It seems there’s no end to controversies surrounding Qatar hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022. First came allegations of bribery, then concerns over the country’s human rights record, and now suggestions that Qatar co-host the event with Oman and Kuwait. And all of this amidst a diplomatic and trade boycott by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Earlier this month, The Sunday Times in a stunning expose reported that FIFA was paid a staggering $880 million in bribes by Qatar to win the hosting rights. In brazen silence, neither Qatar nor FIFA has responded to the damning report.
It is not for the first time that allegations of dodgy deals between Qatar and FIFA over the country winning hosting rights have surface. But with a little more than three years to go to the world’s biggest football extravaganza, the latest expose is sure to come as a huge embarrassment for not just Qatar but for FIFA as well.
The Times has claimed that Qatar offered $480 million to FIFA, then headed by Sepp Blatter, just three weeks before they won the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup in December 2010. The Qatari government-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera and FIFA also signed a $400 million television contract. And on top of it, FIFA was promised a success fee of $100 million for a successful bid. A portion of the promised success fee of $100 million is to be paid in April as per the terms of the contract.
The paper also claimed that the contracts are now a part of a bribery inquiry by the Switzerland police.
The bribery allegations are only one part of the challenge that Qatar faces in organising the World Cup. Three of the tiny, gas-rich nation’s Arab neighbours—Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain—and Egypt have imposed a trade and diplomatic embargo. This has had Qatar scrambling for new trade routes.
Before the embargo, Qatar used to bring in food and other essentials from Saudi Arabia, with which it shares a land border. That land route has been shut. The embargo has meant that prices of essentials have gone up. The economy has taken a hit with the government dipping into cash reserves to meet contingencies. Businesses have been adversely impacted and job cuts have been the norm.
A problem of plenty?
Adding another layer of complexity and uncertainty, FIFA, according to recent reports, is considering expanding the number of teams playing the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, which means Qatar would have to share the matches with an extra two to four venues in one more country in order to cope with the increase in the number of teams and fixtures.
A FIFA feasibility study accessed by Associated Press identified venues in five countries in the neighbourhood, three of which—Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain—will have to be ruled out as co-hosts unless the trio end their boycott of Qatar.
That would leave Oman and Kuwait with whom Qatar will have to share matches. But will these two countries play ball, risking antagonising big brothers Saudi Arabia and UAE, all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)?
A final decision on expanding the teams to 48 will be taken by the FIFA Congress in Paris in June.
Qatar and its Arab friends-turned-foes have been engaging themselves in an acrimonious diplomatic and legal battle. Qatar is spending a lot of time and resources to win over global opinion. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also been impacted but enjoy economies of scale. Qatar was always an easy-to-miss speck on the map. After the embargo was imposed in June 2017—ostensibly because it was sponsoring groups and individuals linked to terrorists—the country’s isolation in the region is near total.
For its part, Qatar has been putting on a brave face contending that the dispute with its Arab brothers will not come in the way of hosting a successful World Cup. If preparations on the infrastructure front are anything to go by, the country appears to be doing a good job sparing no effort and money to build stadiums, roads, hotels and a metro rail system.
But infrastructure-readiness is just one part of hosting a successful event. If the hostility with its neighbours persists till 2022, will Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis and Egyptians be able to attend the matches in the face of a travel ban?
When things were hunky dory, Qatar left no opportunity to project the World Cup as an Arab event. But that spirit of Arab brotherhood seems to have evapourated since June 2017. Regional sports events have been boycotted by the Saudi quartet and participation of Qatari sportspersons in events organised in rival nations made difficult.
The Saudi-led quartet has for years had issues with Qatar, whose nationals number just about 300,000 out of a population of 2.8 million, for punching above its weight in the region and beyond. There have been diplomatic skirmishes on and off but nothing as serious as the ongoing ban.
Appealing to the masses
Qatar’s winning the World Cup hosting bid is undoubtedly a jewel in its soft power crown. But will Saudi and its allies let Qatar breathe easy? Will they create conditions that will scare away football-crazy fans from Europe and elsewhere? Qatar has so far remained immune to terror but one high-profile incident can potentially sabotage the show.
For its part, Qatar has been making some right noises about certain other concerns about the event being held in an Islamic country—for instance, the consumption of alcohol. Besides some hotels where liquor is served, Qatar has just one government outlet that sells alcohol and pork, for which expats need a licence.
But Hassan Al Thawadi, Secretary-General of Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy told a Russian channel: “Let’s address the elephant in the room—alcohol. Alcohol will be served, it just won’t be served in public places, in the streets and so on, but there will be designated areas, open areas where people will be able to have alcohol.”
This is a big concession alright, but will it be enough for the fans from all over the world? Homosexuality, gender discrimination, attire, and public display of affection are also sensitive issues in the Islamic world.
In the run-up to the tournament, Qatar’s human rights record has often been called into question by Amnesty and other organisations. Deaths of migrant workers building stadiums and other infrastructure, poor wages and exploitative labour systems are issues that have remained on the radar of these agencies. A few correctives have been rolled out in the form of new ethical standards for the treatment of migrant workers but critics say Qatar needs to do more.
And there’s more…
The World Cup is also about tourism and culture. Russia’s successful hosting of the Cup had a lot to do with the rich tourism opportunities that the 11 host cities offered. In contrast, the Qatar edition will be held in just one city—Doha—with the longest distance of 55 km separating one stadium from the other.
In fact, the whole of Qatar comprises an area of a mere 11,000 sq km, and all of its sights can be seen in a day. Qatar argues that the compact nature of the event will be its USP with fans being able to watch more than one match a day, thanks to short distances.
Then the question of football itself. The Russian, team which was the lowest ranked, exceeded all expectations by reaching the quarter-finals. Qatar ranked a low 98th in FIFA rankings until it was crowned Asian champions when it soared to the 55th spot early this year, reaching their best position since 1993. The victory was doubly sweet with Qatar trouncing bitter rival UAE 4-0 in the semi-final.
But its performance in regional tournaments till then was far from impressive. Yet, Qatar has invested millions in setting up state-of-the-art sports infrastructure, owns the French club Paris St Germain and has bought Brazilian star Neymar Jr for a staggering $262 million. But what about a truly national team populated with Qatari nationals and not naturalised ones?
Further, if and when the 2022 edition is held, Qatar will have acquired the dubious distinction of being the first nation to host the Cup without ever qualifying for it!
B S Nagraj is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. He has worked for a newspaper in Qatar for over four years.
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