Show Saudi Arabia and the UAE the red card

Show Saudi Arabia and the UAE the red card before the World Cup
6 min read
23 Feb, 2018
Comment: Political interference in football is unnecessary and unacceptable, and it's time FIFA gets tough, writes Anthony Harwood.
Sneijder's Al-Khafala team were delayed and messed around by UAE authorities [AFP]
Not before time, it seems, FIFA has stepped into the row between a Saudi-led alliance and Qatar which for months has been spilling over into football.

Reports in Spain claim football's governing body is preparing to tell Saudi Arabia that its place at this year's World Cup in Russia is at risk if things don't improve.

It sounds a bit extreme - but under new president Gianni Infantino, FIFA has already read a similar riot act to Spain and Peru over misconduct.

In Saudi Arabia's case, the transgressions began at the Gulf Cup in December in which all eight countries agreed to participate, but only after Qatar offered Kuwait the chance to replace it as the tournament host.

At the very first press conference, the Saudi team refused to co-operate if a Qatari sports channel was allowed in to the Kuwaiti hotel.

The organisers, quite rightly, refused to oblige, and so the team walked out.

Then, as the tournament was kicking off, Saudi-backed and state-run TV channels began offering cash bonuses to the Bahraini team if they "defeated the terrorists".

For anyone who may have missed it, the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar started with accusations that the tiny Gulf state was supporting terrorism, which Doha vehemently denies.

Faced with what it believed were unfair accusations, Qatari officials sat down with Washington officials and signed a "memorandum of understanding" on fighting terrorism, described by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as "very strong".

The Doha government refused to give in to a string of ludicrous demands - including cutting off diplomatic ties with Iran, with whom it shares a huge natural gas field, and shutting down Al Jazeera and The New Arab, as well as submitting its state finances to Riyadh for monthly audits.

To have done so would have been to surrender its sovereignty.

Last month, with the row dragging on, the prospect of renewed confrontation emerged when the draw for the Asian Champions League pitted club teams from opposing countries against each other.
How would the players from Qatari clubs be treated when they travelled to a boycotting country?

Qatari teams would be playing opponents from Saudi Arabia and the UAE no fewer than sixteen times - and that was just in the group stages.

This was more than the Saudis and Emiratis authorities could stomach and they demanded the matches be played in a neutral country.

When the Asian Football Confederation stood firm, pointing out that the rules said all matches should be played on a home and away basis, the two countries backed down, but not without a swipe at the Malaysia-based organisation, pointing out that the head of the competitions committee was from Qatar.

But the question still remained - how would the players from Qatari clubs be treated when they travelled to a boycotting country?

FIFA got their answer earlier this month when Doha-based Al-Khafala travelled to the United Arab Emirates to play the Abu Dhabi-based club, Al-Jazira, owned by Manchester City owner (and UAE deputy prime minister), Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed.

In pre-blockade days, this was a 45-minute hop on a plane - but since last June's transport boycott, the flights have to go via another country.

On this occasion the players and staff were to fly via Muscat, Oman, in a 4hour, 45minute journey.

By all accounts, it was not a pleasant experience. The team, captained by Dutch international Wesley Sneijder, ended up having an eight-hour delay after the Emiratis refused permission for their plane to land, blaming heavy fog.
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However, the Asian Football Confederation, which had staff travelling with the team, discovered that other international flights were being allowed to land in Abu Dhabi as normal.

The players had to spend the night at the airport, and when they touched down in Abu Dhabi, the delays continued.

Queues built up at passport control when the computers told immigration staff that the team was prohibited from entering the country.

This was only resolved when one of the officers threw up his hands, stamped all the players' passports and waved them through.

The players then watched as all their luggage was emptied out onto the floor before customs staff walked away, leaving them to re-pack their bags.

It's not exactly how footballers are used to being treated, is it? Under normal circumstances the pampered stars would be fast-tracked past other travellers straight to the VIP lounges.

This is a club with four international players in it; Sneijder is the most-capped Dutch international ever.

When they did finally reach the hotel they were so tired they missed a crucial training session and even found themselves being spied on whenever they went downstairs for a cup of coffee.

The saga continued at the match itself, with the Al-Jazira skipper giving the captain's armband to a Moroccan player just so he wouldn't have to shake hands with Sneijder at kick-off.
Following the Abu Dhabi fixture, warnings were issued that football's governing body would act if the situation continued

It's just ludicrous to bring the political spat onto the football pitch like that, and the Qataris were, understandably, furious about what happened.

Club boss Mahmoud al-Ghazal afterwards said his team - who lost 3-2 - were suffering fatigue from their long journey and a fine for the Emirati club was not enough; they should have points deducted instead.

According to the Spanish sports website,, FIFA has a zero-tolerance policy for "belligerent language" that can lead to violence, which the "defeat the terrorists" rallying cry was deemed to be.

Following the Abu Dhabi fixture, warnings were issued that football's governing body would act if the situation continued.

It's not the first time that FIFA has got tough recently.

Earlier this month Secretary General Fatma Samoura met with the Spanish Football Federation after threatening to expel the 2010 winners from this year's World Cup over political interference in the election of the organisation's new president.

In December there was a similar expulsion threat made to Peru over political intervention in the sport's governing body.

In the case of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it's not the first time that they've played games against Qataris - and I'm not talking about a soccer match here.

At Christmas, the Saudi authorities delayed issuing visas to the Qatari chess team for an international tournament in Riyadh for so long that the players arrived too late and too tired to compete in the opening rounds.

The authorities also told the grandmasters from Doha that they would not be allowed to fly their country's flag, as other players were allowed to do, but would have to make do with that of FIDE, the world chess body.

The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar has already trampled on the human rights of thousands of people who've either been separated from loved ones, denied medical treatment or had education withheld.

It is only right that countries who interfere with the rights of sportsmen and women to compete in international tournaments should not go unpunished.

The rules should be clear: if you do not allow an opposing team full and fair access to your country, unhindered and able to properly prepare for their matches, then you will forfeit your right to compete in the tournament.

It will then be your players, and your fans, who will suffer.

The sports bodies must stand up to the arrogance of countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who seem to think everyone else has to do their bidding.

If that means expelling them from this year's World Cup then so be it.

Last week Gianni Infantino was in Doha praising Qatar's preparations for the World Cup it will host in 2022. Clearly the FIFA boss is in no mood for the unpleasantness to go on for another four years.

There is nothing he can do about the political squabbling, but if the row affects football then he does have power to act, and he has put down a marker that he will.
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.