the southern Iraqi port city of Basra to the Jordanian capital Amman.
“If our team beats Iran, it will bring more people out onto the streets and lift protesters’ spirits,” said fan Hussein Diaa as he kicked a ball on Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, a focal point of the protests.
One indication of the degree to which a thaw in relations between Gulf monarchies may be on the horizon, is likely to be the way the squads of the boycotting nations handle themselves during the Gulf Cup.
The Saudi and Emirati teams refused to participate in a news conference in Kuwait two years ago because one of the microphones in front of them belonged to BeIN, the Qatari sports television network; pro-Qatari and Spanish media reported at the time that Saudi Arabia had offered Bahraini players bonuses if they “defeated the (Qatari) terrorists”.
The boycotting countries accuse Qatar of supporting militants and political violence, a charge Qatar has consistently denied. They also demanded that Qatar distance itself from Iran, with whom it shares the world’s largest natural gas field.
The decision to participate in the Qatari tournament came days after UAE minister of state for foreign affairs Anwar Gargash called for a diplomatic resolution to the dispute with the Islamic republic, suggesting that “there could be a path to a deal with Iran that all parties might soon be ready to embark on.”
Gargash’s remarks followed moves by the UAE to dial down tension in its relations with Iran that included reducing the UAE’s military role in Yemen and visits to Iran by UAE officials to discuss the regional dispute as well as maritime security.
Similarly, a Saudi official, in a rare gesture, told reporters in Washington earlier this month that Qatar had taken a step towards resolving the crisis by passing an anti-terrorism funding law, a key demand of the boycotting countries but needed to do more.
Saudi Arabia, in a further indication that regional players were seeking to ensure that tensions don’t spin out of control, has scaled back its military operations in the 4.5-year long Yemen war after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels stopped firing ballistic missiles into the kingdom, the official added.
Resolving the Gulf’s monarchical spat may prove easier than addressing differences with Iran over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its support for militants in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The spat has endured for the past 2.5 years because feuding parties appeared unwilling to back away from maximalist positions and search for what would amount to a face-saving formula that would allow for a restoration of diplomatic and economic relations.
If the Gulf Cup is anything to go by, that may be changing. By the same token, the Iraqi-Iranian soccer clash is likely to highlight the greater complexity involved in managing the Saudi-Iranian rift and the who-blinks-first problem against the backdrop of the US withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program and harsh economic sanctions since imposed by the United States.
Iran has in recent months progressively reduced its adherence to the agreement in a bid to heighten tension to the point that it forces a breaking of the stalemate; pressure the accord’s other signatories, the European Union, China and Russia to provide the sanctions relief Iran needs; and force the Trump administration to return to the accord before it is renegotiated.
Ironically, Gulf states that have gone to great length over the past decade to pre-empt popular revolts or limit, if not reverse their achievements, see a silver lining in the mass anti-government protests in Iraq and Lebanon because they target the foundations of Iranian influence in those two countries.
As a result, Gulf rulers may be rooting for Iraq in this week’s soccer match against Iran, and not just because Iraq is predominantly Arab, and Iran is not.
Yet, unlike the Gulf Cup that could prove to be an initial node in resolving a debilitating dispute, the Iran-Iraq World Cup qualifier’s possible heightening of tensions risks reaffirming the Marxist principle that things have to get worse before they get better. Indeed, ‘the times they are a changin,’ but reaping the benefits could prove to be a torturous process.
Dr James M Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture