Depoliticizing Iraq-Gulf Relations Through Soccer

Iraq is defying its reputation and fighting against all odds in its attempt to depoliticize its regional image through the use of soccer. Between January 6 and January 19, the city of Basra in southern Iraq is hosting the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup. The only other time that Iraq has hosted this tournament was in 1979. Following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait under the regime of Saddam Hussein, who ruled from 1979 to 2003, Iraq was kicked out of the Gulf Cup and only managed to have its participation reinstated in the wake of the 2003 US invasion, after which it took part in the 17th edition of the tournament, which was hosted by Qatar in 2004.

In the years since the first instance of the biennial tournament in 1970, political problems have often led to sudden changes in its location and date. During the Gulf crisis of 2017–2021—when Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt blockaded and boycotted Qatar—the tournament was moved from Qatar to Kuwait as a compromise aimed at holding it on “neutral ground.” The tournament usually includes national teams from Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Although Yemen and Iraq are not members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) they still share social and cultural similarities, both with each other and with the rest of the countries that take part in the Gulf Cup.

Although Gulf soccer federations have usually justified their hosting decisions with mentions of concerns over security and preparedness, it is hard to ignore the influence that politics holds over the tournament.

GCC soccer federations have previously justified their refusal to hold the tournament in Iraq by citing security concerns and the country’s apparent unpreparedness to take on hosting duties, including a significant lack of both accommodations for guests and stadium infrastructure. This rationale was usually countered by Iraqi media and the government, both of which accusing the Gulf federations of politicizing the tournament. However, in recent years, Iraq-Gulf relations have witnessed a significant positive development, wherein economic, cultural, humanitarian, and sustainability incentives appear to have won out over prior political differences. Still, societal engagement between Iraq and GCC countries has not returned to pre-1990 levels (i.e., prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait), when citizens of many Gulf Arab states would travel to Iraq for tourism or business. Since 1991, Gulf Arab states have aligned their foreign policies by working to maintain security and stability in the Middle East and North Africa—at least up until the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in 2015 and the aforementioned Gulf crisis.

Iraq’s hosting of this iteration of the Gulf Cup cannot be understood without considering the positive impacts of the political and diplomatic reconciliations of recent years. Relations are no longer reliant on high-level forums, international donor conferences, memorandums of understanding, or trade deals. Instead, they are finally reaching a stage where governments and soccer associations believe that Iraq-Gulf social engagement does not need to be defined by political and politicized frameworks.

Defining Iraq-Gulf Relations through the Gulf Cup

The Gulf Cup is not well known outside of the region, yet it is passionately competed over within it. As previously mentioned, the tournament often mirrors the status quo of Iraq-Gulf relations, which can lead to political influence over the selection of each iteration’s host country. The toppling of the Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 presented an opportunity to rebuild Iraq-Gulf relations. However, fragile Saudi-Iraqi relations during the premiership of Nouri al-Maliki (2006–2014), an expanding Iranian regional influence, and many other realities limited the progress of Iraq-Gulf relations.

In 2008, local authorities in Basra approached the Gulf soccer associations, requesting to host the Gulf Cup for the first time. Iraq was very close to hosting the tournament in 2013 and 2014. However, the 2013 tournament was moved to Bahrain and the 2014 iteration was moved to Saudi Arabia. At the time, the Iraqi Ministry of Youth and Sports commented on the matter, stating, “It has become manifestly clear that the reason for moving the [tournament] from Basra to Jeddah is political and taken under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia.” Although Gulf soccer federations have usually justified their hosting decisions with mentions of concerns over security and preparedness, it is hard to ignore the influence that politics holds over the tournament.

From Iraq’s perspective, the decision to move the 2014 cup was due to the indirect influence of the Saudi and Qatari soccer federations. The decision came as protests were emerging in Iraq’s Anbar Governorate, and as Maliki’s government and its affiliated media channels accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting Sunni insurgents. The political crisis in Anbar revived a regional sectarian political discourse with respect to Iraq. On the one hand, Maliki utilized his alliance with Iran’s affiliates by exploiting a Shia sectarian discourse to undermine the demands that were being made regarding public services, unemployment, and marginalization in this Sunni-majority province. On the other hand, news outlets Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya (which are Qatari- and Saudi-funded, respectively) focused on the element of sectarian marginalization in the protests and on Iran’s involvement.

Iraq’s sports facilities are not much different now than they were in 2013 and 2014 when its last two bids to host the cup were rejected. The 2023 tournament is taking place in just one city and the matches are distributed between only two stadiums, one that was built in 2013, and another in December 2022. However, Iraq has many other cities with additional stadiums, and with more accommodations, so the event could have easily been held in Iraq in earlier years. Therefore, granting Iraq the right to host this edition of the tournament is a positive sign for current Iraq-Gulf relations. This relationship has increasingly improved in the years since the end of Maliki’s second term in 2014 and of the country’s battle with the so-called Islamic State (IS), especially since Maliki’s government continuously accused its Gulf neighbors of meddling in Iraqi domestic affairs by supporting Iraq’s Sunni forces. The withdrawal of the sectarian shadow that previously loomed over Iraq-Gulf relations paved the way for new collaborations based on common interests.

