The Saudi football team flew directly to Doha despite Riyadh’s own ban on air travel to and from the Gulf emirate.
Qatar has welcomed participants of the Arabian Gulf Cup, including its bitter political rivals Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE.
The football tournament, which starts on Tuesday, comes amid a blockade of Qatar by the Gulf trio that started in June 2017.
Riyadh, Manama, and Abu Dhabi broke off relations with Qatar and imposed a land, sea, and air blockade on the country in an attempt to force its leaders to follow their lead on foreign policy and other issues.
The main points of contention were Qatar’s support for opposition groups across the Arab world and its purportedly strong relationship with Iran - all of which amounted to Qatar’s alleged “support for terrorism” according to the Saudi-led bloc.
While the Gulf states have taken part in sporting tournaments before, what is significant about this event is that it occurs amid rumours of a rapprochement between the two sides.
While the UAE team avoided travelling to Qatar directly and chose to do so via Kuwait, the Saudi team flew to Doha directly, in violation of Riyadh’s own ban on flights between the two states.
This came as Emirati academic Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an advisor to the UAE’s rulers, tweeted that an end to the Gulf crisis could come “sooner than expected”.
Rumours that a detente between the rival camps have existed for as long as the blockade has gone on but according to Gulf analysts Khalid Al Jaber and Giorgio Cafiero, a recent cruise missile attack on Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia may have forced Riyadh to reprioritise the order of the threats it faces.
In a recent article, the pair wrote:
“The drone and missile attacks which struck Saudi Arabia’s oil installation at Abqaiq and its oil field at Khurais highlighted the extent to which the kingdom is vulnerable to real threats from Saudi Arabia’s regional adversaries. Thus, the severity of the attack—and the precision on the part of the actor that carried it out—appears to have prompted the Saudi leadership to understand the importance of addressing genuine security challenges rather than fabricated threats.”
(The Saudi Arabian team arrives in Doha)
The Qatari government, for its part, seems well prepared to cool tensions having welcomed teams from the blockading nations warmly, with buses draped in their respective national colours.
Such images stood in stark contrast to the welcome received by Qatari players in January during their Asian Cup triumph in the UAE.
Back then, Qatari players were pelted with rubbish by local fans and no Emirati official attended the medal awarding ceremony after their victory. The Qataris were forced to fly to and from the event via Oman.
While rumours of an end to the hostilities gather pace, some analysts were keen to point out that a lot of ill feelings remain.
Under Emirati academic Abdulkhaleq Abdulla’s tweet, Qatari citizens said they had no intention of resuming relations with countries that had subjected them to the hardships of the past two years. While on the other side, Saudi-UAE owned media outlets and social media bots continued to pump out anti-Qatari propaganda.
“While #Saudi is actively trying to engage with #Qatar to solve the crisis, trolls & bots linked to KSA and #UAE continue to spread disinformation on Qatar in the region - the weaponization of narratives will continue!” Wrote King’s College academic Andreas Krieg on Twitter.