GCC News Roundup: Qatar wins Asian Cup, Bahraini footballer released in Thailand (February 1-28)

Jailed Bahraini footballer Hakeem Al Araibi leaves Thailand's Criminal Court, in Bangkok, Thailand February 4, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.


Qatar has moved up to 55th in the FIFA world rankings, from 93rd, after their Asian Cup triumph in the United Arab Emirates. This is the best ranking Qatar has held in 26 years, making many hopeful for the future of Gulf football and the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar had a remarkable run at the championship, winning all seven games and conceding only one goal. The 2022 World Cup hosts beat former champions Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and South Korea on their way to the final, beating Japan 3-1.

Qatar is currently the fifth-highest ranked team from the Asian Football Confederation, behind Iran (22), Japan (27), South Korea (38) and Australia (42).

thailand releases bahraini footballer after extradition bid dropped 

Thailand freed a refugee Bahraini footballer with residency status in Australia on February 11, 2019. Bahrain’s withdrawal of its bid to seek his extradition prompted the Thai court to drop the case against the footballer.

Hakeem Al Araibi, who fled Bahrain in 2014 and received refugee status in Australia, was arrested last November at a Bangkok airport, while on a honeymoon trip, following an Interpol notice issued at Bahrain’s request.

Araibi had been convicted of vandalizing a police station in Bahrain and was sentenced to ten years in prison in absentia. He has denied any wrongdoing, saying that he was playing in a televised match at the time the offense was committed, and was granted asylum in Australia in 2017. Bahrain, however, sought his extradition from Thailand.

He was freed after nearly three months of high-drama diplomacy, legal maneuvering by the governments of Australia, Thailand, and Bahrain, as well as a vocal public campaign by footballers and human rights activists.

The footballer was welcomed back into Australia the day after his release. Australia has announced a review of its procedures for handling Interpol red notices. It said Araibi’s case, which it flagged to Thai authorities, should never have been issued because of his refugee status.


Saudi Arabia has appointed its first female ambassador to the United States. Princess Reema bint Bandar, the daughter of a former ambassador to the United States, replaced Khalid Bin Salman, the younger brother of the Saudi crown prince.

Through appointing Reema as U.S. envoy, Saudi Arabia is attempting to mitigate the international outcry over the death of the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. He was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. Princess Reema has previously worked at the General Sports Authority in Saudi Arabia and has been an advocate of women’s empowerment.

Prince Khalid, the Saudi ambassador to the United States since 2007, is expected to leave Washington soon. His appointment as deputy defense minister comes a year after the crown prince announced plans to reform the military.

pope celebrates mass in historic visit to arabian peninsula 

Pope Francis made a historic visit to the United Arab Emirates and led the first papal Mass in the Arabian Peninsula with 180,000 attendees. His visit came 800 years after St. Francis of Assisi visited an Egyptian sultan to improve relations with the Muslim world.

The Mass was held at Zayed Sports City Stadium and drew Catholics from 100 countries including the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Uganda, and Lebanon. 4000 Muslims also attended the Mass. The visit emphasized interreligious tolerance and greater understanding of Islam. The Pope spoke to many of the migrant workers who left their home country to work in the United Arab Emirates.

He also met with Muslim clerics in the grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque before delivering a speech in front of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince and other top officials. He highlighted the importance of peace amid UAE’s involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.


Amid the continuing dispute between the GCC countries, the United Arab Emirates has eased a ban on the shipping of goods to and from Qatar. An Abu Dhabi Ports circular dated February 12 canceled previous directives that banned cargoes of Qatar origin from UAE ports and those of UAE origin from Qatar. It still maintained a ban on vessels flying a Qatari flag.

According to Refinitiv data, the Liberian flagged container ship MSC ELSA 3 arrived at Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port on February 20 from Qatar’s Umm Said.

However, it is not clear whether the move is linked to the complaints filed by Qatar at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2017 concerning the trade blockade. UAE just last month filed a complaint against Qatar at the WTO and accused Qatar of banning Emirati products.