Betraying Morocco, Saudis back Trump for World Cup 2026
By threatening to withdraw aid from countries which do not support the US-led bid to host the 2026 World Cup, the US President openly defied a warning by FIFA against using politics in the selection process.
It was effective, however: The South African Football Association quickly withdrew support it gave to a rival bid from Morocco a month ago, overturning something it had announced on its official Twitter feed.
Trump's tactics are what we've come to expect from the author of the 1987 book, 'Trump: The Art of the Deal', whose central tenet is: 'Use your leverage', or you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia is bending over backwards to please the American leader, at the expense of Arab solidarity.
A year ago the US president was signing an $110bn arms deal with Riyadh, which was emboldened enough by this show of support to launch a diplomatic and transport blockade of its Gulf neighbour, Qatar.
In December, however, Saudi Arabia's muted response to the hugely controversial decision by Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, did not go unnoticed on Arab streets.
A huge flag was unfurled during a Palestinian protest at a football match in Algiers which showed a face which was half-Trump and half–Salman, the Saudi king.
|Saudi Arabia is bending over backwards to please the American leader, at the expense of Arab solidarity|
Underneath the caption read; 'Two sides of the same coin'.
In a tweet, @aymanarab78 explained: "Hey King of Saudi, the people who lifted the banner do not only represent themselves, but most of the Algerian people. Yes, you and Trump are indeed two faces of the same coin in regards to Jerusalem and other Muslim countries."
This week the Saudi government was solidifying these pro-Trump credentials by indicating that it will support the US-led bid for the 2026 World Cup instead - as you might expect - of one put forward by its Arab partner, Morocco.
Read more: Saudi fake news will not destroy The Beautiful Game
The supremely smug sports minister, Turki al-Sheikh, used an interview with CNN to publicise Saudi Arabia's first WWE event (how much more American can you get than pay-per-view wrestling?) to really stick the knife into his Arab brothers.
Describing America as "our biggest and strongest ally" he claimed that none of the bidding countries had sought Riyadh's support, "but if someone asks, we will look for Saudi Arabia's interests first".
Nothing to do with supporting a bid based on its merits or who would put on the best tournament, then..
There is another reason for Mr Al-Sheikh's anti-Moroccan position.
|Translation: @Turki_alalshikh A question for Your Excelleny: Why
did you refuse to support #Morocco's bid for the World Cup?
It is an Arab country close to Saudi Arabia and we have historical
ties with them.
In June last year, when a Saudi-led alliance launched its blockade of Qatar, Morocco was one a few countries which came to Doha's aid, sending plane loads of supplies to the tiny Gulf state.
Ever since then, as the months have dragged on, the North African country has steadfastly remained neutral in the dispute, refusing to give in to Saudi demands to join the boycott.
Recently Mr al-Sheikh took to Twitter to bad-mouth Qatar (called the pseudo-state) and suggest that Morocco (referred to as the ocean because it borders the Atlantic) should be doing more to make friends in Saudi Arabia.
He said: "Some people went astray. If you want support, you should seek it in Riyadh. What you are doing is wasting your time. Now ask the pseudo-state to help you. A message from the Gulf to the ocean."
This is the kind of nasty, bully-boy politics of the type Trump would practise and approve; if you don't support us in our disputes with countries that have done you no harm, we're going to play hardball with you.
After Mr al-Sheikh's indication that Saudi Arabia would back the US over Morocco at next month's vote, the Arab world took to Twitter to vent its fury.
@aldaghriri said: "Why did you refuse to support Morocco's bid for the World Cup? It is an Arab country close to Saudi Arabia with which we have historical ties."
|When a Saudi-led alliance launched its blockade of Qatar, Morocco was one a few countries which came to Doha's aid|
@gh_3661 said: "Shame on you, al-Sheikh. You support the US and leave out Morocco. Regardless of the political situation, if you were truly a sportsman you would not have merged politics and sport."
@barhachi_aziz questioned why Saudi Arabia would not support the underdog, Morocco, against the 'global powers' represented by the joint bid of the US, Canada and Mexico.
He said: "The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Morocco is very old and historic from the days of Mohammad Bin Saud and Moroccan sultan Suleiman. I respect Saudi's interests but it is a shame that you [Turki al-Sheikh] are not supporting Morocco's bid. It is a shame. Morocco is in a competition with global powers, of course they won't win it. You come from the Imam's bloodline, why is Trump scaring you?"
Old alliances are being re-drawn and rather than acting as a unified block, Arab states are looking out for their own interests.
The blockading quartet - Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt - act in unison, of course, but are sceptical of any country, such as Kuwait or Morocco, which tries to mediate in the dispute.
Hence their decision not to send their country's leaders to the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Kuwait because the 'neutral countries' were treating the Emir of Qatar cordially. The event lasted barely 15 minutes.
Saudi Arabia is, of course, hugely jealous that Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup, so much so that senior figures in the United Arab Emirates, another of the boycotting countries, have suggested that if Doha was stripped of the tournament then the whole blockade would be called off.
|Old alliances are being re-drawn and rather than acting as a unified block, Arab states are looking out for their own interests|
So intent is Riyadh to be a big player in the soccer world, that it recently joined a Japanese-led consortium offering FIFA a $25bn, 12-year rights deal to revitalise the Club World Cup, making it a 24-team tournament every four years.
This would replace the much smaller Confederations Cup, which carries considerably less clout, and include the top 12 European teams plus four from South America, two each from Africa, Asia and North America.
How interesting that the target launch for the Saudi-backed FIFA money spinner is 2021 - a year before the Qatar World Cup.
Could the Saudis just possibly be trying to steal the thunder from their enemy, rival and Arab brother?
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.