Qatar vs. UAE: Who’s winning the battle for Gulf football supremacy?

There is a footballing arm’s race being contested in the Gulf, with both the UAE and Qatar competing - directly or not

Graham Ruthven
Graham Ruthven - Special to Al Arabiya English
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With victory in the AFC Champions League over Al Sadd last week, Al Jazira went some way to relieving the domestic pain they have suffered this season. But the result had a greater significance. Clashes between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - whether at international or club level - increasingly come with a more profound meaning.

There is a footballing arm’s race being contested in the Gulf, with both the UAE and Qatar competing - directly or not - to make their region the primary destination for the sport’s great and good. Whether it is in the AFC Champions League, on the international stage or even in football’s transfer market, the two nations are rivals of circumstance. It’s impossible not to pit them against each other.

Such context gives matches like the one last week between Al Jazira and Al Sadd an added layer, with so many eager to witness the punches being thrown first-hand. And the battle was just as fierce at the Under-23 Asian Cup earlier this year, with the UAE and Qatar both performing above expectations.

In fact, the two countries appear to be pushing each other forward towards their own individual objectives. Look at how Qatar made it to the quarter-finals of the 2011 Asian Cup, only for the UAE to finish third in the 2014 competition, demonstrating just how far football in the Gulf has come in a relatively short space of time.

It’s not just results that are now catching the attention of the wider football world, though. The manner of the two countries’ success is just as impressive, with the UAE national team in particular now renowned for its flair and expression on the pitch. Qatar, too, has placed an emphasis on technical development, with their Aspire Academy established in the hope that it will sustain the national team by 2022.

There is certainly much scepticism about the true motivation behind the Gulf’s footballing drive, with sporting programmes being used by both nations to impose themselves in a more transcendental way. In much the same way the United States used Silicon Valley to position the country at the heart of the IT community, Qatar and the UAE are doing the same with football.

But at a fundamental level there is something essentially compelling about the simultaneous striving of two competing nations in the same region, fighting for the same thing. It’s why clashes involving any of their clubs or national teams are observed with such intrigue, and why the rivalry between Qatar and the UAE could become one of the game’s captivating contests.

The Gulf has looked outward in its efforts to impose itself on the football world too, with Qatari and Abu Dhabi investment making Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City respectively two of the biggest clubs in Europe. Whether that truly has any impact on the respective countries’ footballing prosperity is perhaps unknown, but it at least boosts their public image - and for a developing sporting culture that is important.

The signing of players like World Cup winner and former Barcelona midfielder Xavi Hernandez and Premier League striker Asamoah Gyan has also gone some way to bolstering the standing of Qatari and Emirati football on the world scene, illustrating the pull the Gulf now has in attracting some of the game’s brightest and best.

Of course, Qatar has the 2022 World Cup dangling in front of their noses as a golden carrot, pushing the country towards its goal of being competition at international level by the time the tournament comes around six years from now. The UAE has had to make do without such a golden incentive, not that the Emirati nation has seemingly been held back much as a result.

Burgeoning leagues are easy to come by, with the Chinese Super League only the latest to shake up the establishment with big-name, big-money signings. But Qatar and the UAE’s ambitions go beyond the objectives of their own domestic divisions. Theirs is a rivalry that accounts for much more than that.

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