Football & Arab World’s Diplomatic Kick-off! 

argentina world cup qatar

Diplomatic strides made by several Arab countries in recent years are too significant to be ignored. Of course, FIFA World Cup 2022 hosted by Qatar may be viewed as having played a crucial role in compelling greater part of rest of the world to reflect on their stereotyped vision of Qatar and other Arab countries. The reality is that these countries have been taking tacit but definite moves for quite some time. However, recent past has been witness to several Arab countries paying greater than before importance to their diplomatic moves. Interestingly, these are certainly not suggestive of these countries shattering their religious, cultural and/or Arab identity but that of making others give greater importance to revise their prior opinion (negative) about them.

Undeniably, UAE has been among the few nations to have been in the forefront for quite some time. This doesn’t imply that other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait- among others, have not paid sufficient attention to their development along with diplomatic image of their countries. They definitely have, but rest of the world hasn’t given it much importance, at least not the same as is being at present. This has to degree remained tainted by vision of most confined to their being oil-rich, conservative countries. Equally important is the reality that serious attempts were not made by most of these Arab countries to prompt other nations to re-consider their approach about them and view them from a clearer diplomatic lens.

A rudimentary glance at facilities such as health, educational, sports and other basic services along with importance of national as well as international media in most Arab countries may be viewed as rough indicator of their having progressed more than is apparently even perceived by non-Arab countries. In addition, efforts being made to boost their tourism sector stand out quite markedly. It is possible, only recent years have been marked by several Arab countries paying greater attention than before to diplomatic efforts to assert and display their identity in the global arena; in essence to project a positive image about themselves more emphatically. Hosting of FIFA cup by Qatar has certainly signalled as to how crucial moves such as these can be in almost forcing other countries to give a new importance to Arab identity without, as suggested earlier, being tainted by any negative and/or stereotyped bias; or at least prompting others to stop holding only a biased view about them.

With respect to point made about UAE being in forefront for some time, specific attention may be drawn to this country having given substantial importance, interestingly, to Indian and Pakistani celebrities, particularly from Bollywood as well as Lollywood, in its programs and media. They are viewed as a “craze” there. Media coverage together with popular appeal of these stars play a multiple role in not just helping these celebrities capture headlines in these as well as other countries. These propagate moves of their sponsors and what perhaps is no less significant is leading to UAE be in news at home and elsewhere with photographs, videos and so much more. Clearly, UAE has been attracting attention at these levels for quite some time.

Qatar made a similar move prominently by hosting FIFA World Cup. The manner in which the country gained attention along with greater importance than before has spelled a major, pleasant surprise for other Arab countries. Perhaps, the real and fairly positive picture about Qatar, quite a contrast to what they perhaps earlier had in mind, has yet to totally sink in among minds of people from the West. Craze in the West for football and passion for FIFA certainly compelled them to pay more attention to Qatar than they would probably have if this country had paid similar attention to some other program, even if it focused on film stars from South Asia.

Saudi Arabia has recently made best of both the combinations and can certainly be credited for having succeeded. Saudi Club Al Nassr signed a contract with Cristiano Ronaldo, a celebrated football player, effective from January 1, 2023. This in itself created media-waves from various angles, including on Ronaldo receiving the highest football salary in history. Saudi Arabia went a step further by holding a  friendly match between Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and the Saudi Arabian All-Star team at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh (January 20). The players included football superstars Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar Jr. Of course, the match hit headlines regionally as well as globally in East as well as West and so did “news” about it being held in Saudi Arabia, as for instance, an American online news site stated, “Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo both score in thrilling exhibition match in Saudi Arabia.” The match was inaugurated by Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan and thus carried news value for several reasons in East, particularly South Asia. In addition to passion for football, its inauguration by Bachchan followed by his tweets regarding it, added to importance about it being held in Saudi Arabia. Clearly, Saudi Arabia capitalized on several factors at one time, the game, participation of football celebrities and of a Bollywood star and succeeded.

In certain quarters, critical observation has been made of Qatar and Saudi Arabia’s “use” of “sportwashing” to “whitewash” their “international reputation.” Diplomatically, politically, economically and socially, the two countries have the right and authority to invest in football (which they can afford to), to help others learn more about them and as suggested earlier, stop holding a negative, stereotyped image about them. UAE, as indicated earlier, has been doing so for quite so time.

Till a few weeks ago, not much was known about Qatar while Saudi Arabia was better known for Haj and oil. Now, football has given the much needed and desired diplomatic kick-off about their global image. And those still deliberating on credentials of this need to reflect a little more on impact that sports diplomacy can have. Sports diplomacy should certainly be more welcomed than spread of violence at any level!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).


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