07 February 2019
Zayed Sports City
Politics, sport, religion.
By Neil Tidmarsh
It isn’t often that world politics, sport and religion all occupy the same space at more or less the same time, but consider these three very recent events:
On January 22, a man was arrested for wearing the wrong shirt, and could now face a prison sentence of 15 years and a fine of over £100,000.
On February 01, the final of an international soccer tournament was won by a nation whose citizens could not attend the match.
On February 05, the leader of a world religion held his church’s first public act of worship in the country (and its largest in that part of the world), attended by a congregation of 180,000 people.
They all happened at the same place; the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.
Pope Francis’ three day visit to the UAE this week was the first time a pope had set foot on the Arabian peninsula. The UAE does allow non-Muslims to practice their faiths (although it forbids the display of crosses and conversion from Islam), unlike neighbouring Saudi Arabia which interprets certain of the hadiths (the recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as forbidding the practice of any faith but Islam in the Gulf. There is a Christian church in Abu Dhabi – Saint Joseph’s – which is actually older than the UAE itself, and there are a million practicing Roman Catholics in the country, mostly immigrant workers from the Philippines and other parts of Asia.
The pope’s visit was the result of an inter-faith outreach between the Vatican and Abu Dhabi, and a key event in the UAE’s declared “year of tolerance”. He met political leaders, holding private discussions on “dialogue and tolerance” with the Crown Prince of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai. He met religious leaders, discussing inter-faith dialogue, and signed a statement – expressing a hope for world peace – with the leading Sunni authority, Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque and university.
His open air mass in the Zyed Sports City stadium was expected to attract over 100,000 worshippers, but in the event almost 200,000 attended. The ceremony was also shown on huge screens outside the venue and was broadcast all across the region. It was a good result for the pope. And for the UAE.
Unlike the final of the Asian Cup, which had taken place in the same stadium only the week before – and was won by Qatar.
For the last two years, Qatar has been targeted and punished by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt for its alleged ties with Iran and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. This alliance of Arab countries has imposed sanctions and embargos on what it considers to be a rogue state (albeit a fellow Gulf one) in an attempt to isolate it and force it to come to heel. But Qatar remains defiant. So its participation in this year’s Asian Cup, hosted by the UAE, was always going to be problematic. And it sealed that defiance and infuriated the UAE by winning the whole tournament.
The Asian Football Confederation’s 17th Asian Cup (a knockout tournament which occurs every four years) involved 24 national teams, qualifying out of the AFC’s 45 member countries. Having qualified, Qatar couldn’t be prevented from taking part, but the UAE’s ban on travel made it difficult if not impossible for supporters, reporters and officials from Qatar to attend. UAE officials insist that temporary visas were made available, but the claim is denied by many Qataris and attendance at the Qatari matches was low. Fewer than five hundred spectators attended the game against North Korea.
Qatar met the UAE in the semi-final on January 29 (they beat Saudi Arabia 2-0 in the opening round). The hosts gave them a bad-tempered reception; the Qatari national anthem was booed before the match, UAE supporters threw bottles and shoes (deeply insulting in the Middle East) at the Qatari players during the match, and the UAE Football Association made an official appeal to the AFC after the match, complaining that two of the Qatari players had broken eligibility rules (the AFC dismissed the claim). The UAE lost 0-4.
Qatar met Japan in the final on February 01. Qatar won 3-1. But Al Jazeera reported that there were practically no supporters from Qatar present and blamed the travel ban for their absence.
Even the wearing of the Qatar team’s shirt in public was apparently banned (showing any kind of sympathy with Qatar has been an offence in the UAE for the last two years) and it seems that one poor British football fan – an Arsenal supporter, at that – has fallen foul of the ban. Ali Issa Ahmad’s holiday in the UAE has been disastrously extended; the 26 year old from Wolverhampton wore a Qatar football shirt to the Qatar-Iraq match on January 22 and has been in custody ever since. He’s been held more or less incommunicado, so the facts of his case are difficult to establish, but a number of newspapers insist that he was indeed arrested for wearing that shirt. Some reports say that he was also attacked by opposing fans for wearing the shirt even before he was arrested. He was released, but allegedly beaten by police and then re-arrested when he went to a police station to lodge a complaint about it. The charges include making false statements and wasting police time. He could be fined 500,000 dirhams (£105,000) and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
It looks as if foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, having secured the release of the PhD student Matthew Hedges last November after he was convicted of spying and sentenced to life imprisonment in the UAE, will have to get back on that plane to Abu Dhabi.
Qatar will host the next FIFA World Cup in three years time. Who knows what the fall-out from that might be?