The Arab Weekly
By James M. Dorsey
US and Swiss investigations into corruption in FIFA and the awarding of World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar are likely to force Qatar to provide chapter and verse about its bid rather than allow it to stick to its tired reiteration that it did nothing wrong, will cooperate with any and every inquiry and that allegations against the Gulf state are rooted in racism.
Former Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani responded to the latest FIFA crisis as it related to Qatar by saying that it was “not fair” and based on Western Islamophobia and racism towards Arabs. No doubt, debate about the Qatari World Cup has been burdened by sour grapes, envy, ulterior motives, prejudice and bigotry.
A total of 14 World Cup officials were arrested just before FIFA meetings that re-elected Sepp Blatter as president of the group that oversees international football. The allegations of wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering included charges that some $150 million in bribes were used to secure the World Cup in 2018 in Russia and 2022 in Qatar.
That, however, does not distract from real issues Qatar needs to confront and the multiple threats it faces. Those threats have been magnified as much by external factors as by Qatar’s own handling of affairs.
To be sure, Qatar, unlike other Gulf states, has since winning the World Cup engaged with its critics. It has granted human rights and trade union activists access and worked with them to develop standards for working and living conditions for migrant workers. Qatar also cooperated in drafting proposals for a significant updating of the kafala sponsorship system that puts employees at the mercy of their employers.
Nonetheless, Qatar failed to capitalise on credibility it built with its failure to demonstrate sincerity by translating words into deeds. It further squandered credibility in a series of inelegantly handled incidents, including the repeated detention of foreign journalists. Making things worse, Qatar has recently tightened the screws on its critics.
All of that, coupled with the FIFA crisis, means that Qatar’s reputation even before the dramatic announcement of legal proceedings was tarnished by repeated allegations of vote buying and the labour issue.
As a result, for a country that has proved to be a shrewd financial investor, Qatar’s return on investment in soft-power instruments, such as the World Cup, designed to position it as a progressive ally of world powers in the hope that they will come to the aid of the wealthy Gulf state in times of emergency, has proven to be abysmal.
Instead of having amassed soft power, Qatar confronts multiple threats to its World Cup hosting rights. Those threats have raised the spectre of Qatar ultimately being deprived of its hosting rights.
Yet, even though millions of documents obtained by the Sunday Times suggest that Qatar bought the World Cup, it ultimately is not the core issue. Even if it did, Qatar, like Russia, played the game the way it is played in FIFA. England lost its 2018 World Cup bid for the simple reason that it insisted on largely walking a straight and ethically and legally correct line.
Hamad’s dismissal of the allegations as racist may ring hollow in failing to confront the substance of the allegations but it does forebode the geopolitical fallout and regional outcry were Qatar to lose its World Cup hosting rights.
Moreover, a Qatar under fire by legal authorities against the backdrop of a failed soft-power policy could either stiffen its back, decide to walk away from the tournament or be more inclined to attempt to repair suffered damage.
Qatar’s engagement with its critics and promulgation of standards that comply with international labour norms hold out the promise, despite Qatar’s failure so far to act on its lofty pledges, of the Gulf state’s tournament being one of the few World Cups to leave a legacy of change. That is far more important than seeking retribution for wrongdoing in an environment in which wrongdoing was the norm.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.