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Qatar Crisis Leads to Trouble in Sports

The FIFA World Cup is not the only problem when it comes to the Qatar crisis.

The Gulf crisis is the least of Qatar’s problems when it comes to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Beyond the fact that other Gulf states have sought to discredit Qatar as a host long before the diplomatic and boycott was enforced in June, Doha has proved capable of addressing potential disruptions. The import of construction materials may have become more expensive, and they may have to travel a longer route, but that does not impair Qatar’s ability to complete infrastructure on time.

In some ways, if the Qatar crisis were to last another five years until the World Cup, attendance may prove to be a more important issue. Not because Qatar would still be involved in a dispute with its neighbors. The crisis has already become the new normal. Even if it were resolved today, regional relationships will never return to the status quo ante. The reason why attendance may be an issue is that the demography of fans attending the World Cup in Qatar may very well be a different one than at past tournaments. Qatar is likely to attract a greater number of fans from the Middle East as well as Africa and Asia.

Governments in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, if they were still maintaining their travel bans, could find themselves in a difficult position if they stop their nationals from attending the first ever World Cup not only in the Middle East, but in an Arab country. How those governments would handle that would have consequences for the nature of the boycott, given that not only have they banned travel, but they have also closed borders as well as air and sea links.

The Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Competition Committee recently urged governments to exempt football teams from travel bans. The call was in response to a ban that Saudi Arabia announced in 2016 following the rupture in relations with Iran, as well as the more recent bans on traveling to Qatar. The question is why that advice should not also be applicable to fans.

Equally immediate and significant is the fact that the UAE is not going to give up its covert efforts to have Qatar stripped of hosting the World Cup. Qatar is vulnerable in that battle, not because the UAE is so powerful, but because of one of the two main issues that were at the core of controversy concerning its hosting rights: the integrity of Qatar’s bid.

That integrity remains in question with the legal proceedings in New York and Zurich involving corruption by FIFA, the world soccer body, and potential wrongdoing in the awarding of World Cups, irrespective of the fact that Qatar has repeatedly denied any misconduct. The legal proceedings, while disturbing, are likely to drag on for a considerable period of time, and as such may not pose an immediate threat.

What is more immediate is the reputational damage that Qatar has suffered. To be sure, the Qatar crisis has enhanced Doha’s reputation to some degree. After all, the perceptions of the crisis are one of David vs. Goliath — Qatar as the resilient underdog defending its independence and right as a small state to chart its own course.

Qatar deserves credit for reforms being introduced to its controversial kafala or labor sponsorship system, which is likely to become a model for the region. In doing so, it cemented the 2022 FIFA World Cup as one of the few mega-events with a real potential of leaving a legacy of change. Qatar started laying the foundations for that change by becoming the first and only Gulf state to engage with its critics: international human rights groups and trade unions.

The problem is that by the time this engagement produced real results, the reputational damage had already been done. Qatar is realizing that reputations are easy to tarnish and difficult to polish. There is little doubt that the World Cup was not the only driver in labor reform — one critic’s major bone of contention. So too was the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was about to censor Qatar.

There is no doubt that Qatar has learned from its mistakes in the public diplomacy and relations aspects of the labor issue. That is evident in Doha’s markedly different handling of the Qatar crisis. It is a far cry from the ostrich that puts its head in the sand, hoping that the storm will pass — only to find that by the time it rears its head, the wound has festered and it has lost strategic advantage.

Integrity of Qatar 2022

That leaves Qatar with the integrity of its bid which, in terms of public diplomacy, may be the toughest nut to crack. On the principle of where there is smoke, there is fire, Qatar is in a bind. Nonetheless, some greater degree of transparency, including regarding relationships with Mohammed bin Hammam, the disgraced FIFA executive committee member and head of the AFC at the time of the Qatari bid, would have been helpful.

The integrity issue — Qatar’s weak point — will be exploited by Doha’s detractors, first and foremost in the Gulf. For critics of Qatar, there are two questions.

