Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
t’s that time again. Four years since Russia hosted the FIFA World Cup, it now comes to Qatar – the first time the biggest sporting event on the planet has been hosted in the Middle East. Amid the build-up to the tournament, global attention is sharpening its focus on Qatar, in particular on its human rights record. But so long as the contest proceeds without a crisis moment, this prestige event may well secure the Qatari government’s core goal of raising its standing on the world stage.
But the tournament also tells a wider story about the Middle East. Fuelled by a massive oil bonanza resulting from the surge in oil prices in response to the Ukraine war, regional Gulf producers have never had it so good financially. Qatar is estimated to have spent up to $220 billion preparing for the 64 matches to come. Its good fortune stands in stark contrast to other countries in the region, and other enduring problems. It reflects a disconnect between regional winners and losers that is becoming ever more apparent.
The wider global context is proving beneficial to some. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are successfully leveraging international demand for energy resources and competing Western and Russian outreach for their political support relating to the Ukraine war. Qatar has been the one major GCC country to align with the West on Ukraine, highlighting the degree to which Doha has successfully cemented its position with the West. (The World Cup will also see Russia excluded, though this was a decision taken by FIFA rather than Qatar.)
Saudi and UAE relations with the West are more problematic, with these two players simultaneously maintaining close ties with Russia in a bid to better assert their interests in the new multipolar order. Saudi Arabia, in particular, is making full use of its oil market capacities to press its global position, working with Russia as part of the looser “OPEC Plus” affiliation to maintain higher oil prices. But, either way, the GCC states are now the focus of renewed international outreach. The European Union and individual European states are prioritising a deepening of ties with them over other concerns and objectives they have in the Middle East. Western governments’ desire to pursue GCC partnerships for geopolitical and energy goals contrasts sharply with the increased public concern for human rights provoked by the World Cup.
But beneath these pinnacles of Arab Gulf success lies a landscape characterised by worsening troubles. The World Cup – with all its glitz, glamour, and sense of success – is taking place at a moment when the wider Middle East is floundering badly. In neighbouring Iran, protests, brutal regime repression, and risks of nuclear proliferation are the order of the day. To the south, the truce in Yemen has expired and the country risks renewed conflict, which would exacerbate one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises. To the north, Iraqi state dysfunction – as highlighted by the tumultuous year-long process to form a new government – is feeding profound challenges. In Syria and Lebanon, state collapse continues apace, with ruling elites – and the brutal Assad order in particular – focused on individual and regime interests over those of the wider populations. The latest difficulty is a deadly outbreak of cholera in both countries.
Across North Africa there is increasing economic deterioration in Egypt and Tunisia, debilitating rivalries in Libya, and heightened tensions between Algeria and Morocco. Throughout the region, food insecurity, inflation, and the collapse of core public services are common themes. And, while the threat of new popular revolts may have subsided amid widespread fatigue and effective authoritarian repression, many of these states are hollowing out from the inside.
This disconnect between the winners and losers of the regional landscape extends into the geopolitical sphere. Arab Gulf states are positioning themselves with decreasing reference to longstanding regional reference points. This is emphatically highlighted by the Abraham Accords, the 2020 normalisation agreement that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain concluded with Israel – which they perceive as a fellow regional winner. This process has effectively marginalised the Palestinians and, in so doing, a cause that – in rhetoric at least – long unified the entire region. While Qatar has not joined this agreement it is nonetheless allowing direct flights from Israel for the World Cup. Saudi Arabia has also been unwilling to publicly normalise with Israel without a resolution to the Palestinian issue, despite an apparent deepening of informal ties. But this could change once Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman becomes king.
Over the past decade, the Arab Gulf states might have been expected to be more actively involved in using these challenges and geopolitical fault lines to shape the wider region to their liking. Over recent years the fight against Iran, as well as intra-GCC rivalries, have been a fundamental driver of their assertive – and often destabilising – behaviour, from Yemen to Libya. But Arab Gulf leaders now appear to be reprioritising their immediate interests and adopting a narrower focus. These states are concentrating on more nationalist interests related to their own economic development and security threats. They are seeking better and more tangible returns on their political and economic investments across the region.
As part of this trend, Qatar has become significantly less activist, while Saudi Arabia has backed away from meaningful engagement and economic support to the likes of Lebanon and Iraq, where it feels its money only helps prop up Iranian-backed governing systems. The UAE, for its part, remains involved across the region but appears focused on cutting deals with countries such as Iran and Turkey – which would have been unthinkable up until very recently – to extract itself from regional fights that have consumed its energy over the past decade. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE seem to have narrowed their focus to ending Houthi targeting of their territory rather than addressing the internal dimensions of the civil war in a way that secures their influence.
After a decade of failed attempts to remake the wider region in their image, GCC states’ focus is now one of narrower consolidation. But in so doing the dichotomy between winners and losers in the Middle East is only likely to widen. The World Cup is as clear a demonstration of this divide as anything.
© This aerticle was already published in ECFR