(Reuters) – The Arabian Gulf Cup kicks off on Tuesday in Qatar, with teams from its neighbouring nations set to play, in a sign that relations with the host nation – which also hosts the World Cup in 2022 – may be improving after a two-year freeze.
The United Arab Emirates are in action on Tuesday in Doha, with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain playing on Wednesday in the Qatari capital.
All three countries, along with Egypt, cut political, trade and transport ties with fellow Gulf Arab state Qatar in mid-2017 over accusations that it supported terrorism. Doha denies the charge and says the embargo aims to impinge on its sovereignty.
While there has been little public discussion from authorities of the possible impact of the tournament on diplomatic ties, former Iraq forward Hussein Saeed, his country’s all-time top scorer, said he had hopes for the competition.
“We hope that this tournament, being held here, brings nations together. Qatar, as we know, welcomes everyone,” he said in an interview published on the official website of Qatar’s World Cup organising committee.
Arab media reports said the Saudi team flew directly to Doha from the kingdom — a rare direct flight between the two countries given the boycott still officially in place.
The dispute led to football’s governing body FIFA deciding against a possible expansion of the 2022 World Cup which could have seen some games held in neighbouring states, taking some of the hosting pressure off Qatar.
The UAE, Saudis and Bahrain, did not attend the draw for the previous Gulf Cup tournament two years ago in Doha and only competed after that tournament was moved to Kuwait.
Qatar also hosts FIFA’s Club World Cup later in December, with European champions Liverpool involved in what will be an early dress rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup.
It is not clear whether fans from competing nations will travel in numbers to Qatar.
When Qatar won the continental Asian Cup held in the UAE earlier this year, hardly any Qatari fans attended. Qataris require a special permit to enter the UAE under the embargo.
The Qatari team was subjected to abuse from a crowd hurling bottles and shoes at the players when they faced the UAE in the semi-final.
The UAE’s sports chief later apologised, and its football association was sanctioned by the Asian Football Confederation.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Hugh Lawson)