MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - The easing of a three-year-old regional dispute involving 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar opens up new possibilities for the first finals in the Middle East and has been welcomed by soccer's governing body FIFA.
Saudi Arabia announced at a summit on Tuesday that agreement had been reached to end a dispute in which Riyadh and its allies have boycotted Qatar since mid-2017 and that ties would be restored under the U.S.-backed deal.
The bitter dispute saw Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt boycott Qatar and put an end to tentative plans for an expanded tournament which could have seen games played in Qatar's neighbouring states.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino had floated the idea of an expanded -- and more lucrative -- 48 team World Cup across the region and a feasibility study looked into the possibility of games also being held in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The study concluded that co-sharing was dependent on the ending of the boycott and "lifting the restrictions on the movement of people and goods" and the idea was eventually shelved by FIFA in May, 2019.
The tournament is now set at 32 teams and sources indicated there were no plans for the idea to be re-activated now despite Infantino spending time this week meeting political leaders in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Infantino issued a statement on Wednesday, welcoming the thawing of relations at the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting and declaring it to be "a very positive step for the region on the path to reconciliation."
"Football has shown throughout this crisis that it is a unique platform of exchange for people of the Gulf and I am sure the game will continue to unite the region in the near future," said the Swiss official.
Qatar will host a one-off FIFA Arab Cup in December this year with 22 nations taking part at the World Cup stadiums in Doha -- a major test event for the main tournament.
While there has been no move to reactivate the pan-Gulf World Cup idea, a normalisation of relations in the region could have a major impact on the tournament which is scheduled for December, 2022.
Should travel and economic restrictions end, then fans from across the region would find it easier to purchase tickets and travel to Doha for games.
Qatar has limited hotel spaces and so international fans travelling to the Middle East could have the option to spend holiday time in Dubai, for example, and travel to Qatar for games.
Easy travel and communications could also open up the possibility for teams to hold training camps in neighbouring countries and perhaps play pre-tournament friendlies in the region before heading to Qatar.
Infantino said that the tournament would, in any case, make history in the region.
"This will be the first FIFA World Cup in the Middle East and in the Arab world, a unique opportunity for the entire region to unite and shine on the global stage.”
Much will depend on how quickly the deal turns into improved relations.
Riyadh said all four states agreed to restore diplomatic, trade and travel ties with Doha but sources familiar with the matter said that the other boycotting nations were likely to move more slowly than the Saudis to do so.
(Reporting by Simon Evans, Additional reporting by)
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