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Why Qatar Is Confident Iran Won’t Disrupt the FIFA World Cup

The soccer World Cup will spotlight a country that has adopted Western norms, maintained religious conservatism, drawn closer to both Israel and Iran – and commanded respect from larger powers

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A man carrying the national flag in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday.
A man carrying the national flag in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday.Credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has a lot to say about the world. “Since we won the honor of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced,” he told the country's Shura consultative assembly late last month.

We initially dealt with the matter in good faith, and even considered that some criticism was positive and useful, helping us to develop aspects of ours that need to be developed. But it soon became clear to us that the campaign continues, expands and includes fabrication and double standards, until it reached a level of ferocity that made many question, unfortunately, about the real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”

On Sunday, when the opening whistle of the soccer World Cup blows – and the small country's air-conditioned stadiums host hundreds of thousands of fans – Qatar will still have to address these accusations.

Players from many teams will be wearing rainbow ribbons to honor the LGBTQ community, while the Danish team's shirts will blur the logo of the manufacturer, which says thousands of workers have died to make the tournament happen. And in London and Paris there won't be any public screenings of the games.

Workers in Doha on Thursday.Credit: Mariana Suarez/AFP

Qatar may have pushed through a few labor laws that have improved the lives of foreign workers, paying substantial compensation to the families of workers who have died. But the damage has been done – and the circumstances surrounding the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar have stained both the country and FIFA for generations.

The hosting of the tournament is the peak of Qatar's campaign to bolster its image, which the country has been working on for over two decades. Unconfirmed estimates place Qatar’s investments in stadiums, roads, rail lines and hotels for about 1.5 million World Cup visitors at between $250 billion and $300 billion.

But this isn't an economic project – even though Qatar expects revenue of some $20 billion. The purpose is to make the country one of the world's most advanced nations. This is a translation of the worldview of Qatar’s previous ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani: Not only is an Arab Muslim country not necessarily anti-Western, it must import from Western culture without harming its own cultural, religious and ethnic foundations.

This view has made Qatar a country full of contradictions, at least in Western eyes. It's considered the world’s largest purchaser of Western art, long before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched his buying spree. American universities such as Northwestern, Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon have opened branches in the emirate, while international film festivals in its capital, Doha, have become a pilgrimage site for actors, directors and the entire industry.

Argentina fans playing soccer in Doha a few days before the World Cup.Credit: John Sibley/Reuters

At the same time, Sheikh Hamad is a friend of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he has founded institutions for religious study. And the country has no parliament or other democratic institutions based on the Western model, while the media is completely controlled by the ruling family.

But the Qatari royal family founded Al Jazeera, which led to a revolution in the Arab media, creating space for piercing criticism of other Arab regimes and setting an example for the many media companies established in its wake. But mostly, Al Jazeera has turned Qatar into a country that large countries must respect.

Characteristic contradictions

Qatar’s foreign policy is also racked by contradictions. Qatar was one of the first Arab countries to have diplomatic contacts with Israel; it even hosted a representative office – while still maintaining close relations with Iran. These ties with Tehran, which include running the Persian Gulf's largest natural gas field, haven't interfered with the United States' Al Udeid Air Base, its largest base in the Middle East.

Qatar’s “independence,” its refusal to accept Saudi dictates, and the “unruliness” of Al Jazeera that “harms Arab solidarity” – to quote Arab critics of the Qatari regime – led to the 2017 blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

The FIFA World Cup countdown clock in Qatar last month.Credit: Hamad I Mohammed

The damages were enormous, but Qatar didn't give in. Iran and Turkey both provided air corridors, and Qatar invested in factories for foods it had previously imported from the UAE. As a result, Qatari-Iranian relations grew so strong that Qatar helped in the Iranian nuclear talks last summer.

Relations with Turkey have graduated to a military alliance; the Turkish base in Qatar, which was established in 2015, is being expanded, with a military port opened, too. The two militaries have conducted joint exercises, and their governments have worked together in Libya against the separatist general Khalifa Hifter, who is supported by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

In the meantime, the Gulf has seen a diplomatic turnaround. In January 2021, under heavy American pressure, Saudi Arabia and the UAE lifted their boycott, with the Qataris committing not to act against the interests of countries in the region. Of the 13 demands made by the countries boycotting Qatar, including the demand to remove Turkey's military presence and at least downgrade ties with Iran, little remains.

Last year the UAE launched talks with Iran, and a year earlier it withdrew its troops from Yemen – the Houthi rebels' attacks on the UAE then stopped. In August this year, Iran and the UAE renewed diplomatic relations in a ceremony where the Emiratis declared a desire to increase trade with Iran to $20 billion a year.

The pressure from Washington to curb the operations of Iranian companies in the UAE didn't work. Earlier this week U.S. President Joe Biden imposed sanctions on two UAE companies because of their cooperation with an Iranian airline that shipped goods to Russia, including drones that Russia has used in Ukraine.

The Doha skyline on Thursday.Credit: Marko Djurica/Reuters

Complicated relations

So now, Israel’s UAE ally that bought military equipment and technology for billions of dollars, and imposed an economic blockade on Qatar because of its ties with Tehran, is also a key trading partner of Iran and a collaborator with Russia.

With Iraqi mediation, Saudi Arabia has also conducted five rounds of talks with Iran this year, with the goal of renewing ties. The negotiations may have stalled two months ago, but the two countries have said they'll try again. Riyadh's relations with Washington have once again run aground after the Saudis cut oil-production quotas, buoying prices – despite requests from the United States.

Not much is left of the Arab-Israeli-American coalition against Iran. And in March, Washington awarded Qatar – which Israel has labeled a supporter of terrorism because of its support for Hamas – the status of strategic ally. In fact, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due in Qatar next week to watch the Americans' soccer game against Wales – and to meet with Qatari leaders.

The emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in Tehran in 2020.Credit: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/AP

Amid all these changes, it was hard to understand the explanation that the Iranian drone attack on an oil tanker linked to an Israeli billionaire was designed to disrupt the World Cup, deter Israeli fans from flying to Qatar and/or threaten the Gulf states that have signed peace deals with Israel. Interestingly, Iran attacked the ship far from Qatar and UAE ports, even though Iran had an abundance of opportunities to attack closer.

It seems the choice of a place 250 kilometers [155 miles] from the port in Oman was intended to prevent the appearance that Iran was threatening its neighbors. The common view is that Tehran is trying to forge a maritime balance of deterrence against Israel to counter the Israeli attacks in Syria. Iran's capacity to respond from Syrian territory has been greatly restricted by the Assad regime and Russia, which continues to award Israel a free hand in Syria's skies.

But Iran’s room for operations in the Persian Gulf is shrinking too because of the damage that Iranian strikes could cause the Gulf states that are strengthening their ties with Tehran.

Iran has no interest in disrupting the World Cup, even if Qatar is hosting thousands of Israeli soccer fans. In general, if countries have diplomatic ties with Israel, that doesn't mar Iran's own ties with those countries.

Iran has never demanded that Turkey sever relations with Israel, and it hasn't made its renewal of relations with the UAE conditional on the revocation of the Abraham Accords. And if Qatar established diplomatic relations with Israel, Iran might condemn this, but it wouldn't lead to a crisis with Qatar.

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