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‘Shirt-gate’ Shows the Madness of Gulf Feud

The arrest of a holidaymaker who wore a Qatari football shirt in the UAE is just the latest depressing anecdote to emerge from the Gulf since Abu Dhabi and its regional allies began their boycott of Doha. The detention of Ali Issa Ahmed, who could now face a lengthy jail term, will only entrench tensions between the feuding GCC factions and damage the reputation of all the countries involved.

In the long term, however, it is to be hoped that this ludicrous situation might serve as a watershed. That the Gulf rivals finally realize just how pointless and self-defeating their 20-month squabble really is. The boycott of Qatar has achieved little, apart from harming the countries who have led it, and now the region has some far bigger issues to address. Surely, it’s time the two sides realized that enough is enough.

Yet one could say the same about the detention of Ahmed, which first came to light almost a week ago. The 26-year-old Briton claims to have been assaulted by UAE fans for wearing their enemy’s colors during Qatar’s match with Iraq at the Asia Cup on January 22, before being arrested and charged with making false statements when he reported the attack to police. A close friend, who has served as his portal to the media, insists he had no intention of making a political gesture with his attire.

However, instead of bowing to international pressure and releasing Ahmed, the UAE has doubled down. They insist he fabricated his entire story, and inflicted his own injuries – in other words, that he attacked himself. It isn’t clear how long Ahmed could spend in jail if convicted, but campaign group Detained in Dubai warns he could face a 15-year sentence. The group also alleges that Ahmed has been forced to sign a confession, saying he attacked a police officer himself.

Ahmed’s ordeal provides a fittingly undignified footnote to the Asia Cup, which provided the UAE with a chance to showcase its global credentials but was instead overshadowed by wider regional disagreements. Qatar’s supporters were completely banned from attending the tournament, and several journalists were also denied entry as part of the UAE’s clampdown. When Qatar thrashed UAE in the semi-final, home fans threw shoes and bottles on the pitch; Qatari media claims the Emirati authorities bought up spare tickets and doled them out among local fans to stoke the hostile atmosphere.

Qatar went on to claim victory in the final, but many analysts believe this triumph will simply exacerbate the rift, at least in the short-term. Having both been beaten by Qatar during the tournament, the UAE and Saudi Arabia may be tempted to launch further verbal attacks on Doha, in retribution for the humiliation. They have fresh targets for their ire, too: Oman and Kuwait have both remained on the margins of the spat thus far, but their people enthusiastically cheered for Qatar during the tournament, demonstrating their opposition to the boycott. Many Omanis even cheered for Qatar inside the stadiums, and unlike Ahmed, their political statement was intentional.

No effect

For Qatar, however, the boycott has ceased to have a substantial impact. In fact, one might suggest that the Qataris have already ‘won’ the boycott, replicating their sporting victory in the political sphere. The economy is thriving, thanks in large part to a diversification strategy triggered by the Saudi-led blockade; meanwhile, Doha is assuming an ever more active role in international affairs, as demonstrated by its hosting of talks between the U.S. and Taliban. Those talks were supposed to have taken place in Saudi Arabia but were switched at the last minute, the latest in a series of international setbacks for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose attempts to project a modern, progressive image have been drowned out by constant criticism of Saudi atrocities in Yemen and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Time to build bridges

Perhaps, just perhaps, the Saudis (and Emiratis) will eventually change course. Instead of trying to subjugate Qatar, and silence the criticism of its state-owned broadcaster Al-Jazeera, they might decide to build bridges and pool their resources. This is certainly the hope of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said last month that the GCC feud has gone on too long and urged its protagonists to unite against “a common challenge.”

The challenge Pompeo referred to was, presumably, Iran. He has spent months, after all, trying to build unity in the Gulf against Tehran and its missile program. But he could just as easily have been talking about the challenge of brokering a ceasefire in Yemen, which is still proving elusive or ensuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad does not punish his opponents once the American troops leave in April. Or providing support to Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, whose key details will be shared with both GCC factions later this month.

With their vast combined wealth, not to mention their common alliance with Washington, the Gulf states could be leading global efforts on all of these issues. But so far, they haven’t shown unity on any of them. Far from supporting peace in Yemen, Saudi Arabia keeps dropping bombs on the country. Instead of holding Assad to account, the UAE has hosted one of his key supporters, a businessman blacklisted by both the U.S. and the EU. Despite the constant stream of provocation Iran sends towards the West, Qatar continues to endorse its roguish ally.

All of which makes the squabble over a football shirt even harder to believe. The Gulf is bickering over football when it has plenty of very real problems piled up on its doorstep. The sooner it wises up, the better, both for the region and the wider world. Qatar may have claimed a glittering trophy in its rival’s backyard, but if the two sides can patch up their differences, the spoils will be shared.