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

  • The Iran Games are a flashpoint for pro- and anti-government fans.
  • Amir Tamim wore the Saudi flag in the Argentina match
  • Qatar allowed Israeli fans to attend the cup.
  • Doha hopes the Smooth Cup will boost global influence.

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

Iran’s matches have been the most politically charged as fans have supported protesters who are boldly challenging the religious leadership at home. He has also proved diplomatically sensitive to Qatar, which has good relations with Tehran.

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

Even the Qatari emir has engaged in politically significant actions, donating the Saudi flag during Argentina’s historic defeat – a notable support for a country with which he has improved relations strained by regional tensions. Is.

Such gestures have added to the political dimensions of a tournament already mired in controversy 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 globally and in the Middle East, where it has survived as an independent state since 1971 despite several regional upheavals. .

The first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup, Qatar is often seen as a regional straggler: it hosts the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas but has previously had some trade ties with Israel.

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It has given a platform to Islamist dissidents seen as 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 ‘Internal Conflict’

Tensions in Iran, fueled by more than two months of protests after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for violating a strict dress code, are reflected inside and outside the stadium.

“We wanted to come to the World Cup to support the people of Iran because we know it’s a great opportunity for them to speak,” said Iranian-American fan Shayan Khosravani, 30, who was visiting his family. were intending After Iran participated in the Games, it canceled the plan due to protests.

But some say stadium security has prevented them from supporting the protests. At Iran’s November 25 match against Wales, security denied entry to fans carrying Iran’s pre-revolutionary flag and T-shirts with the protest slogans “Women, Life, Freedom” and ” Mohsah Amini.

After the game, tensions arose outside the ground between opponents and supporters of the Iranian government.

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

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“Additional security measures have been taken during matches with Iran following recent political tensions in the country,” a Qatari official told Reuters.

When asked about confiscated materials or the detention of fans, a spokesman for the Organizing Supreme Committee referred to Reuters to FIFA and Qatar’s list of banned items. They ban items with “political, offensive, or discriminatory messages.”

Controversy has also surrounded the Iranian team, which was widely seen as supporting protests by refraining from singing the national anthem in its first match, only to sing it – if quietly – before its second match. .

Qamarz Ahmad, a 30-year-old lawyer from Los Angeles, told Reuters that Iranian fans were struggling with an “internal conflict”: “Are you rooting for Iran? Are you rooting for the government and what? How has the protest been silenced?”

Ahead of Tuesday’s decisive match between the United States and Iran, the U.S. Soccer Federation temporarily displayed Iran’s national flag without the Islamic Republic’s insignia on social media to show solidarity with protesters in Iran.

The match added to the tournament’s significance for Iran, where the religious leadership has long branded Washington the “Great Satan” and blamed it for fueling the current unrest.

A ‘proud’ statement

Palestinian flags, meanwhile, are regularly seen at stadiums and fan zones and are sold in shops – even though the national team did not qualify.

In the November 26 match against Australia, Tunisian supporters carried a massive “Free Palestine” banner, a move that did not prompt any action from the organizers. Arab fans have ignored Israeli journalists reporting from Qatar.

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Omar Barakat, the Palestinian national team’s football coach who was in Doha for the World Cup, said he carried his flag into matches without stopping. He said that this is a political statement and we are proud of it.

While tensions have surfaced in some games, the tournament has also provided a stage for some outwardly conciliatory acts, such as when Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani draped a Saudi flag around his neck at Argentina’s match on November 22. took

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

In another act of reconciliation between states whose relations have been strained by the Arab Spring, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shook hands with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at an opening ceremony in Doha on November 20.

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

He said Qatari officials had to walk a “fine balance” regarding Iran and Palestine but in the end, the tournament “puts Qatar once again at the center of regional diplomacy”.

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

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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