AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) – Qatar opened the first FIFA World Cup in the Middle East on Sunday before world leaders and football fans who flocked to this energetic nation after it was hit by a regional boycott and international criticism.
With the soft voice of American actor Morgan Freeman and an Arabic theme featuring camels, the opening ceremony began with the promise “Everyone is welcome”.
Regardless of Qatar’s on-pitch result against Ecuador, Doha has already drawn Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the tournament’s opening ceremony and game.
The fact that Prince Mohammed, whose nation closed Qatar’s only land border to the world through the kingdom after a year-long political dispute, will attend shows how far the rapprochement between the two nations has progressed.
Newspaper columns during the crisis had even suggested digging a trench along the 87-kilometer border and filling it with nuclear waste at the height of the conflict. While it was rhetorical bluster, it showed how deep anger ran in the region amid the dispute – which Kuwait’s then-ruler suspected almost sparked war.
Its roots lay in Qatar’s stance of supporting the Islamists who came 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 states saw the protests as a threat to their autocratic and hereditary rule.
Qatar has also faced criticism from the West when groups that initially funded it in the Syrian civil war turned extremist. Qatar later denied it ever funded Islamic extremists, despite criticism from across the American 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 a FIFA fan zone in the country. Some in the country have already criticized what they see as the tournament’s Western cultural extravagances – which likely led to the stadium’s beer ban.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the extremist group’s Yemen-based arm, on Saturday issued a communiqué criticizing the Qataris for hosting a tournament “bringing with it immoral people, homosexuals, corruption seeders and atheism.”
“We warn our Muslim brothers not to follow or attend this event,” the group said, urging scholars not to support them. The al Qaeda arm did not directly threaten the tournament, however, and was weakened by years of drone strikes by American forces and engulfed by the ongoing war in Yemen.
The opening on Sunday evening was attended by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
The Crown Prince of Kuwait was also there, along with the Director-General of the World Health Organization and the President of Djibouti. Also present was Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
But the biggest applause came for the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who secured the tournament back in 2010.
Meanwhile, Iran sent only its youth and sports minister – not its hard-line president – as the Islamic Republic faces months of protests over the death of a 22-year-old woman previously arrested by the country’s vice squad.
It remains unclear at what level Western nations will attend Sunday night’s ceremony and game. Qatar has been scathingly criticized for its stance on LGBTQ rights and its treatment of the low-paid workers who built over $200 billion worth of infrastructure ahead of the tournament.
But before the match, an honor guard on camels and Arabian horses, some with M4 rifles slung over their shoulders, awaited the VIPs expected for the event – and even VVIPs, according to the street signs.
Associated Press writer Lujain Jo contributed to this report.
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