Qatar’s World Cup Narrows Rift With Saudi Arabia

AL-AHSA, Saudi Arabia — There used to be so many Qataris who went to the market in Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahsa oasis, hunting for deals on spices and sandals, that some merchants called it ” Qatar Market”. Qataris will cross the border and drive 100 miles across the desert to the town of Al-Ahsa, load sacks of flour into their SUVs, dine in restaurants and fill up hotels.

Then came the “crisis”, as people here call it. Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, cut ties with Qatar in 2017 and effectively isolated the small country, accusing its government of supporting terrorism and interfering in its internal affairs. Qatari officials have denied the allegations and accused Saudi Arabia and other countries of creating a “blockade” on their country. Saudi Arabia has closed its borders – Qatar’s only land border – and Qatar’s business in Al-Ahsa has shrunk.

Few people felt more relieved than the merchants in Al-Ahsa at parting ended last year, as Saudi officials move to resolve conflicts abroad have become costly and controversial. Last week, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia held hands and grinned during the opening ceremony. Football World Cup in Qatarsuggests that crack repair has reshaped the Gulf.

Ali Abdullah, 59, who has worked at the Al-Ahsa market for decades, said: “We are very happy to have the business. He watched the Qataris disappear and rejoiced as they slowly returned. “The closest supermarket to Qatar is Al-Ahsa,” he joked.

The renewal of the Saudi-Qatari relationship was on full display at the World Cup. Prince Mohammed wore a scarf the colors of the Qatari flag, then Sheikh Tamim draped a Saudi scarf over his shoulders, reassuring their people that – at least for now – the warmth is still here. The Prince has ordered the Saudi government agencies to provide any support necessary for the tournament in Qatar to be a success.

The World Cup has a way of stoking solidarity in the region, with Gulf and Arab nations cheering on each other’s teams. Abdulaziz Albagshi, a Saudi football fan, said he was so proud of Qatar’s status as the first Arab country to host the World Cup that it felt like “we’re hosting it. World Cup, not Qatar.

“We see it as an area,” said Albagshi, 40, at a crowded outdoor venue in Al-Ahsa, where he watched his national team play and beat Argentina this week. before. “There is a closeness — culture, dialect, and a lot of things are shared. We don’t feel any difference.”

Neighboring Gulf states are also looking to benefit from the tourism spillover from the event, which is expected to draw more than a million fans to Qatar, a country of three million with a capacity of guests. limited hotel. In the Saudi capital, Riyadh, authorities dedicate an airport terminal for a near-constant series of flights to Doha, the capital of Qatar.

“Can’t have a hotel in Qatar for your football match? You’ll score points with our exclusive travel offers to stay in Saudi and move to Qatar,” said an ad on a London bus last month. Even the famous Saudi fried chicken restaurant, Albaik, has set up food carts in Doha.

However, regional disputes have left scars, and the World Cup is also highlighting those scars. While the island nation of Bahrain is only 20 miles from Qatar, very few fans will stay there as the relationship between the two countries is still so difficult that there are no direct flights. On the other hand, the nearby United Arab Emirates is benefiting greatly from connecting flights to Qatar; Many fans prefer to spend the night in Dubai as the emirate is known for being an easy drinking destination, something that Qatar has limited. But the relationship between the government of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates remains strained.

Even in Saudi Arabia, which has much friendlier relations with Qatar, there is a difficulty with the resumption of relations. On the evening the World Cup began, Saudi authorities blocked the streaming service of beIN, a sports television network operated by Qatar, leaving many Saudis with no way to watch the match. firstly. The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Saudis are concerned about voicing support for Qatar, wary that what has been repaired could be broken again. In 2017, a key adviser to Prince Mohammed encouraged the Saudis to name and shame the “mercenaries” who had sided with Qatar in the feud. The split with Qatar coincided with the crackdown on dissidents in Saudi Arabia, and dozens of religious clerics, businessmen, royals, writers and activists. was arrested in the following years.

Some of them face charges of having sympathies or ties to Qatar, and some of them remain imprisoned. One cleric, Ali Badahdah, was charged with treason, partly in connection with allegations that he supported Qatar’s views against the kingdom.

After Crown Prince Mohammed attended the opening ceremony in Doha, Nasser al-Qarni, the son of another imprisoned Saudi cleric, Awad al-Qarni, Note on Twitter“One of the charges against my father by the prosecutor was sympathy for the hostile state of Qatar.”

In an interview with Bloomberg in 2017, Adel al-Jubeir, then Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said the series of arrests including Mr al-Qarni and Mr Badahdah had targeted people who were “promoting an extremist agenda” and received “foreign funding to destabilize Saudi Arabia.”

The closer the Gulf states are, the more complicated their relationship becomes. Not only do Saudi Arabia and Qatar share a border, but they also have tribes crossing the border, camels grazing across the border, and related households on either side. The Qatari royal family is descended from Najd, the central region of modern-day Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabians are Qataris and Qataris are Arabs, even in times of crisis,” said Abdulmajeed al-Harthi, a 28-year-old Saudi fan who traveled to Qatar by bus to attend the World Cup, said.

Al-Ahsa embodies those links – and their painful breakdown – perhaps more than anywhere else in Saudi Arabia. A two-hour drive from the Qatar border, the area appears on Google Maps as a dark blue streak across the beige sea, lined with millions of date palms. It has traces of Neolithic habitation, and its towns provide the relaxed feel of a stopover for caravans. Members of Shia and Sunni religious sects live together, mostly in harmony. Residents speak in a unique accent they compare to the drawl of the American South, and many families maintain farms outside the city.

Ahead of the World Cup, 26-year-old Mohammed Abdullah put a room on his family farm for sale on Airbnb in hopes of attracting passing tourists on his way to Qatar.

“It’s not luxurious,” he warned visitors last week, before driving them down the dirt road to the farm, where sunlight shines through the trees, bleating baby goats and cows turkey bobbing in the shade. He hopes fans who “want to explore Saudi Arabia” will come. So far, he has taken bookings from other Saudis and from a German who was planning to fly to Bahrain, cross the border to visit Al-Ahsa and then catch a bus to Qatar.

Shop owners and hoteliers in Al-Ahsa had hoped the World Cup would bring them lots of tourists watching football. That has yet to happen, mainly because Qatar imposes costly restrictions on driving across the border, forcing fans to take buses or take planes. Al-Ahsa hotels that had raised prices to more than $1,000 a night before the World Cup were quick to lower prices when crowds didn’t arrive.

At the Souk al-Qaisariah market, where merchants sell saffron, perfume, dried lemons and warm winter robes, and the sweet scent of bukhoor, a type of incense, wafts through the air, a car Open-top buses with the words “Welcome to Saudi Arabia” are empty. Vendors say they have seen very few tourists.

Qataris are returning and the streets around the market are dotted with familiar white SUVs. But it’s not like before, Zakaria Al-Abbas, a 40-year-old merchant, recalls the days before ties were severed, when he hoarded hundreds of sacks of flour and Qataris would buy it all within hours. . . During their three-and-a-half years of isolation from the kingdom, Qataris have been self-sufficient, and while they were previously looking for cheaper goods in Al-Ahsa, they now shop more at home, he said.

Still, he persevered, the best he would do if the Saudi national team failed to make it deep at the World Cup, he added. Wednesday’s game against Mexico will decide whether they continue in the tournament.

“If our team is eliminated, you will support other Arab teams,” said Al-Abbas. “If there is no business next year, don’t go and tell me to quit the business. It’s profit and loss.”


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