Qatar’s World Cup Showcases New Ties With Saudi Arabia, but Scars Remain

AL-AHSA, Saudi Arabia — There used to be so many Qataris in the bazaar in the Saudi oasis of Al-Ahsa, hunting for deals on spices and sandals, that some merchants called it “the Qatar market.” Qataris would cross the border and drive 100 miles through the desert to reach the towns of Al-Ahsa, loading their SUVs with sacks of flour, dining in the restaurants and filling the hotels.

Then came “the crisis,” as people here call it. Saudi Arabia, along with Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, severed ties with Qatar in 2017 and effectively isolated the tiny country, accusing its government of supporting terrorism and meddling in their internal affairs. Qatari officials denied the allegations and accused Saudi Arabia and the other countries of creating a “blockade” against their nation. Saudi Arabia closed the border — Qatar’s only land border — and Qatari business in Al-Ahsa withered.

Few people felt more relief than the merchants in Al-Ahsa when the split ended last year, as Saudi officials moved to resolve conflicts abroad that had become costly and contentious. Last week, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia clasped hands and grinned at the opening ceremony of the soccer World Cup in Qatar, showing off the repair of a rift that reshaped the Gulf.

“We’re very happy, because there’s business,” said Ali Abdullah, 59, who has worked in Al-Ahsa’s market for decades. He watched the Qataris disappear and then rejoiced as they gradually returned. “The closest supermarket to Qatar is Al-Ahsa,” he joked.

Ali Abdullah, left, a shop owner, pouring spices into jars at a market in Al-Ahsa. “We’re very happy, because there’s business,” he said, referring to the return of Qataris.Credit…Iman Al-Dabbagh for The New York Times

The renewal of Saudi-Qatari ties has been on full display at the World Cup. Prince Mohammed donned a scarf in the colors of the Qatari flag, then Sheikh Tamim draped his shoulders in a Saudi one, reassuring their citizens that — at least for now — the warmth was here to stay. The prince ordered Saudi government entities to offer any support needed to make the tournament in Qatar a success.

The World Cup has a way of stoking regional solidarity, with Gulf and Arab countries cheering on one another’s teams. Abdulaziz Albagshi, a Saudi soccer fan, said he was so proud of Qatar’s status as the first Arab country to host the World Cup that it almost felt like “we’re hosting the World Cup, not Qatar.”

A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup

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What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:

Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.

When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.

Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.

How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.

How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.

How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.

When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.

Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.

“We consider it one region,” said Mr. Albagshi, 40, at a crowded outdoor venue in Al-Ahsa where he watched his national team take on, and beat, Argentina last week. “There’s a closeness — culture, dialect and a lot of shared things. We don’t feel like there’s a difference.”

Neighboring Gulf countries are also seeking to benefit from spillover tourism from the event, which is expected to draw more than a million fans to Qatar, a country of three million people with limited hotel capacity. In the Saudi capital of Riyadh, the authorities set aside an airport terminal for a cascade of nearly continuous flights to Doha, the Qatari capital.

“Can’t get a hotel in Qatar for your football match? You’ll score with our exclusive travel offers to stay in Saudi, and commute to Qatar,” read an advertisement on the side of a bus in London last month. Even a beloved Saudi fried chicken restaurant, Albaik, has set up food trucks in Doha.

Watching the Saudi Arabia-Argentina match in Al-Ahsa. Saudi Arabia secured a shock 2-1 victory, beating one of the pretournament favorites.Credit…Iman Al-Dabbagh for The New York Times

Yet the regional dispute has left scars, and the World Cup is highlighting those, too. While the island nation of Bahrain is just 20 miles from Qatar, few fans will be staying there because the relationship between the two countries remains so fractious that there are no direct flights. The nearby United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, is benefiting greatly from its flight connections to Qatar; many fans prefer to spend their nights in Dubai because of the emirate’s reputation as a tourist destination with easy access to alcohol, which Qatar restricts. But ties between the Qatari and Emirati governments remain strained.

Even in Saudi Arabia, which has much friendlier relations with Qatar, there’s an unease to the rapprochement. On the evening the World Cup began, the Saudi authorities blocked the streaming service of beIN, a Qatari-run sports television network, leaving many Saudis with no way to watch the first game. The Saudi government’s Center for International Communication did not respond to a request for comment.

Some Saudis are concerned about voicing support for Qatar, wary that what was fixed could break again. In 2017, a key adviser to Prince Mohammed encouraged Saudis to name and shame “mercenaries” who had taken Qatar’s side in the feud. The split with Qatar coincided with a crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia, and dozens of religious clerics, businesspeople, royal family members, writers and activists across the political spectrum were arrested over the following years.

