By Assad Bhuglah

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Soccer is the second religion in the Arab world. It is interesting to understand the Arab passion for football/soccer while diving deeper into the Arab World.  While learning the important role that soccer plays in the Arab nations, this game also provides the opportunity to expose the richness found in the customs, beliefs, foods, and culture of the Arab World. However, soccer in the Arab world is played as much on as off the pitch. Stadiums are a symbol of the battle for political freedom; economic opportunity; ethnic, religious and national identity; and gender rights.

Political leaders in the Arab World have invested massively in sport, at different degrees, mainly for the purpose of mobilising popular support around the one party-state’s ideology and around the autocratic figure. Hundreds of photos, covers of newspapers and magazines, can be retrieved from the archives displaying current and former Arab Presidents and Kings presenting trophies to national football teams and domestic clubs, offering awards to Olympic medallists, and honorary titles to national sporting figures. Sport was incorporated, and still, in the political affairs of countries in the Arab World either to strengthen the legitimacy of ruling parties and royal families, or nowadays to delegitimise the ousted regimes following “the Arab spring”. Political leaders are also using sport as an opportunity for place branding and positioning of their country in the world’s map.

 Most soccer clubs in the region were established with some kind of political or ideological leaning, whether pro-colonial, pro-monarchy, nationalist, or other. Football in the Arab world began with the founding of the two Cairo clubs more than a century ago. Egyptian club football has always reflected the country’s politics, from its anti-imperialist origins to the Arab Spring revolts. In British-administered Egypt, Al Ahly represented the anti-imperialist working class and was home to students who later became revolutionaries. Zamalek was associated with the elite, the foreign administrators and the military. In 1956, Nasser became the national president and in the same year he was also named Al Ahly’s honorary president.  Sadat, like his successor Hosni Mubarak, was an Al Ahly fan. Both attempted to use football to boost their own popularity and as a vehicle for strengthening national identity. Over the past several years, soccer fields across the Arab world have become battlegrounds for political, gender, and labour rights, as well as issues of national, ideological, and ethnic identity. The sport has also been an important battleground for women's rights. Saha al-Hawari, the daughter of an Egyptian referee, worked to break down regional opposition to women's soccer by convincing families, clubs, and governments to allow women to organize their own teams. She also partnered with Jordan's Prince Ali in convincing the member states of the West Asian Football Federation to declare that women had an equal right to pursue soccer as a career.

The soccer pitch can also be a barometer of future events. In Jordan, statements openly critical of the royal family's corruption first gained notoriety on the soccer field. And at Saudi soccer matches, many princes are booed, pelted with various objects, and sometimes forced off the pitch entirely. The growing influence of the football fans challenged the power of some regimes, but also presented them with opportunities. Leaders such as Ahmadinejad, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali sought close public association with national teams in order to harness their massive popularity. Mubarak in particular used the sport to deflect attention from government mismanagement and manipulate national emotions. Alongside the mosque, the stadium was, until the Arab revolt erupted in late 2010, the only alternative public space for venting pent-up anger and frustration. It was the training ground in countries like Egypt and Tunisia where militant fans prepared for a day in which their organization and street battle experience would serve them in the showdown with autocratic rulers. Soccer has its own unique thrill – a high-stakes game of cat and mouse between militants and security forces and a struggle for a trophy grander than the FIFA World Cup: the future of a region.  

Egypt's fans defiantly claimed ownership over their clubs. Once the revolution began, the fans played a key role in breaking the barrier of fear for the masses -- they approached Egyptians who had never spoken out against the government, brought them to demonstrations in Tahrir Square, and pressured them to remain once security forces cracked down.

Qatar, a country with a negligible soccer background or infrastructure, was a controversial winner of the right to host the 2022 World Cup, which will be held in November and December to minimise the impact of the desert state’s harsh climate. Evidently, Qatar has been the most visible in the region when it comes to investment in sport. The start of the Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa’s era announced a beginning of the political process of modernization in the country. In relation to sport, the policy of marketing for better international visibility took an important turn with the organization of the 2006 Asian Games held in Doha. Moreover, winning the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup was celebrated by the country’s political and business leaders as a historical moment for sport not only for Qatar, but for the whole region. It will be the first mega event to be held in an Arab country. Sport might be seen as the vehicle par excellence for the promotion of Qatar under the leadership of Khalifa’s family. It is true that, just by looking at the wide range of sports facilities and international sports events held in the country, every year, Qatar can be seen today as a lucrative destination for sport industry.

The six Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which in last June cut ties with Qatar wrote to world soccer’s governing body FIFA, requesting it be stripped of hosting the 2022 World Cup because they consider the Gulf state to be a “base of terrorism”. The Qatari officials believe that the Saudi-led blockade wouldnot impact Qatar's preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Qatar is committed to spend at least $200 billion on new stadiums, infrastructure, and even vowed to build a new city.  Qatar is building or refurbishing eight stadiums for the 2022 event. Al-Wakrah, a 40,000-seat stadium, being built for the football World Cup 2022 will be ready on schedule in 2018 despite sanctions imposed by Gulf neighbours, coming next in line after Khalifa stadium, which was completed in May 2017. Hosting the tournament has become "a do-or-die" project for Qatar.