Gianni Infantino. Picture: REUTERS/BENOIT TESSIER
Gianni Infantino. Picture: REUTERS/BENOIT TESSIER

Doha — Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s plan to expand the Qatar World Cup to 48 teams and increase the number of host countries risks worsening existing Gulf diplomatic tensions, analysts claim.  

The ambitious expansion proposal — which Infantino has optimistically stated might help peace in the Middle East — could see the additional matches hosted in Kuwait and Oman in 2022.

But far from making a politically turbulent region more harmonious, analysts say Fifa’s proposal could deepen regional fissures and leave Kuwait and Oman, as well as Qatar, open to further political arm-twisting from the regional power bloc of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain.

“There is a very real risk that expanding the World Cup to include Kuwait and Oman would make these two countries vulnerable to the same sort of regional pressure Qatar has faced since 2017,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at Rice University. “Particularly since Kuwait and Oman also have followed their own approaches to regional affairs.”

Saudi Arabia and UAE

It could also foster resentment in those countries missing out on games, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Ulrichsen said.

“The idea of a regional World Cup that includes Kuwait and Oman but not Saudi Arabia or the UAE would likely be a cause of considerable bitterness in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.”  

Since June 2017, World Cup host Qatar has been blockaded by the Saudi-led countries in a bitter political spat, one of the worst Gulf diplomatic conflicts for years.

Saudi Arabia and its allies, which include Egypt, accuse Qatar of promoting terrorism and being too close to Riyadh’s great political and religious rival, Tehran.

Qatar denies its rivals’ allegations and accuses them of seeking regime change in Doha.  For 21 months — and counting — Saudi Arabia and its allies have imposed a political, economic and travel boycott around Qatar, which shows few signs of easing.

Notably though, the blockading countries do not include the traditionally neutral Gulf states of Kuwait and Oman, which have been left to tread a politically precarious line.

Andreas Krieg of King’s College London, who has worked as an adviser to the Qatari government, said Kuwait and Oman “both have issues with Saudi and the UAE”.

Tensions have flared between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia over the management of jointly owned oil fields, while Oman has faced allegations that it has allowed Iranian arms shipments through its territory to Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

At the same time, Kuwait has been the regional negotiator in the crisis, while Oman is an economic winner from the conflict, its trade with Qatar jumping 240% since 2016, according to Doha.

“The Gulf dispute as it exists would be further exacerbated by having a World Cup over three countries,” said Krieg.

Fifa proposals to share the Qatar World Cup with Kuwait and Oman would reinforce the feeling that the Gulf has split into two competing blocs of three countries, with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain on the other side, he said.

“From a political point of view, it [expansion] doesn’t make sense.” Even if Qatar is forced to share its World Cup, the first in the Middle East, it is unlikely to please Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, said Krieg. “I don’t see how Saudi and the UAE get anything out of that.” 

Gaining support

Yet Fifa’s plans to expand the 2022 World Cup appear to be gaining support among some football administrators.

The results of a much-vaunted Fifa “feasibility study”, announced at a meeting of football’s governing body last week in Miami, backed expansion in Qatar.

“We came to the conclusion, yes it’s feasible to move from 32 to 48 teams at the World Cup provided certain conditions are met,” Infantino said, declaring himself “happy” with the finding. 

A final decision will be announced in Paris in June, and while the expansion plan has been gaining a seemingly irresistible momentum, some remain unconvinced.

Europe’s governing body, Uefa, said expansion would create “many problems” and was “not realistic”.  Campaigners warned Fifa not to neglect its own newly imposed standards on human rights when awarding World Cup host status.  Any expansion would add 16 matches  over the duration of the 28-day tournament and there are concerns that stadiums and infrastructure in Kuwait and Oman would not meet exacting Fifa tournament standards.

With so many issues, it is difficult to see any diplomatic dividend from the World Cup, said James Dorsey, a researcher at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

“I think there’s zero chance,” he said. “The Gulf crisis is not going to be solved by playing football.”

AFP