AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — Qatar opened the Middle East’s first World Cup on Sunday with its leader sitting next to the leaders of two Arab countries that only a year and a half earlier had participated in a boycott trying to bring the energy- rich nation to its knees.
No leaders from major Western countries were seen at the opening ceremony of the tournament in Qatar, which has come under heavy criticism, particularly in Europe, over its treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ community.
But the presence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi shows how far Qatar has come since the boycott that saw its only land border and air routes cut for years as part of a political dispute.
Also on the dais with the leaders was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who provided a vital lifeline to Qatar during the crisis.
Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and his son attended on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Mohammed is vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates – and Dubai, dotted with skyscrapers, has long been at the center of Qatari investment.
But missing were the President of the United Arab Emirates, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the King of Bahrain. Analysts say the two countries remain highly skeptical of Qatar and their absence suggests a full rapprochement between the usually clubby Gulf Arab countries remains a long way off.
Saudi Prince Mohammed smiled broadly and sat one seat away from Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ruling emir, during the opening ceremony in Al Khor, north of the capital, Doha . Between them was Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, the governing body of world football.
After an opening ceremony speaking about the inclusiveness of Bedouin tradition – inside a stadium designed to look like a traditional tent – Sheikh Tamim struck the same note in a brief speech.
“How beautiful for people to put aside what divides them to celebrate their diversity and what brings them together at the same time,” he said.
At the height of the Qatar crisis, newspaper columns even suggested digging a trench along the 87-kilometre (54-mile) border and filling it with nuclear waste. Although rhetorical bluster, it showed just how much anger was running through the region amid the dispute – who, according to the former leader of Kuwait, almost started a war.
Its root came from Qatar’s pro-Islamist stance who rose to power in Egypt and elsewhere after the 2011 Arab Spring. While Qatar saw their arrival as a sea change in the gerontocracies gripping the Middle East, other Gulf Arab nations saw the protests as a threat to their autocratic and hereditary regime.
Qatar has also come under fire from the West as groups it originally funded during Syria’s civil war have turned into extremists. Qatar would later deny ever funding Islamic extremists, despite criticism from across the US political spectrum from hillary clinton at donald trump.
Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, follows an ultra-conservative version of Islam known as Wahhabism. Still, the country allows alcohol consumption in hotel bars and in a FIFA fan zone in the country. Already, some in the country have criticized what they see as Western cultural extravaganzas of the tournament – likely leading to the beer ban in stadiums.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemeni branch of the extremist group, released a statement on Saturday criticizing the Qataris for organizing a tournament “bringing in immoral people, homosexuals, sowers of corruption and atheism”.
“We warn our Muslim brothers not to follow or attend this event,” the group said, calling on scholars not to support it. However, the al-Qaeda arm did not pose a direct threat to the tournament and was weakened by years of drone strikes by US forces and engulfed by the ongoing war in Yemen.
UN Secretary General António Guterres, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Rwandan President Paul Kagame were present at the opening on Sunday evening.
The Crown Prince of Kuwait came, as well as the Director General of the World Health Organization and the President of Djibouti.
But the biggest applause came for Sheikh Tamim and his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who won the tournament in 2010.
Meanwhile, Iran only sent its minister of youth and sports – not its hardline president – as the Islamic Republic faces months of protests following the death of a 22-year-old woman previously detained by the country’s vice squad.
It was unclear at what level Western nations were represented during the ceremony and the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador. On Saturday, Infantino gave an unusual speech at a press conference where he chastised the Europeans for criticizing Qatar’s human rights record ahead of the tournament, saying they were unable to to give “moral lectures” given their history.
Associated Press writer Lujain Jo contributed to this report.
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Jon Gambrell, Associated Press