First, who do they want to get in bed with? Qatar’s detractors — the UAE and Saudi Arabia — hardly have stellar human and labor rights records. If anything, their records are worse than that of Qatar, which admittedly does not glow itself.

It is doubtful that the World Cup is at the core of the Qatar crisis, despite a declaration by Dubai’s top security official, Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, that the diplomatic impasse would be resolved if Qatar surrendered its hosting rights. Nonetheless, the tournament is an important symbol and vehicle of reputational capital for Qatar’s detractors to target.

That is evident from emails of the UAE ambassador in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, whose account was either hacked or leaked by an insider. Otaiba had devised a complex financial maneuver to undermine Qatar’s currency and deprive Doha of its hosting rights. While Qatar has sought to counter the UAE efforts, it is noticeable that it has not adopted a similar tactic by, for example, targeting the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.

Second, the other question that critics have to ask themselves is how best to leverage the World Cup, irrespective of whether the Qatari bid was compromised or not. On the assumption that it may have been compromised, the question is less concerned with how to exact retribution for a wrongdoing that was common practice in global football governance. Leveraging should focus on how to achieve fundamental reform of international sports governance, which has yet to emerge six years into a crisis that was partly sparked by the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

This goes to the heart of the fact that untouched in the governance crisis is the corrupting, ungoverned and incestuous relationship between sports and politics.

A Difficult Marriage

The future of the 2022 World Cup and the Qatar crisis speaks to the pervasiveness of politics in sports. The World Cup is political by definition. Retaining Qatar’s hosting rights or depriving the Gulf state of the right to host the tournament is ultimately a choice with political consequences. As long as the crisis continues, retaining rights is a testimony to Qatar’s resilience, while deprival would be a victory for its detractors. It is with good reason that the UAE will continue its covert campaign to undermine Qatar’s hosting rights.

The real yardstick in the debate about the World Cup should be how the football and the integrity of the sport benefit most. And even then, politics is never far from what the outcome of that debate is. Obviously, the optics of no retribution raises the question of how that benefits integrity.

Yet the legacy of social and economic change that is evident with the 2022 World Cup is more important than the feel-good effect of having done the right thing with retribution or setting an example. Add to that the fact that, in current circumstances, a withdrawal of hosting rights would likely be interpreted as a victory of one side over the other. This would further divide the Arab and Muslim world, and enhance a sense among many Muslims of being on the defensive and under attack.

To be clear, the rot in sports governance goes far beyond financial and performance corruption. That is evident in the way that the Qatar crisis, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly permeate football with a mounting number of decisions that upend the notion of a separation between sports and politics. They also put an end to the principle of judging professionals on their merits rather than nationality, and make a mockery of the ideal of football as a bridge builder rather than a divider.

In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events, in June, FIFA President Gianni Infantino refused to involve the soccer body in the Qatar crisis. He said that “the essential role of FIFA, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics.” Yet, on the same day that he made his statement, Infantino waded into the crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. Beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” FIFA appeared to be saying that a Qatari referee could not be an honest arbiter of a football match involving one of his country’s detractors. In FIFA’s decision, politics trumped professionalism — no pun intended.

In November, the Egyptian Football Federation demanded that Qataris be disbarred from refereeing Egyptian and Saudi matches during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This puts FIFA in a tricky situation. The body will have to choose between professionalism over politics or to disbar certain referees from politically sensitive matches.

FIFA is tying itself up in knots in response to the Gulf crisis. It is a situation much like the politics underlying the FIFA corruption case in New York and Zurich, which cries out for putting the relationship between sports and politics on the table and developing new ways to govern. This is a relationship that sports executives, politicians and government officials deny, even though it is public, recognizable and undeniable.

If the 2022 World Cup leads to an honest and open debate about the relationship between politics and sports, Qatar, unwittingly rather than wittingly, would have made a fundamental contribution to a healthier governance of international sports.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Mikhail Mishchenko / Shutterstock.com