We will pass quickly and discreetly on the opening match of Qatar, so weak against Ecuador on Sunday (0-2). The images of the stands of the Al-Bayt stadium deserted over the second half contributed to devaluing a World Cup already contested by a good part of Western public opinion. But they should not overshadow the fervor that animated the host country during the first meetings of Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco.

The three selections have drawn on this noisy support to sign good results, enough to satisfy the wish of the organizers, anxious to host “the World Cup for all Arabs”. “During the opening ceremony, there was really this message of unity from the presidents and sovereigns of the region,” said geopolitics researcher Raphaël Le Magoariec, co-author with Nabil Ennasri of the book The Qatar Empire: the new master of the game? published by Les Points sur les I.

“Qatar wanted to show that it was the center of the Arab world. But there was a notable absentee: Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Emir of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates, who were represented by the Vice-President. “MBZ” and his country are the big losers of the recent regional recomposition, embodied by an image unthinkable two years ago: the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani waving then passing the Saudi flag around his neck , during the stunning victory of Hervé Renard’s men against Argentina on Tuesday (2-1). “A symbol to illustrate the rapprochement made since the end of the blockade in 2021”, explains the specialist in the Arabian Peninsula.

The blockade, a recent but bygone history

A little background for those who have not followed the region’s geopolitical news in recent years. In June 2017, a coalition of Arab countries decides to totally isolate Doha. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are at the forefront of this initiative intended to punish Qatar, accused of supporting Al-Qaida, the Islamic State but also the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization classified as terrorist by some of its critics.

“Qatar played the card of the Muslim Brotherhood which it had approached in the 1990s, resumes Raphaël Le Magoariec. But that was not the essential element. It is a question of posture and leadership that has caused these regional frictions, particularly in relation to revolutions and counter-revolutions. On the one hand, there were Qatar and Turkey, on the other Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and more particularly the emirate of Abu Dhabi which leads the dance in this country in terms of foreign policy . »

“This last camp did not want things to move in the region, and to retain authoritarian powers, generally based on the army, in order to be able to have stable interlocutors. While for Qatar, the prospect of the disappearance of the great regional powers like Egypt, Syria, or Iraq a little earlier, represented an opportunity to take their place and assert itself as the new center of the Arab world. . »

These revolutions ended up crushed in blood, but the small gas emirate of 3 million inhabitants and 11,571 km² in area, barely larger than the Gironde, had already moved on. He started to fire all the woods in terms of economic-political-sporting “soft power”, embodied by winning the World Cup in 2010, then the takeover of PSG in 2011. These initiatives, and including obtaining the World Cup, have further fueled the quarrels between reigning families, well before the birth of the current modern states (1932 for Saudi Arabia, 1971 for the United Arab Emirates and Qatar).

“It showed Qatar’s desire to extricate itself from the stranglehold of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates on the region, observes Raphaël Le Magoariec. The latter wanted to break this momentum by trying to influence FIFA, in order to recover part of the competition. “With Gianni Infantino and his qatarophilia assumed at the head of planetary football, as much to try to introduce polar bears into the desert.

Qatar, former rival turned model

Since the signing of the Al-Ula agreement in January 2021, economic hostilities were shelved between Doha and Riyadh. “Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have drifted apart, especially on oil issues. And now, the latter country is following in the wake of Qatar to strengthen its policy around “Vision 2030”. This somewhat nebulous plan should make it possible to diversify the Saudi economy, to get out of all hydrocarbons. Exactly what the little neighbor has been doing for years, wanting to no longer depend solely on natural gas, which has financed its incredible growth.

The Saudi flag at the Lusail stadium during the World Cup match against Argentina on Tuesday.
The Saudi flag at the Lusail stadium during the World Cup match against Argentina on Tuesday. – DiaEsportivo / Action Plus / Shutterstock / Sipa

“Riyadh has also normalized its relations with Doha to draw on its experience at the sporting level, develops the researcher. Saudi Arabia also wants its World Cup and it could have it because it speaks much the same language as Qatar with the authorities of world sport. A baroque candidacy with Egypt and Greece is on track, with 2030 in sight. One year after the much criticized Asian Winter Games that the Saudis recently won, after having bought the English club Newcastle in 2021, via the Saudi Arabian sovereign fund (PIF) led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ( MBS).

It is this same MBS who posed with the scarf of Qatar, on the occasion of the opening ceremony on Sunday, with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, all smiles. Last I heard, environmental or human rights issues weren’t on the agenda.

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