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dated: 2022-11-20 17:14:22 .
AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — Qatar opened the first World Cup in the Middle East on Sunday as its ruler sat alongside the leaders of two countries that just a year and a half earlier were part of a boycott that sought to bring the energy-rich nation to its knees.
No leaders from major Western countries were present at the opening ceremony of the tournament in Qatar, which has drawn widespread criticism, particularly in Europe, over its treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ community.
The presence of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi shows how far Qatar has come from a boycott that saw its only land border and air routes cut off for years amid political strife.
Also on the podium with the leaders was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who provided Qatar with a vital lifeline during the crisis. But missing were the leaders of the other two nations involved in the dispute – Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – who signaled that a full rapprochement between the typically clubby Gulf Arab nations is a long way off.
Smiling broadly, Prince Mohammed sat just one seat next to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s ruling emir, at the opening ceremony in Al Khor, north of the capital Doha. Among them was Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
At the height of the crisis, newspaper columns even suggested digging a trench along the 87-kilometer border and filling it with nuclear waste. Although it was a rhetorical boast, it showed how deep the anger ran in the region amid the dispute – which the then-ruler of Kuwait suspected had almost sparked war.
Its roots lie in Qatar’s stance that it supports the Islamists who came to power in Egypt and elsewhere after the 2011 Arab Spring. While Qatar saw their arrival as a major change in the gerontocracies sweeping the Middle East, other Gulf Arab states saw the protests as a threat to their autocratic and hereditary rule.
Qatar also faced criticism from the West when groups that initially funded it in the Syrian civil war turned extremist. Qatar later denied ever funding Islamic extremists, despite criticism from across the US political spectrum from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump.
Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, follows an ultra-conservative version of Islam known as Wahhabism. However, the country allows alcohol to be served in hotel bars and in the FIFA fan zone in the country. Some in the country have already criticized what they see as the Western cultural extravaganza of the tournament – which is likely to have led to the ban on beer in the stadium.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the extremist group’s Yemen-based branch, issued a statement on Saturday criticizing the Qataris for hosting a tournament that “brings immoral people, homosexuals, corruption-seekers and atheists.”
“We warn our Muslim brothers not to follow or attend this event,” the group said, urging scholars not to support them. However, Al Qaeda’s arm did not directly threaten the tournament, having been weakened by years of US drone strikes and consumed by the ongoing war in Yemen.
The opening on Sunday evening was attended by 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.
The Kuwaiti crown prince was accompanied by the Director General of the World Health Organization and the President of Djibouti.
But the biggest applause went to Sheikh Tamim and his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who won the tournament in 2010.
Meanwhile, Iran feels only its youth and sports minister – not its hardline president – as the Islamic Republic faces months of protests over the death of a 22-year-old woman who was previously arrested by state troops.
It was not clear at what level Western nations were represented at the ceremony and at the opening match between Qatar and Ecuador. On Saturday, Infantino gave an unusual speech at a press conference, in which he reprimanded the Europeans for criticizing Qatar’s human rights record ahead of the tournament and said they were unable to teach “moral lessons” given their history.
Associated Press writer Lujain Jo contributed to this report.
Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellaAP.
Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press
The opening of the World Cup in Qatar shows a resurgence after the boycott
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