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Qatar and Iran Devise Game Plan for the 2022 World Cup

Mehran Haghirian

Bourse & Bazaar Foundation

April 14, 2022

In just the last two months, Iran and Qatar have signed 20 bilateral agreements—14 were signed during Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s trip to Doha in February, and another six were signed when Qatari transport minister, Jassim bin Saif Al Sulaiti, traveled to Kish Island earlier this week. Among the 20 agreements, Iran and Qatar decided to waive visa requirements for the citizens of both countries, expand transportation links by air and sea, find practical ways in which Kish and other Iranian islands and free zones can play a role during the 2022 World Cup, increase trade through commercial ports, and link free zones. Moreover, Raisi proposed the establishment of an Iran Trade Center in Qatar “to introduce Iran’s capacities and potentials to Qatari merchants and economic actors.”

During his two-day visit to the island of Kish, an Iranian resort destination located just 270 kilometres from Doha, Al Sulaiti was hosted by Iran’s Minister of Roads and Urban Development, Rostam Ghasemi. The Iranian government has made Kish the focal point of its offer to assist Qatar during the hosting of the 2022 World Cup. The trip included visits to the port of Kish Island and the Kish International Airport expansion project, as well as some of the sporting facilities located on the island. Aside from the prospects for the World Cup, Iranian and Qatari delegations are hoping for expanded connectivity between the island and Doha to enable more trade and tourism. Al-Sulaiti and his delegation also met onetime presidential hopeful Saeed Mohammad, the former head of Khatam al-Anbiya, a major IRGC-linked construction firm. Mohammad is now the head of theSupreme Council of Free Trade-Industrial and Special Economic Zones.

Iranian officials have ambitious plans for the 2022 World Cup—which may prove difficult to realise. While the tournament will be hosted by Qatar alone, there is potential for other countries in the region to play a role in the hosting of teams and tourists, particularly given capacity constraints in Qatar itself. Iran cannot offer the leisure experiences that many football fans will expect during their trip, but Iranian officials hope that those fans seeking to justify the journey to Qatar with more cultural and natural attractions could be drawn to Iran. Officials want to “create the grounds for foreign fans and tourists to travel to [mainland] Iran during their leisure times” stated Ghasemi.

Under the proposed plans, tourists can visit Kish and either decide to stay on the island for the entirety of their trip or obtain a visa to visit other Iranian cities. Leila Azhdari, the official in charge of foreign tourism at Iran’s tourism ministry, has stated that “the foreign ministry had agreed to waive visas for travel from Qatar for two months during the World Cup, which will end on December 18.” According to the plan, tourists will be able to apply for “free single or multiple-entry passes for 20-day stays” during the World Cup.

Even if a visa scheme can be devised, logistical challenges will remain. Currently, there are no flights from Kish to Doha. While there were talks of Kish Air trying to establish a route from Kish to Doha from 2018, this route was never launched. Just last month, Mohammad claimed that there will be 400 weekly flights from Kish to Doha during the World Cup and they are in talks to secure four cruise ships to ferry passengers during that period. There is currently only one established ferry route that goes from Bushehr to Doha, owing to the fact that marine diesel is not subsidised by Iran and so operating these routes is less economical.

A lack of transport infrastructure has not prevented private sector entrepreneurs and Kish’s local government from preparing for the World Cup. In January 2020 a special committee was formed by the management of the Kish Free Zone Organization and a budget of IRR 520 billion (approx. $2 million) was allocated to standardize two existing football fields and to build three new ones. The committee also targeted the completion of new five five-star hotels by November. According to Masihollah Safa, Chairman of the Association for Hotel Owners in Kish, there are 52 hotels in total with 12,000 rooms in four- or five-star hotels and another 8000 rooms in budget accommodations and unofficial housing that could be used during the World Cup.

Kish is also being promoted as a destination for Iranians inside and outside the country seeking accommodation during the World Cup. Iran is playing on November 21, 25, and 29, meaning that if fans wish to watch all three matches in the group stage, they must stay in Doha for at least nine nights. The expense of such a trip may be prohibitive for many Iranians and most Iranians do not have international bank cards. Using Kish as a gateway will allow Iranian fans to book travel packages that include transportation, accommodation, and game tickets. These packages include options for return flights on the day of the matches so that the fans do not need to secure accommodation in Doha.

The Kish Free Zone Organization is also organizing a soccer festival during the 2022 World Cup and is attempting to secure an agreement with the Iranian national team to host their training camp on the island, according to Mohsen Gharib, Chairman of the Association of Investors in Kish. The island is also being put forward as a possible base camp for other national teams competing in Qatar.

Al Sulaiti’s visit to Kish appears to have been successful. Businessmen who attended the meetings between Iranian and Qatari government officials were generally pleased with the fact that relations between the two countries have been elevated to this level. Some business leaders are concerned that politically connected firms might crowd-out private businesses seeking to engage with Qatari counterparts. But there is optimism that the strong relations between the Iranian and Qatari governments might finally translate into mutually beneficial economic engagements as diplomatic dialogue is increasingly focused on questions of regional economic integration. More than four decades since it was first touted as a resort destination, Kish might finally have its moment.

Photo Credit: IRNA

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