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Uri Levy

Even the beautiful game gets involved in Saudi-Qatar spat

Qatar recently renewed a three-year contract with Saudi's Al Ahli FC [Getty]

Date of publication: 5 June, 2017

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Saudi Arabia's Al-Ahli FC sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways has taken a nose-dive as recent tensions between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours reach the football pitch.
 

The Middle East woke up this morning to breaking news that several Gulf countries - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain - as well as Egypt, had cut relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism.

As expected, this Gulf sandstorm hasn't skipped the football pitch. While last week the tensions between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar rose to new heights around the match between Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal and Iran's Esteghlal Khuzestan, held in Doha, today Al-Ahli Jeddah has decided to terminate their sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways.

Saudi Arabia have declared the complete shutdown of all land, sea and air borders and ports, and the prevention of entry or transit of Qatari citizens to the kingdom.

And it turns out that even sponsorship deals have been affected.

Al Ahli FC signed the three-year contract with Qatar Airways on October 1, 2014, and the club renewed the deal for another three years in May - but now it's all history. Al-Ahli's official Twitter account declared the move publicly, mentioning that the club was "following the directions of the government".

The situation is more complicated than just taking the brand's name off the Al-Ahli shirts. The airline has a strong brand presence at Al-Ahli's home ground, the King Abdullah Sports City, and some reports also claimed it has helped in funding several renovations at the club facilities.

Only last October, Qatar Airways hosted Al-Ahli and FC Barcelona in Doha, for a match that was a commercial effort and celebration for both teams sponsored by Qatar's flag-carrier. FC Barcelona parted ways with the Qatari company, when the club signed with Japanese company Rakuten for the 2017/2018 season.

 
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It is still unclear if any of this will affect the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with none of the relevant football bodies yet commenting. But it is likely to have some influence on the forthcoming Gulf Cup of Nations, which Qatar is supposed to host in December this year.

If the tension continues to develop, then the status of the whole tournament will likely be in doubt.

This saga is another example of the nexus between football and politics in the Middle East. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the region's leadership became decisively intense after the nuclear deal between Iran and the west.

It is clear that this diplomatic tension will not spare the roiling Middle Eastern football arena.

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here

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