Arabs in the UAE turned out on Thursday night to cheer on Saudi Arabia in their World Cup game against Russia following an opening ceremony at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
“I have come here tonight because Saudi Arabia is playing and it is the World Cup opening match,” said 46-year-old Muhammad Qubbaj, as the first minutes of the match unfolded on the giant 7-by-4-meter LED screens at Abu Dhabi’s iconic Emirates Palace. The hotel transformed its Ramadan tent into a World Cup venue to host football fans across the emirate. “I am rooting for Saudi, but right now I am unsure who will win.”
The British/Jordanian expatriate, who works in private equity in the UAE, said he was “very excited” that the 2018 FIFA World Cup will witness record Arab participation, as four Arab football teams - Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco - all qualified.
“I’m very excited because four Arab teams are playing this World Cup and Mohammad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, is also watching live,” he said. "It makes you very proud to be Arab. I am rooting for all four Arab teams, really.”
Also watching the game at Emirates Palace was Sami Issa, a Palestinian-American who had brought his family to the hotel’s Fan Zone to mark both the start of Eid Al-Fitr - announced midway through the game - and the first match of the 2018 Fifa World Cup tournament.
“What better place to celebrate the end of Ramadan and start of Eid?” said Issa, who works in artificial intelligence for IBM computer manufacturing. “My entire family is here, my wife, my kids. I am rooting for Saudi. I am rooting for all four Arab teams. I truly think Saudi Arabia has a great chance. We came here to watch it because Emirates Palace is meant to be the best spot in Abu Dhabi to watch the match.”
Emirati Hazza Al Muhairy, 26, plays for Emirates Palace’s football team as a striker. He was among the crowds there cheering on the Green Falcons. “I will be supporting all four Arab teams,” he said. “After that, if they unfortunately don’t get through, then I will be cheering on Argentina!”
His friend Lucy Mila, 22, from Russia, was cheering on the opposing side. “ I am confident Russia will do well in this World Cup,” she said.
Salahedeen Issa, 17, also a Palestinian/American, was also cheering on Saudi Arabia.
“I love football,” he said. “ I am a huge football fan. I want to catch every moment of this World Cup while I am have the summer off before university. I think Saudi does have a chance. I think it will be closer than a lot of the members of the public will think. The Saudi team is more dangerous than people realize.”
Also soaking up the electricity of the summer tournament was Yousef Mohammed, an Emirati, who watched the game at Back Yard Bistro, in Abu Dhabi’s World Trade Centre Mall.
“I like watching countries put aside their differences and competing in a fair sport; it brings out the best in people,” said the 32-year-old. "I was especially excited to watch the World Cup tonight because it is the first time Saudi Arabia is opening a World Cup match.”