Chairs to be used for people watching World Cup matches were stacked at a market in Al-Ahsa. Many Gulf and Arab countries have been cheering on one another’s teams.Credit…Iman Al-Dabbagh for The New York Times

Some of them faced accusations of sympathizing with or having ties to Qatar, and several of those people remain imprisoned. A cleric, Ali Badahdah, was charged with treason, partly in connection with allegations that he supported Qatari positions against the kingdom.

After Prince Mohammed attended the opening ceremony in Doha, Nasser al-Qarni, son of another imprisoned Saudi cleric, Awad al-Qarni, noted on Twitter, “One of the charges against my father by the public prosecutor was sympathizing with the hostile state of Qatar.”

In an interview with Bloomberg in 2017, Adel al-Jubeir, then Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said the spate of arrests that included those of Mr. al-Qarni and Mr. Badahdah had targeted people who were “pushing an extremist agenda” and took “funding from foreign countries in order to destabilize Saudi Arabia.”

An outdoor venue in Al-Ahsa showing World Cup matches. Neighboring Gulf countries are seeking to benefit from spillover tourism from the event.Credit…Iman Al-Dabbagh for The New York Times

As close as the Gulf States are, their relationships are complex. Saudi Arabia and Qatar share not only a border but also tribes that transcend it, camels that graze across it and households with relatives on either side. The royal family of Qatar has lineage linked to Najd, the central region of present-day Saudi Arabia.

“Saudis are Qatari and Qataris are Saudi, even with the crisis,” said Abdulmajeed al-Harthi, a 28-year-old Saudi fan who traveled to Qatar by bus to attend the World Cup.

Al-Ahsa embodies those links — and their painful breakage — perhaps more than any other place in Saudi Arabia. A two-hour drive from the Qatari border, the region appears on Google Maps as a dark green splotch in a sea of beige, with millions of date palm trees. It has traces of inhabitation dating back to the Neolithic period, and its towns have the relaxed vibes of a caravan rest stop. Members of Shia and Sunni religious sects live together, mostly in harmony. Residents speak in a unique accent that they compare to a southern American drawl, and many families maintain farms outside the city.

In anticipation of the World Cup, Mohammed Abdullah, 26, listed a room on his family’s farm on Airbnb, hoping to attract tourists passing through on their way to Qatar.

“It is not luxurious,” he cautioned visitors last week, before driving them down a dirt road to the farm, where sunlight squinted through the trees, baby goats bleated and turkeys bobbed in the shade. He hopes that fans “who want to discover Saudi” will come. So far he has fielded bookings from other Saudis and from a German, who plans to fly into Bahrain, cross the border to visit Al-Ahsa and then take a bus to Qatar.

Mohammed Abdullah at his family’s farmhouse in Al-Ahsa. He has listed a room for rent on Airbnb, hoping to attract tourists passing through on their way to Qatar.Credit…Iman Al-Dabbagh for The New York Times

Shopkeepers and hotel owners in Al-Ahsa had hoped the World Cup would bring them hordes of soccer tourists. That has not yet happened, mainly because Qatar imposed expensive restrictions on driving across the border, pushing fans to take buses or to fly instead. Al-Ahsa hotels that had raised their prices to more than $1,000 a night before the World Cup quickly lowered them when the crowds failed to arrive.

At the market, Souk al-Qaisariah, where merchants sell saffron, perfume, dried limes and warm winter cloaks, and the sweet scent of bukhoor, a type of incense, hangs in the air, an open-top bus imprinted with “Welcome to Saudi Arabia” sat empty. Vendors said that they had seen very few tourists.

Qataris are coming back and roads around the market were dotted with the familiar white SUVs. But it’s not the same as it used to be, said Zakaria Al-Abbas, a 40-year-old merchant, recalling the era before relations were cut, when he would stock hundreds of sacks of flour and Qataris would buy them all within hours. During their three-and-a-half-year isolation from the kingdom, Qataris grew self-sufficient, and while they used to search for cheaper goods in Al-Ahsa, they now do more shopping back home, he said.

Still, he’s persevering, much as he will if the Saudi national team fails to advance in the World Cup, he added. A game against Mexico on Wednesday will determine whether they continue in the tournament.

“If our team is knocked out, you support the other Arab teams,” Mr. Al-Abbas said. “If next year there’s no business, you don’t go and say I’m leaving business. It’s profit and loss.”

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