November 30, 2022 10:36 AM EST

The 2022 World Cup has been something of a public-relations nightmare for its host, Qatar. Criticisms continue to abound over the country’s exploitation of migrant workers, its poor record on LGBTQ+ rights (and those expressing solidarity with LGBTQ+ people), and the purportedly corrupt manner in which it won its hosting bid in the first place. To make matters worse, the Qatari national team failed to win a single match in the Group stage, ensuring its early exit from the tournament.

Yet for much of the Arab world, this World Cup—the first to be held in the region—has been something of a triumph. It has featured major sporting upsets, mended political rivalries, and showcased rare displays of pan-Arab unity amid an otherwise competitive atmosphere. That sentiment will be on display Wednesday when Arab fans cheer on as Saudi Arabia squares off against Mexico at 10 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET) and when Morocco does the same against Canada at the same time Thursday. The outcome of both games will determine whether the two teams will advance to the Knockout stage.

A reminder of pan-Arab nationalism

The most obvious expressions of unity have centered around the games, some of which have resulted in stunning upsets for Arab teams against some of the world’s highest-ranked squads. The most notable of these came when Saudi Arabia (ranked 51st in FIFA’s world rankings) defeated Argentina (ranked 3rd) 2-1 in its opening match. The result left most observers, including Saudi fans, in shock before spurring celebrations across the region—from displays of the Saudi flag on skyscrapers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to public celebrations in Egypt, Jordan, and Gaza. The result even prompted some celebrations in Yemen, where a Saudi-led military coalition has been waging a brutal war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels since 2015. Arab fans were given another reason to celebrate less than a week later, when Morocco (ranked 22nd) bested Belgium (ranked 2nd) in a match that ended 2-0. (Though in Belgium things turned sour when dozens of Moroccans took to rioting in Brussels and Antwerp, including torching cars and scooters. Some on Twitter have cheekily called the destruction the best example yet of integration, given Europe’s reputation for soccer hooliganism.)

That soccer victories would be significant in unifying a region that shares so many linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions may seem odd to most World Cup viewers. But Arab governments have long been beset by political divisions, not least when it comes to issues as vexed as Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, who despite not being represented by a national team have had an outsized presence in this tournament. While most Arab countries do not have established ties with Israel, a small number of states—among them the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco—recently opted to change that with normalization agreements through the U.S.-led Abraham Accords launched under former President Donald Trump. But those political realities haven’t been reflected at the World Cup, where crowds of Arab fans have been seen waving Palestinian flags and chanting pro-Palestine slogans. Some refused to speak with Israeli broadcasters, while others took the opportunity to express their solidarity with the Palestinian people.

For Mira Al Hussein, an Emirati sociology researcher at Oxford University, that solidarity demonstrates a pan-Arab unity that isn’t often reflected in regional politics. “What they did really was just show the world how unanimous the Arab street is,” Al Hussein says. “It just shows that Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism did not die with Gamal Abdel Nasser as most nation states would like us to believe,” she says, referring to the former Egyptian President, who is seen as an icon of pan-Arab nationalism.

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While displays of this kind of pan-Arab unity are relatively rare, support for the Palestinian cause has long had deep resonance across the Middle East and North Africa. “The Palestinian cause is par excellence the Arab cause,” says H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noting that the prominence of the Palestinian flag at the tournament comes down to the fact that “in the Arab world, that flag is not the flag of a single people; it’s the flag of a cause that Arabs writ large believe in.”

Turning the page on the Qatar-Saudi diplomatic conflict

While much of the pan-Arab unity has been concentrated on the streets of Doha, it has also been visible among Arab leaders, including those with long-standing political rivalries. This is particularly true when it comes to Qatar and its neighbor Saudi Arabia, who along with allies the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt had cut off all diplomatic ties with Doha until last year over its alleged support for Islamist groups. Though the political crisis and the four-year Saudi-led blockade of Qatar was lifted in 2021, the presence of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (who even went so far as to sport a Qatar scarf) and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi nonetheless reinforced the general cooling of tensions between Doha and its Arab peers. Doha certainly did nothing to dispel that notion when Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani enthusiastically draped the Saudi flag over his shoulders during the team’s stunning upset against Argentina.

But perhaps the biggest source of Arab unity has been spurred by the belief that Qatar is being unfairly maligned by Western observers, whose critiques many say reflect anti-Arab stereotypes and double standards. While much of Western criticism has been rooted in concrete criticisms of Qatar’s human-rights record, many Arabs nonetheless feel that “they are attacking Qatar because it’s an Arab Muslim country,” says Hellyer. “And, frankly, that argument does have legs. But it’s also being used to dispel and detract and distract from genuine critique.”

International criticism and how their respective national teams perform notwithstanding, this World Cup looks poised to go down in Arab countries as a moment of pan-Arab goodwill. But that unity has not been tested by inter-Arab matches.

“The unity stuff comes out when it’s versus external,” says Hellyer. “The problem then comes up when they play against each other.”

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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.

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