Basra's Gulf Cup unites fans from across Iraq and the Gulf

Tournament in southern port city represents a historic moment for Iraq

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Football's Arabian Gulf Cup has built closer ties between Iraq, the Gulf and the wider region this week as people flocked to the southern Iraqi city of Basra to watch the tournament.

The 25th Arabian Gulf Cup has brought together not only thousands of Iraqis, but Arabs from throughout the region.

It has created joy in a part of Iraq that has suffered poor public services, lack of employment, and rampant corruption for decades.

On Monday Iraq beat Saudi Arabia 2-0 in an electrifying match that for many onlookers was not only a football match but also an inspirational show of sporting diplomacy.

Saudi and Iraqi flags were handed out to the 60,000 fans who filled the stadium, resulting in a sea of green, white, red and black flags waving from side to side.

A trending hashtag on Twitter welcomed the Saudi team to Iraq by saying “Greens, you’re at home” showcasing the support and unity between the two countries.

An Iraqi was pictured walking side by side with a Saudi fan on Basra corniche.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq’s relations with the Gulf and wider region have been unstable and strained, owing to the country becoming a battleground for proxy conflict between Iran, the Arab region and the US.

Ties with the Gulf reached a low point during the rule of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, when sectarianism heightened across the country.

In recent years, Baghdad has sought to revive its economy and rally support for reconstruction and the improvement of public services after decades of sanctions and conflict.

Football diplomacy

Iraq's outreach to Gulf states has helped with developments including improved relations with Saudi Arabia, which has led to high-level diplomatic meetings in Baghdad and Riyadh for the first time in decades.

The tournament is seen as a vital platform to right misunderstandings that emerged after 2003, Ihsan Al Shammari, a politics professor at Baghdad University and head of the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought, told The National.

“It’s made to engage people and not just officials, to reunite the strong traditional ties due to similarities in culture and geopolitics,” he said.

Mr Al Shammari said becoming an engaging member of the region will ensure Iraq's security and stability.

“The old policies of power and ideology are not possible or effective any more. So, using the economic, cultural and social tools are the best approach to reach those goals,” he said.

The opening ceremony began with an extravagant fireworks display and theatrical performance that reflected 5,000 years of history.

Many are hopeful that Iraq will win the tournament, as it did when it was last host in 1979.

Iraq was suspended from the Arabian Gulf Cup two years after former president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. After the 2003 invasion, international games were banned by world governing body Fifa for security reasons.

This week has shone some much needed light on a long-isolated part of the country, as tourists and top media figures praised Basra for its warm welcome and generous hospitality.

Thousands of fans from Kuwait and Oman attended matches.

“There is a sporting spirit among the general public. Everyone feels at home, that this land is their land,” Kuwaiti media personality Fajer Al Saeed tweeted.

“Fans at the end of the match celebrate with the winners and feel pity with the loser.”

Emirati sports commentator Faris Awad also tweeted that whomever won the tournament, Iraq was the ultimate winner for hosting.

Videos on Twitter show Omanis playing traditional music and dancing on the streets near the stadium.

The matches are being played at Basra International Stadium, which has a capacity of 65,000 people, as well as Al Minaa Stadium, which is able to host 30,000 people.

Updated: January 12, 2023, 4:20 AM
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