By Mahfoud Amara (Special to BHN)
Associate Professor in Sport Policy & Management at Qatar University, Mahfoud Amara, is a scholar of sports politics and policy with a particular focus on the Middle East and North Africa. He finds the 2030 World Cup to be set against an intriguing geopolitical backdrop.
For the north African country of Morocco, this represents a milestone after five unsuccessful bids. It becomes just the second African and second Arab country to host the prestigious tournament – after South Africa in 2010 and Qatar in 2022.
But there’s a bigger picture. The news can be celebrated as a symbol of reconciliation among three historically intertwined countries. After all, the Mediterranean Sea separating Africa (Morocco) from Europe (Spain and Portugal) is a symbol of the tragic crossing of migrants from Africa, many of whom die before reaching the other side.
And there’s an even deeper history to reconcile, going back to the centuries of Arab-Berber-Islamic presence in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) between 711 and 1492. The Christian Reconquista in medieval Spain and Portugal in 1492 triggered a mass exodus of Muslims and Jews to the other, Muslim-dominated side of the Mediterranean, including what is today Morocco. This followed the Spanish and Portuguese invasion of parts of north Africa.
The complex history between Morocco and Spain and Portugal, coupled with the prospect of an Arab state hosting the event again, intersects with two particularly sensitive political issues today: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Morocco’s control of the Western Sahara territory.
Israel and Palestine
The World Cup often brings political tensions to the fore. One such tension is the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which Morocco will have to negotiate as a fellow Arab state and ally of Israel. The issue of Israel’s occupation of Palestine reared its head at the Qatar World Cup and will do so again in 2030.
Morocco established full diplomatic ties with Israel, including a military pact, in 2020 following the Abraham Accords. The deals also encompass the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The issue of Israeli football fans and media visiting Qatar in 2022 was approached with caution. This was particularly evident in the introduction of direct flights from Israel and of consulate support in Qatar. Football stadiums became a barometer of public sentiment. Some Arab and Moroccan spectators, including members of the Moroccan national team, displayed the Palestinian flag as a symbol of their ongoing support for Palestinian self-determination.
At the 2030 Fifa World Cup, the issue will likely be handled differently. Many Israelis have Moroccan roots (it’s estimated 700,000 Israeli Jews are of Moroccan descent). The tournament could offer Israeli football fans a chance to reconnect with their Moroccan heritage. This may be extra motivation for Israel to qualify for the cup – if their world football ranking continues to improve.
An increasing number of national teams are qualifying for the World Cup. Teams from north Africa with strong football traditions are more likely to qualify. This raises the possibility of fans from Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt travelling to Morocco, Spain and Portugal. And the Palestinian issue will affect Arab-Israeli relations on and off the pitch.
Morocco will need to manage potential security threats and possible confrontations between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine fans from the Arab world, Turkey and Iran.
Morocco will also undoubtedly use the 2030 cup to strengthen its position around the former Spanish territory of Western Sahara. Morocco claims sovereignty over the territory by supporting an autonomy plan. In this, it’s backed by Israel.
Western Sahara – or Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – is a disputed territory in the Maghreb region. The dispute began in 1975 when colonial Spain withdrew from the region. In the aftermath, Morocco organised the “Green March”. Thousands of Moroccan civilians entered Western Sahara and asserted sovereignty. Nearly half the population fled into neighbouring Algeria, where they and their descendants remain in refugee camps. The Polisario Front proclaimed the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in 1976, with a government in exile in Algeria. Since then there’s been an ongoing territorial conflict between Morocco and the native Saharawi people.
Moroccan authorities will most likely use the World Cup to assert control over Western Sahara and promote the region’s tourist potential. It may even host some matches there. Morocco has actively used sports for national branding, hosting various events in Western Sahara. This puts Fifa and the Confederation of African Football – as well as contenders – in a politically sensitive position.
Algeria, home to the Polisario, may decide to boycott Morocco’s hosting of the 2025 Africa Cup of Nations football tournament and the 2030 World Cup. As a political entity the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic – a member of the African Union though not of Fifa – is recognised by many United Nations member countries.
Like the Palestinian question, the evolution of the Western Sahara issue by 2030 remains uncertain, especially considering Morocco’s recent efforts to gain support for its Western Sahara plan among its allies, including Spain.
More than sport
As a football enthusiast of north African heritage, I’m delighted Morocco will host such a monumental tournament. For fans in north Africa and across the Arab world, this is another opportunity, after Qatar, to experience the games from within.
However, it’s clear to me, as an academic immersed in the business and political dynamics of football, that Morocco’s co-hosting of the 2030 World Cup brings forth substantial political and security intricacies that demand thorough analysis. This observation extends to the other co-hosts, Spain and Portugal, where similar complexities may arise.
Let’s anticipate that once the World Cup commences, the fervor for football will rightfully claim the spotlight, without exacerbating conflicts off the field.