The two-hundred-odd football fans waiting at Doha International Airport Monday night were a mixed crowd. Egypt’s national football team was arriving from Cairo for a friendly match against the oil-rich state, and for the first time in the better part of a decade, the two country’s flags were being flown side by side – at the airport and on the streets. On the flight over, the players murmured that they never thought they would see this day.
The match, which took place Thursday and ended in a 2-1 victory for Qatar, was a peace-making move on the part of the Sheikhdom, which was trying to warm ties with Egypt, and simultaneously reconcile Algeria and Egypt following their political fallout last year over hooligan brutality surrounding two African Cup matches. In Doha this week, where football factions from all three nations were present, the three countries shook hands, kicked balls, and, it seems, made up.
The Qatari deed on football turf this week was just one in a series of recent gestures of normalization directed towards Egypt, with whom relations have been strained for several years. Sparked in the wake of the 22-day Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, when the state-funded Qatari channel Al-Jazeera spearheaded a decidedly critical campaign against Egypt’s position, the rift between the two politically seismic States stems from Qatar’s increasing efforts over the years to position itself as the region’s mediator – a role that Egypt has historically held. It has been inflamed by a number of incidents, notably negotiations over Gaza, and as well by Qatar’s active and contrarian role in the Sudan crisis of Darfur.
The mutually hostile relations between the two states have been nothing of a secret. Qatar has repeatedly ignored the brawny mediating role of Egypt in the region, opting for its own strident and strategic diplomatic efforts, made possible thanks to its gas-based zillion-dollar economy. Egypt, most often unable to compete with what money has bought, has reciprocated the brush-off, giving Qatar the political cold shoulder.
When Qatar hosted the Arab Summit last year, for example, President Hosni Mubarak decided not to attend. Despite sending a representative delegation from Egypt to act on his behalf, his gesture was a clear message of veto against Qatar’s new-found role and manoeuvres. In the daily Arabic Al-Ahram, a piece that ran the following day read: “There won't be any reconciliation between Qatar and Egypt soon. Egypt sent a message to the Qataris and reduced the level of representation, which shows that Qatar should revise all its positions toward Egypt…Egypt has a lot of reservations on the Qatari conduct, which became very apparent during the aggression on Gaza.”
The recent warming of relations between the two sides was initiated by a visit to Qatar by Mubarak on November 24, where he met with Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. It is there that sources say some deals were made - an Egyptian FIFA vote for Qatar in its 2022 World Cup bid, and Qatari favours in return, both on the economic front and also the media one, with toned-down coverage by the usually brutal Al-Jazeera of Egypt's imminent parliamentary elections.
A couple of weeks later, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani flew to Egypt and held two-day bilateral talks with the president. The press described the meeting as "the beginning of economic and political cooperation". Although, so far, the proverbial political handshake has been received without any hint of an outstanding grudge, it raises questions, both about the hinge of this turning, and as well its potential to sustain.
In Doha the week of the match, evidence of the seemingly changing relations presented itself in realms as diverse as sports and culture. The daily Qatari papers ran pictures of football fans and diplomatic representatives from the two nations. Headlines referred to the warming relations between the two countries and this “new chapter”, saying that the scope of possibilities for peace in the region jump in multi-folds “with the joined powerful forces of Qatar and Egypt”.
And at the opening of the State’s ambitious Arab Museum of Modern Art, MATHAF, which was inaugurated by the Emir, his modish wife, First Lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, and a bevy of international guests that included superstar artist Jeff Koons and France’s Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Egypt’s representation – both in the highlighted artists at the inaugural exhibition and in the State’s VIP guests -- was conspicuous. The patron Prince of the State’s cultural ventures, Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al-Thani – a first cousin of the Emir - referred to Egypt several times in his inaugural addresses. He called it “critical” to the region. Along with the Emir’s daughter, Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad Al Thani, he is scheduled to make an official visit to Cairo this weekend to view the Cairo Biennale, which is being held by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture on the grounds of its Opera House.
In recent years, Qatar has actively worked to fashion itself into a State that is rosy in the eyes of America. The relatively tiny nation served as the hosting ground of US military forces during the Gulf war, and has since gone where other Arab nations haven’t dared: hosting political exiles, nurturing media platforms at both ends of political and religious extremes, and stepping up to host talks and normalize relations on the thorniest of matters, from Gaza to the saga around the Danish cartoons. Most notably perhaps to the eyes of America: it has normalised, even supportive, relations with Israel.
What triggered the recent gesture on the part of the Al-Thani’s is the subject of speculation, but the recent win by the Qatari’s to host the 2022 World Cup is likely a significant factor. Egypt is the only regional state that sits on the 22-member FIFA executive committee - its vote, which is an influential one, was a critical one to Qatar. The population of the relatively tiny Gulf Sheikdom is also a factor: its population is just 1.6 million, over three-quarters of which are expatriate workers – many of them underpaid construction labourers who will likely not be able to afford even a single match ticket, and if they could, may even be turned away at the door. For an average, and then successful, World Cup, visitor figures need to rank in the three million plus.
Analysts cite the sheer force of the Egyptian population as a critical component to Qatar’s development and plans. The nation has long relied on expatriate man-power, expertise, and labour to build itself into what it is today, and in the case of the World Cup, an Egypt crowd would be a surety for success, since scepticism is high about the 50 degree heat and the potential of a substantial “western” audience - many of whom are weary about this tiny state that is close to both Iraq and Iran. The ticket to success for the Qatari’s will in part lie in the fans that Qatar can attract from nearby Egypt’s 80-million, largely football fanatic, population, who are well used to the region and the politics of a region seen by the west as unsafe.
Beyond football though – which has been the stuff of wars – Qatar’s creative foreign policy strategy has retained a glimmering question mark in the minds of even the staunchest of its diplomatic supporters. “Qatar's ambitions for greater influence come at a cost, and many are watching the country's emergence with wariness,” wrote Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brooking Institute’s Doha Centre last week. “Because it is home to Al Jazeera - as well as a number of prominent political exiles - Qatar has had strained ties with some of its neighbours. Neither is the country very popular in Washington, particularly after signing defense cooperation agreements with Iran.”
Without the allied support of the region’s other pro-Western pillars – such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia – analysts say Qatar can only get so far in its ambitious plan to become the region’s great power.
For Egypt, right now, warmer ties with Qatar come to its advantage. The promise of a few billion dollars out of the over $50 billion the State plans to spend in the run-up to the World Cup, is alluring, not to mention handy. As is the prospect of possibly hundreds of thousands of jobs for Egyptians, who have long turned to Gulf States for petro-dollar based opportunities. Toned down coverage of Egypt's political landscape by the critical Al-Jazeera is also a significant plus.
The question on the sustainability of such ties though lies in 2011 – Egypt’s Presidential election year. The United States has already reacted with what it called “dismay” to the outcome of the Egyptian parliamentary elections earlier this month, which saw a sweeping 93 percent win by the ruling National Democratic Party. It is expected that the Obama Administration will follow in the footsteps of Bush and begin to put pressure on Egypt in the coming year to hold “free and fair” elections. The Egyptian government rejected the “interference” of the United States or international community in its elections this month, and it is likely that position will hold into next year. So what the United States decides to do, and where the usually US-impressionable Qatar stands on this and how it reacts, may very well be the real beginning of strengthened ties between the two Arab States. Or possibly, the end.