Just two years ago, Qatar was under a boycott by its immediate neighbors – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain – as well as Egypt. Some of these countries pushed for Qatar to be stripped as the host of the World Cup or forced to share the event with its neighbors. The boycott ended in January 2021, and while Qatar is not sharing the hosting of World Cup matches, it is sharing the financial rewards of the tournament with its neighbors.
The emir of Qatar was joined by the Saudi crown prince, crown prince of Kuwait, and prime minister of the UAE at the 2022 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony, showcasing a sense of unity among the neighboring states and paving the way for further cooperation. UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan made an official state visit December 5, and the prime minister of Kuwait traveled to Doha to watch a match on December 6. More regional officials are likely to travel to Qatar before the final match on December 18.
Between 1.2 million and 1.5 million tourists are expected to travel to Doha by the end of the tournament. With its limited capacity for accommodations and entertainment as well as logistical challenges, Doha was bound to share some aspects of the World Cup with its neighbors even from the early planning stages. But because other countries were not part of the bid and could not host official World Cup matches, the neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council states largely shunned proposals for large investment projects related to the event. The more than three-year GCC conflict did not help either. Additionally, diplomatic relations among some GCC states, particularly between Qatar and Bahrain, remain complicated, making any coordination on joint projects difficult.
Nevertheless, the World Cup has been an economic boon for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Oman and Kuwait. Only Bahrain, due to a slower bilateral rapprochement, was unable to benefit from the cash inflow coming to the region. According to a November report by RedSeer Strategy Consultants, the World Cup was projected to “provide a massive $4 billion uplift to GCC spending levels” with increasing spending by tourists and locals. The GCC food services industry was expected to gain about $6 billion in additional online and in-person orders. Taken together with elevated energy prices, it has been a good year for GCC economies, which are projected to grow 6.9% in 2022. The total economic output of the GCC states is expected to total $2 trillion by the end of the year, according to the World Bank.
To enable fans to easily attend games in Doha, even if they are lodging in other cities around the region, Qatar Airways, Flydubai, Oman Air, Kuwait Airways, and Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) are operating shuttle flights to and from Doha during the tournament. There are 66 daily flights from the UAE, 10 from Oman, 12 from Kuwait, and 29 from Saudi Arabia.
To ease the planning and arrival of tourists, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman have been offering multientry visas linked to Qatar’s digital Hayya Card system, allowing anyone with a match ticket, as well as their companions, free movement among Qatar and these three countries. After the end of the first two weeks of the tournament, Qatar announced that GCC citizens and residents would no longer need a Hayya Card to enter the country, allowing even more travel in the region.
The facilitation of the visa process and the operation of shuttle flights in and out of Doha has not only helped Qatar avoid an accommodation crunch but also made attending the World Cup more affordable for tourists who could elect to stay in a less expensive city than Doha during their time at the tournament. The UAE, with its ample hotel infrastructure and entertainment options, has proved a popular base for fans.
The Dubai Sports Council estimated that Dubai would welcome one million additional visitors during the course of the soccer tournament. In Abu Dhabi, hotels have been getting a “double benefit from sporting events,” as the World Cup started when Formula One races ended in the city. Hotels in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are already reporting 100% occupancy. Over 150,000 people flew between Dubai and Doha in the first two weeks of the tournament.
There are hundreds of cafes, restaurants, and bars competing for customers during matches. There are 51 designated zones in the UAE, such as the ones at Dubai Expo City and Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, in addition to a number of official FIFA Fan Zones like Budweiser’s BudX in Dubai Harbor with a 10,000-person capacity.
Saudi Arabia, too, has sought to take advantage of this year’s World Cup. Before donning a Qatar 2022 scarf at the stadium, Mohammed bin Salman directed “all the Saudi ministries, authorities, and government agencies to provide any additional support or facilities needed by their counterparts in Qatar to support their efforts in hosting the World Cup 2022.” Saudi citizens have bought more World Cup tickets than any other nationality after Qatar and the United States. This could be primarily attributed to the fact that the Saudi national team was among the 32 teams playing in the group stage. Also, the proximity of the two countries is another factor – Qatar shares its only land border with Saudi Arabia. Careem, the region’s ride-sharing platform, introduced intercountry rides from Dammam and Al-Ahsa to Qatar. The Saudi Public Transport Authority has increased the frequency of shuttle services to 55 buses between the Salwa and Abu Samra border crossing. Additionally, Riyadh Season 2022 is coinciding with the World Cup, and 15 entertainment zones have been screening World Cup matches. The Fan Festival zone at Mrsool Park, for example, accommodates 20,000 viewers. FIFA and Coca-Cola have been hosting an official FIFA Fan Festival event as well.
Oman similarly took advantage of the festivities in Qatar, albeit on a smaller scale. Oman had planned to position Muscat as “a satellite city to support Qatar’s World Cup efforts and attract fans looking for the ideal base to stay in and explore while attending the tournament.” The sultanate is aiming to attract 300,000 tourists around the World Cup period, expecting “an increase of more than 93 percent in international arrivals” and more than “156 percent increase from the regional markets.”
Kuwait, on the other hand, did not facilitate the visa process for fans through the Hayya Card system. Despite several meetings with Qatari officials and deliberations inside Kuwait’s Council of Ministers, the government did not implement the tourism and hospitality plans it had set out for the tournament. With 12 return flights a day during the World Cup, some fans will likely travel to Kuwait as well, as many nationalities can obtain a visa on arrival at Kuwait International Airport.
That leaves Bahrain as the only GCC state missing out on the moment of unity – and profits. There are no direct flights between Manama and Doha. The Bahraini government did not partake in the Hayya Card visa scheme, send an official delegation to the opening ceremony, or organize any events during the World Cup to attract tourists coming to the region. In the interval between the Al-Ula reconciliation and the World Cup, there has been little progress in reestablishing full diplomatic and economic relations.
But even in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, many were wary of showing their support for Qatar before the tournament. Many fans waited to buy match tickets until they could see how the first days unfolded and whether others from their country were traveling to Doha with the blessing of leaders. After the first few days of the tournament passed with relative success, people around the region started to claim the World Cup as their own – it became a GCC, Arab, and Middle Eastern event.
Qatar came under scrutiny due to human rights issues, including the treatment of migrant workers and the LGBTQ+ community. But even this scrutiny seemed to bring the GCC countries closer together, as voices across the region came to Qatar’s defense.
This World Cup may also serve as a model for collaboration on other international megaevents slated for the region. Saudi Arabia is considering making a joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup with Egypt and Greece. The Asian Cup will take place in the region with Qatar hosting in 2023 and Saudi Arabia in 2027. Doha is also seeking to host the 2036 Summer Olympic Games.
The World Cup has been an example of what regional cooperation can achieve, boosting both the region’s economy and diplomatic initiatives.