Analysis: At Qatar World Cup, Mideast tensions spill into stadiums

[Produced with Reuters colleague Charlotte Bruneau and published here on November 28, 2022]

DOHA, Nov 28 (Reuters) – The first World Cup in the Middle East has become a showcase for the political tensions crisscrossing one of the world’s most volatile regions and the ambiguous role often played by host nation Qatar in its crises.

Iran’s matches have been the most politically charged as fans voice support for protesters who have been boldly challenging the clerical leadership at home. They have also proved diplomatically sensitive for Qatar which has good ties to Tehran.

Pro-Palestinian sympathies among fans have also spilt into stadiums as four Arab teams compete. Qatari players have worn pro-Palestinian arm-bands, even as Qatar has allowed Israeli fans to fly in directly for the first time.

Even the Qatari Emir has engaged in politically significant acts, donning a Saudi flag during its historic defeat of Argentina – notable support for a country with which he has been mending ties strained by regional tensions.

Such gestures have added to the political dimensions of a tournament mired in controversy even before kickoff over the treatment of migrant workers and LGBT+ rights in the conservative host country, where homosexuality is illegal.

The stakes are high for Qatar, which hopes a smooth tournament will cement its role on the global stage and in the Middle East, where it has survived as an independent state since 1971 despite numerous regional upheavals.

The first Middle Eastern nation to host the World Cup, Qatar has often seemed a regional maverick: it hosts the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas but has also previously had some trade relations with Israel.

It has given a platform to Islamist dissidents deemed a threat by Saudi Arabia and its allies, while befriending Riyadh’s foe Iran – and hosting the largest U.S. military base in the region.

AN ‘INNER CONFLICT’

Tensions in Iran, swept by more than two months of protests ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for flouting strict dress codes, have been reflected inside and outside the stadiums.

“We wanted to come to the World Cup to support the people of Iran because we know it’s a great opportunity to speak for them,” said Shayan Khosravani, a 30-year-old Iranian-American fan who had been intending to visit family in Iran after attending the games but cancelled that plan due to the protests.

But some say stadium security have stopped them from showing their backing for the protests. At Iran’s Nov. 25 match against Wales, security denied entry to fans carrying Iran’s pre-Revolution flag and T-shirts with the protest slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom” and “Mahsa Amini”.

After the game, there was tension outside the ground between opponents and supporters of the Iranian government.

Two fans who argued with stadium security on separate occasions over the confiscations told Reuters they believed that policy stemmed from Qatar’s ties with Iran.

A Qatari official told Reuters that “additional security measures have been put in place during matches involving Iran following the recent political tensions in the country.”

When asked about confiscated material or detained fans, a spokesperson for the organising supreme committee referred Reuters to FIFA and Qatar’s list of prohibited items. They ban items with “political, offensive, or discriminatory messages”.

Controversy has also swirled around the Iranian team, which was widely seen to show support for the protests in its first game by refraining from singing the national anthem, only to sing it – if quietly – ahead of its second match.

Quemars Ahmed, a 30-year-old lawyer from Los Angeles, told Reuters Iranian fans were struggling with an “inner conflict”: “Do you root for Iran? Are you rooting for the regime and the way protests have been silenced?”

Ahead of a decisive U.S.-Iran match on Tuesday, the U.S. Soccer Federation temporarily displayed Iran’s national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic in solidarity with protesters in Iran.

The match only added to the tournament’s significance for Iran, where the clerical leadership has long declared Washington the “The Great Satan” and accuses it of fomenting current unrest.

A ‘PROUD’ STATEMENT

Palestinian flags, meanwhile, are regularly seen at stadiums and fan zones and have sold out at shops – even though the national team didn’t qualify.

Tunisian supporters at their Nov. 26 match against Australia unfurled a massive “Free Palestine” banner, a move that did not appear to elicit action from organisers. Arab fans have shunned Israeli journalists reporting from Qatar.

Omar Barakat, a soccer coach for the Palestinian national team who was in Doha for the World Cup, said he had carried his flag into matches without being stopped. “It is a political statement and we’re proud of it,” he said.

While tensions have surfaced at some games, the tournament has also provided a stage for some apparent reconciliatory actions, such as when Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani wrapped the Saudi flag around his neck at the Nov. 22 Argentina match.

Qatar’s ties with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt were put on ice for years over Doha’s regional policies, including supporting Islamist groups during the Arab Spring uprisings from 2011.

In another act of reconciliation between states whose ties were shaken by the Arab Spring, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shook hands with Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the opening ceremony in Doha on Nov. 20.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a political scientist at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States said the lead-up to the tournament had been “complicated by the decade of geopolitical rivalries that followed the Arab Spring”.

Qatari authorities have had to “tread a fine balance” over Iran and Palestine but, in the end, the tournament “once again puts Qatar at the center of regional diplomacy,” he said.

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