For a brief moment after Saudi Arabia’s Salem Aldawsari fired a ball from just inside the penalty box into the back of the net to seal a World Cup win against Argentina, Arabs across the divided Middle East found something to celebrate.
Such Arab unity is hard to come by and fleeting when it arrives. But Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup has provided a moment where many in the Arab world have rallied by Doha and the Saudi team’s win.
Whether that momentum continues will be tested on Saturday as Saudi Arabia faces Poland — and as regional tensions and renewed economic competition between countries resume.
“All Arabic countries are celebrating because one Arab team won,” said 27-year-old Saudi Rakan Yousef after Arab fans congratulated him in Doha, Qatar, on the Green Falcons’ win.
“Even the emir of Qatar attended our match. … There’s this feeling now that we are all brothers. That’s why I’m speechless.”
Despite different views on religion and denominations, as well as regional rivalries, the monthlong World Cup in energy-rich Qatar so far has seen unity among the Gulf Arab nations.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, the heads of state in two countries that only some two years ago had boycotted Qatar, attended the tournament’s opening match.
Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, called Qatar’s hosting of the tournament “a milestone for all Arabs” and also attended the opening. That feeling was shared by others as well.
“We are proud to be here for the first World Cup in an Arabic country,” Morocco coach Walid Regragui said.
Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi similarly praised Qatar while dismissing the criticisms of journalists — and by extension, rights groups.
“Qatar did a tremendous job organising a World Cup. … Qatar never claimed it was perfect,” Safadi said.
“We have differences in opinion, we have differences in views but that should not take away from the fact that Qatar has really put together a World Cup that is unique in every sense of the word.”
However, the biggest surprise came two days later as Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina by winning their opener in the tournament, with Aldawsari doing a cartwheel and a flip. Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, attended the match and wore a Saudi flag around his shoulders.
One veteran Saudi sports journalist, Majed al Tuwaijri, even wept on air after the match.
“This is the most beautiful and important moment in my life and my 30-year media career,” he said, his voice choking up. “I find myself failing to express myself because of the complexity of my feelings toward this great historical victory.”
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman declared Wednesday a public holiday to commemorate the win. In the kingdom and outside of it, people cheered and waved the country’s green and white flag to celebrate.
The Saudi win, which the daily newspaper Okaz described as “restoring the glories” of the kingdom, also fits into the new, more nationalistic Saudi Arabia forming under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.