Football World Cup

Qatar: A High-Profile Inter-Arab Derby for Curtain Raiser

Two of three most famous football teams in the Arab world, Zamalek (Egypt) and Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia) will meet on Friday 9 September to baptise the Lusail Iconic Stadium, the crown jewel of Qatar’s sporting equipment. The tone of the game is a foregone conclusion: it will be a splendid regional fête, less than two months before the World Cup.

The Lusail Iconic Stadium, 2 September 2022
Karim Jaafar/AFP

The Tunisian international Youssef Msakni had just kicked the first goal for his team Al-Arabi SC. It was 11 August 2022: one of the capital’s three derbies was being played between Al-Arabi SC and Al-Rayyan SC. For the first time, a competitive fixture was taking place on the pitch of the brand new Lusail Iconic Stadium, the largest in Qatar, which will host the World Cup final on 8 December. However keen their local fans, interest in this particular game was limited to the tiny peninsula. But for Doha, which is developing around this World Cup a rhetoric centred on the idea that it is organising a celebration of world football as a cultural gift to Arab countries everywhere, the match was a trial run.

The constant quest for a regional vibe

The inauguration of this stadium was part and parcel of a pre-tournament built around the notion publicised by the Emirate that this will be the “Arabs’ World Cup”, an idea already showcased by Doha on several occasions. Its organising the Arab Cup of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) which saw Algeria defeat Tunisia in the 2021 final, followed by its hosting of the African Supercup opposing two great clubs, Raja Casablanca and Al-Ahly, the Cairo team with the most trophies in Africa, were two events which highlighted this policy. On 9 September Al-Hilal SC and Zaalek SC will be called on to play their part in amplifying the regional renown of the grandiose inauguration of the Iconic Stadium.

Qatar is exploiting regional sporting activities to boost its centrality, addressing the football powers that be in order to appropriate a share of the symbolic capital which is theirs. Focusing the opening of its latest stadium on the winning of the Saudi-Egyptian Super-Cup – Kas al-suber al-misri al-sa’oudi – confers on the emirate a completely different dimension. Originally conceived by Sheikh Faysal Bin Fahad Al-Saud, then president of the Saudi football federation, together with his Egyptian counterpart Samir Zaher, this cup was created in 2001. It goes to whichever team wins a confrontation between the winners of the Egyptian and Saudi national championships.

Abandoned in 2003, the Supercup was revived in 2018 by Riyadh and Cairo conjointly, a resurrection which reflected the strengthening of ties between the ruling elites of the two countries. After the fifteen-year interruption, the Fahad Cup became the Mohamed Bin Salman Cup and the Hosni Mubarak trophy took the name of Marshal Al-Sisi.

The Gulf-Egypt connection

From the fifties to the seventies relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia were considerably cooled. The period was known as the “Arab cold war,” pitting pan-Arabism against pan-Islamism. A confrontation which could also be seen as a struggle between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s anti-imperialism and King Faysal’s alliance with the United States in exchange for his country’s access to the US oil market.

Given this context, Saudi Arabia, like its neighbours, the oil monarchies of the Gulf, became a land of exile par excellence for the Egyptian opposition. The following period was characterised by the infitah, a policy of economic liberalism promoted by President Anuar El-Sadate which brought about a détente between the two regional powers. The economic momentum that followed the 1973 oil crisis caused an increase of Egyptian immigration to Saudi Arabia. In 2022, the Arab peninsula plays host to the largest share of the Egyptian diaspora. In terms of geopolitics, it constitutes a major extension of Egypt with 3 million expatriates on its soil according to the latest available statistics. Though somewhat dated (2016), these do provide an idea of the extent of the phenomenon, to which must be added the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians living in the neighbouring emirates. The result is a cultural “interleaving” and football is no exception. The revival of the Supercup is a consequence of this historic mix. And the political and economic proximity kept alive by Riyadh and Cairo has helped it along.

Football culture as a mirror of migrations

Al-Ahly SC and Zamalek, the two legendary clubs of Cairo, Al-Hilal, Al-Shebab and Al-Nasr, the three main clubs of Riyadh, AlIttihad and Al-Ahly Al-Maliky, the historic clubs of Jeddah all enjoy immense popularity from the Maghreb to the Mashrek. This situation may be interpreted as a legacy of Egypt’s bygone cultural prestige associated with the more recent economic appal of the Saudi kingdom.

In the 1950s, when Zamalek and Al-Ahly stood out already and were admired all over the region, Saudi football was in its infancy. The history of football in that country is little known and took place in stages. Its popularity developed in trade and religious centres in the West Coast Hedjaz region at the end of the twenties from Jeddah to Mecca, then at the oil-drilling sites in Al-Sharqiyah in the East before taking shape around Riyadh in the fifties. It was during this period that all the major Saudi clubs listed above were formed.

It was thanks to the modernising impetus of the 1970s and with encouragement of the Saudi authorities, aided by Western advisers that football fandom established itself with institutionalisation of the sport through official competitions. The leagues were financed by profits of the oil industry. As a result, the level of play was greatly improved and the fervour in the stands grew to fever pitch. Following the Grand Mosque seizure in 19791 the tightening of moral restrictions in public imposed by the authorities left less room for entertainments of any kind. As result of this political turning, stadiums became one of the few leisure venues available to young Saudi males. A stadium culture was born.

Sport and politics

Inter-club rivalries and the good performances of the national squad fuelled that growing passion. Increasing numbers of the Arabian diaspora were football fans and took on board this aspect of Saudi culture, the Kingdom’s major clubs in Jeddah and Riyadh became increasingly popular around the region. In this respect, Saudi Arabia became as influential as Egypt. The Saudi-Egyptian Supercup was born of the cross-border entwinement of these two cultures.

According to various local media, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Ahmed Al-Thani, the president of the Qatari Football Federation, was in Cairo in August 2022 for a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart. He wanted to make sure the champion of Egypt would be coming to Qatar for the final of the Supercup against Al-Ahly., that his country would take advantage of the popularity of these two-star teams of Arab football, and make sure that the publicity for this inaugural match would have a region-wide impact when it might have been confined to the local media.

Though this aspect of its political activity is less perceptible, it does point to a Qatar concerned by its place in the region. The ruling class uses sport as a language adapting it to different forms with the various media under its control. From Doha’s point of view, hosting Zamlek SC vs. Al-Hilal SC is a way of occupying the centre of the stage in its carefully managed tale, “The Arab World Cup.”

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The Grand Mosque seizure occurred during November and December 1979 when extremist insurgents calling for the overthrow of the House of Saud took over Masjid al-Haram, the holiest mosque in Islam, in Mecca (Wikipedia).