The spectacle on Jan. 6 marked the beginning of the 25th Arabian Gulf Cup soccer tournament, hosted by Iraq for the first time since 1979 — as the country seeks to turn the page on decades of violence, instability and isolation.
“Gulf 25 is an opportunity that can help strengthen relations between Iraq and the rest of the gulf countries,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who attended the opening ceremony alongside Arab officials from across the region and FIFA President Gianni Infantino. “It will be a sign of recovery from the lean years and political turmoil.”
The tournament, which is held every two years, features countries from the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman), in addition to Yemen and Iraq. Much as the recent World Cup in Doha, Qatar, served to introduce Persian Gulf culture to the outside world, the tournament in Basra gave many gulf citizens their first chance to experience Iraq.
For locals, it was a rare opportunity to watch international soccer in their own backyard and, just as importantly, to express national pride and regional solidarity.
“Despite the fierce competition between the gulf countries to win the championship, what matters to us in the first place is honoring our guests after a long absence,” said Hussam Muthana, 27, a Basra taxi driver. “We are neighbors and cousins, even if outside political circumstances have kept us apart.”
More than 50,000 gulf visitors have poured into Iraq over the past two weeks, according to Iraqi authorities, as the country eased border restrictions and granted free visas. They made their way to the southern port of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, where they were welcomed with banners and gulf flags.
Visitors flocked to the corniche that runs along the Shatt al Arab river, the city’s main tourist attraction, and the streets were humming with excitement, especially during matches. When the Iraqi team triumphed 5-0 over Yemen on Thursday, a dance party erupted and fireworks filled the sky. It was a joy that transcended sports.
“We are very happy with the presence of our brothers,” said Muhammad, who owns a coffee cart on the corniche and refused to accept money from gulf fans. “We hope that it will not end.”
Although Basra province sits on billions of dollars worth of oil, its people have never shared in the prosperity. Almost half of the city’s residents live below the poverty line; one-quarter of its youth are unemployed.
Yet with hotels in the city booked up for the tournament, locals opened their homes. First-time visitors from the region were overwhelmed by the generosity. “Everyone, without exaggeration, was ready to host you, and the city stayed awake all night and day,” said Ibrahim Ali, 40, who made the trip from Oman. “Even taxi drivers were objecting when we tried to pay their fare.”
“I came from Kuwait with my own car a week ago, and so far, I have not spent a single dinar,” 37-year-old Salim Mubarak said in amazement. “Everything is free.”
Inside Basra’s main stadium, more than 60,000 spectators packed in to watch Kuwait face off against Bahrain on Friday. Among them was Raheem Ali, 54, who has spent his whole life in Basra.
“We must show support to the guests so that they feel at home,” he explained. “Could you have imagined that the Kuwaiti who was occupied by Iraq 30 years ago would come here to play football with us and sing about the love of Iraq?”
Iraq was banned from competing in the cup after invading Kuwait in 1990, only rejoining in 2004. In the years since, the country was considered too dangerous to host the tournament.
“We expected the security situation to be bad and the militias to be in control,” said Abdul Rahman Meshal, 40, a visiting Emirati fan. “We thought gulf nationals were not welcome because of the Iranian influence, but we were surprised by the different reality.”
This year’s tournament was not totally spared from political controversy. Iran has long objected to use of the term “Arabian Gulf” to describe the cup, arguing it should rightfully be called the “Persian Gulf.” Last week, Iran summoned the Iraqi ambassador to lodge an official protest.
Sudani downplayed the disagreement in an interview with Deutsche Welle, saying, “We respect all points of view, and today we are part of the Arab system, and we are keen on perpetuating our relationship with the Arab Gulf states.” Iraqis were less measured on social media, flooding Twitter with the hashtag “Arabian Gulf.”
“For 20 years, Iran has tried to strip the Arab identity from Iraq in general and from the tribal society of southern Iraq in particular,” said Muhammad Al-Bazuni, 34, an engineer in Basra. “What happened in this tournament angered [Iran] very much. … They realize that what is between us and the people of the gulf is too big to be broken.”