The World Cup tournament that kicked off in Qatar on Sunday has provided a golden opportunity for the emirate’s rulers to flaunt their power and wealth, as befits a country that perceives itself as a prestigious regional power.
Having said that, the multicolored masquerade Qatar organized has not achieved its ultimate objective of “sportswashing” a tarnished reputation. Despite the vast sums of money poured into the competition, waves of harsh criticism have been leveled against the emirate and its rulers, mainly due to the manner in which they persuaded—or more accurately, and without beating about the bush, bribed—FIFA’s leadership to hold this most illustrious of all sporting competitions in Qatar.
Of course, strong criticism has also been voiced against the violation of human rights in Qatar and the exploitation of the expatriate workers there, who comprise 77% of its population of 3 million and on whose blood and sweat the impressive facilities housing the tournament were built.
But the Qataris have managed to score a winning goal in one specific area. Many of the region’s leaders have come there specially to participate in the competition’s opening ceremony and to get a first-hand look at the impressive phenomenon of regional unity, in parallel to the lavish spectacle held on the turf. It appears that the regional leaders are slightly less inclined to be easily fazed by the international criticism of human rights violations or corruption.
The first of these is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatar’s close ally, who even dispatched police and security units there to help maintain law and order during the soccer matches. Now, of course, it is time for him to come and reap the benefits for providing such staunch support and allegiance to the Qataris.
The Turkish soccer squad might not have made it to the finals, but a photo op on the soccer pitch could well be worth its weight in gold for Erdogan, currently seeking to safeguard his seat in the upcoming presidential elections due to take place midway through the coming year. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has also chosen to attend the tournament for similar reasons, and at the opening ceremony, he even shook hands with Turkey’s president—marking the first meeting between these two men since el-Sisi seized power in a military coup in July 2013, earning him a vociferous response from Ankara.
King Abdullah II of Jordan was also present on the VIP podium, as was the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. Though the latter might have chiefly come to cheer on the Saudi Arabian national team, his arrival has essentially granted a seal of legitimacy to the emirate of Qatar, which until recently had been considered an enemy both by the Saudis and the Egyptians.
It is difficult to imagine that these brief meetings and handshakes will really make any significant difference to the complex relationships between Turkey and Qatar, or Cairo and Riyadh, but today’s regional reality requires people to try to forgive and forget the past, and above all to seek cooperation in order to contend with tomorrow’s challenges.
The winds of change blowing through the stadium in Doha have however been overshadowed by Iran. The World Cup will soon be forgotten, but the Iranian threat is here to stay, and facing this, on the other side, so too are Erdogan, Al-Sissi and bin-Salman, who are more than ready to step up and pose for a joint photo and shake hands.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.