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

  • Iran is a highlight reel for both pro- and anti-government audiences.
  • Emir Tamim carries the Saudi flag at the Argentina game.
  • Qatar allows Israeli fans to attend the cup.
  • Doha hopes a smooth cup will boost its global influence.

Doha Nov 28 (Reuters) – The first World Cup in the Middle East is set to cut across political tensions in one of the world’s most volatile regions and host Qatar’s often ambiguous role in the crisis.

Iran’s matches are some of the most politically charged, with fans cheering on protesters who are daringly challenging the script at home. They have also demonstrated diplomatic sensitivity for Qatar, which has good relations with Tehran.

Sympathy among pro-Palestinian fans spilled into the stadiums as the four Arab teams competed. Qatari players wore pro-Palestinian armbands and Qatar allowed Israeli fans to fly in for the first time.

Even the emirate of Qatar took part in the politically significant act, wearing the Saudi flag during the historic defeat to Argentina in a show of support for the country, which has been mending relations strained by regional tensions.

The gestures add to the political dimension of a race even before starting on migrant workers and LGBT+ rights in the conservative host country, where homosexuality is illegal.

The stakes are high for Qatar, which has remained independent since 1971 despite a series of regional upheavals, hoping for a smooth race on the world stage and in the Middle East.

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Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup, has previously had some trade ties with Israel, despite hosting the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have given a platform to the Islamist opposition, which it considers a threat. Befriending Riyadh’s enemy Iran, it hosts the largest US military base in the region.

‘Internal Conflict’

Tensions flared in Iran after more than two months of protests after he was arrested for violating strict dress codes, both inside and outside the stadium.

“We wanted to come to the World Cup to support the people of Iran because we knew it would be a good opportunity for them to speak,” said Shayan Khosravani, a 30-year-old Iranian-American fan who was planning to visit family. After Iran attended the Games, the program was canceled due to protests.

But some say stadium security stopped the protests from showing support. During Iran’s game against Wales on November 25, security officers shouted at fans wearing Iranian pre-revolutionary flags and t-shirts saying, “Women! age freedom Freedom” and the slogan “Masa Amini” were refused entry.

After the match, there were tensions at the ground between opponents and supporters of the Iranian government.

Two fans, who have argued about stadium security at separate times over the seizures, told Reuters that Qatar’s policy on relations with Iran is one they trust.

“After the recent political tensions in the country, additional security measures have been put in place for Iran-related matches,” a Qatari official told Reuters.

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When asked about the confiscated items or detained fans, a spokesman for the central organizing committee referred Reuters to FIFA and Qatar’s list of banned items. They block content with “political, offensive or discriminatory messages”.

Controversy also swirled around the Iranian team, which showed its support for the protests by refraining from singing the national anthem in its first game, only to sing it quietly before the second game.

Quemars Ahmed, a 30-year-old lawyer from Los Angeles, told Reuters that fans of Iran were struggling with an “inner conflict”: “Do you root for Iran? Do you root for the government? Do you stay silent on the protests?”

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

The event only added to the tournament’s importance for Iran, with writers leaders long declaring Washington “the Great Satan” and accusing it of fueling the current unrest.

A ‘proud’ statement

Palestinian flags are regularly seen in stadiums and fan zones, and are sold in shops despite the national team not qualifying.

Tunisian fans displayed a large “Free Palestine” banner during the game against Australia on November 26, a move that was not inspired by the organizers. Arab audiences shunned Israeli journalists reporting from Qatar.

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Omar Barakat, coach of the Palestinian national football team, who is in Doha for the World Cup, said his flag was carried non-stop at matches. “It’s a political statement and we’re proud of it,” he said.

While tensions have surfaced at some of the games, the tournament has provided the stage for some notable acts of reconciliation, with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani wrapping a Saudi flag around his neck during the Nov. 22 game in Argentina.

Saudi Arabia United Arab Emirates Qatar’s relations with Bahrain and Egypt have been strained for years due to Doha’s regional policies, including support for Islamist groups during the Arab Spring uprisings from 2011.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at an opening ceremony in Doha on November 20, in an act of reconciliation between countries whose relations have been rocked by the Arab Spring.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a political scientist at Rice University’s Baker Institute in the United States, said: “The decades after the Arab Spring have been complicated by geopolitical rivalries.”

Qatari authorities have had to tread a fine balance against Iran and Palestine, he said, but ultimately the contest has placed Qatar once again at the center of regional diplomacy.

Reporting by Maya Gebeily and Charlotte Bruneau; Written by Maya Gebeily and Tom Perry. Edited by William Maclean.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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