Iraq-Gulf relations have increasingly improved in the years since the end of Maliki’s second term in 2014.

Other developments that signify a major transformation have also occurred in Iraq’s recent relations with its Gulf neighbors. Kuwait hosted a donor conference in February 2018 to support Iraq in facing its economic challenges. Saudi foreign policy toward Iraq shifted from politics to culture, from a focus on anti-Iran antagonism to establishing a media presence in Iraq. Qatar and Saudi Arabia gave up their Sunni-centric approach toward Iraq and began engaging with the Iraqi government and even with Iraqi Shia political leaders. However, one major development that most signified the improvement of Iraq-Gulf relations was the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership in August 2021. Heads of state and foreign ministers from France, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates attended the conference. The secretaries-general of the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the foreign ministers of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, were also in attendance.

Iraq aimed to use the conference to mediate between and gather together regional neighbors to address their differences for the betterment of the region’s political, security, and economic stability. The conference also indicated the transition of Iraq’s image in the eyes of its Arab neighbors, from a state that is influenced by Iran’s regional interests to one that can be relied on to bridge the gap between Iran and the Arab world. Officials in the GCC could have easily been intimidated by Iran’s influence among the Iraqi political class and instead insisted on meeting on more neutral ground. However, Iraq’s recent rapprochement with most of the GCC states has decreased hostility.

Qatar’s relations with Iran improved following the Saudi-led blockade against the country, and both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have shown interest in de-escalating tensions with Iran, and even with the Syrian government. However, the willingness of the Iraqi government to commit efforts toward conducting such regional mediation is also due to its awareness of public frustration toward Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq. Trying to limit a specific country’s influence—such as Iran’s—through the development of multilateral regional relations seems to be the most realistic approach at this stage, especially due to Iran’s enormous paramilitary influence in Iraq, which could only be challenged by an armed confrontation that is not in the interest of Iraq’s Gulf neighbors.

De-Politicization Moving Forward

In addition to focusing on soccer, Iraq has recently been hosting various international conferences related to security, politics, and religion—a sign that it has transformed from a place of disputes to one of constructive dialogue. Another example of Iraq benefiting from international engagement was Pope Francis’ historic March 2021 visit to the country. In addition to stopping in Baghdad, the Kurdish capital Erbil, and the Shia center of Najaf, the Pope visited churches near Mosul’s old town and in the ancient city of Ur that had been destroyed by IS, which led to renovations in both areas and increased investment and interest in the tourism sector, perhaps because the papal visit broke down negative stereotypes about Iraq being a “war zone.”

During this year’s Gulf Cup, soccer fans from across the GCC are already expressing awe regarding the safety, generosity, and heritage of the host city, Basra. The tournament may therefore help boost Gulf tourism to Basra and surrounding cities, especially after organizers allowed for Majlis, the Arab world’s most popular soccer television program, to air from Basra instead of Doha as a way to support the tournament and celebrate this unique moment. Gulf media outlets are providing Iraq with enormous coverage and support, particularly following the impressive opening ceremony, which was attended by the region’s governmental and soccer officials and by FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani demanded that the opening ceremony not allow any political party slogans—a surprising move from a leader who was initially proposed as a candidate by Iraq’s Iran-aligned political parties. The Gulf’s media enthusiasm and its citizens’ attendance of matches, along with Iraqi efforts to prevent the political context from ruining the tournament, reflect the willingness of both Iraq and GCC states to de-politicize this soccer tournament.

The Gulf’s media enthusiasm and the Iraqi efforts to prevent the political context from ruining the tournament, reflect the willingness of both Iraq and GCC states to de-politicize this soccer tournament.

The Gulf Arab states have invested in and developed their own industries, sports markets, tourism and entertainment sectors, and social and environmental sustainability programs. Despite Iraq’s having been distracted by political and security instability in recent years, it has a larger consumer market in most of these sectors than its Gulf neighbors do, and the two sides should therefore easily find common interests on which to build partnerships. Governmental and public enthusiasm toward Iraq’s hosting of this tournament should encourage both members of society and officials to focus on finding nonpolitical events that encourage additional investments, infrastructure, sporting events, and tourism in Iraq, which would benefit the country’s economic and political stability. Local authorities in Iraq who work with international institutions and nongovernmental organizations must find areas and industries that have the potential to encourage the development of regional and international interests, including tourism and economic investments. The political and economic stability of the Gulf is crucial to the global economy. Therefore, international organizations must encourage cultural, sustainability, media, and sports initiatives that will unify the peoples of the Arabian Peninsula and allow them to overcome their geopolitical and ideological differences.

Featured image credit: Iraqi News Agency