Is Democracy a Threat to the World Cup?

By Tom Taylor, Columnist of The Stanford Daily and TTWMES Guest Columnist

When FIFA chose the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups it picked the two least democratic countries from the list of bidding nations. Qatar is an absolute monarchy, and Russia, while technically a democracy, is virtually a one-party state.

With such infinite power it is hard to question the ability of the Russian and Qatari governments to put on a show. Not only do both have fantastic resources at their disposal, but they also are under no pressure to justify their actions to a demanding electorate. They are thus free to lavish these resources on whatever might take their fancy.

The difference between democratic and non-democratic nations holding sporting tournaments is acutely clear in the run up to the 2012 Olympics in London. Where Chinese authorities in Beijing could do absolutely anything, even jailing dissidents and forcibly evicting many of their own citizens to make way for construction, the organising committee in London has struggled to explain a ballooning budget and to live up to promises made.

Qatar further highlighted the distinction with its bid for the World Cup, spending more in a single year just on communications than the, in comparison, paltry total of $25 million spent by traditional soccer power England for its whole campaign. The money Qatar spent on the bid, though, is nothing compared to that pledged towards construction work essential to live up to the promises made.

The bid received the highest risk rating, and the scale of the task lying before this small country is huge. The cost for redeveloping three existing stadiums and building nine more will run to at least $3bn, but even that is nothing compared to the $50bn to be spent on the public transport system.

The hosts selected, the FIFA Executive Committee has probably turned much of its attention to Brazil 2014, but perhaps they should keep a cautious eye on what is happening across North Africa and the Middle East. 2022 is a long way off, but the growing unrest has surprised everyone, not least the former rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, and with two solid victories already the wave of protests in the region has certainly shown it has teeth.

This situation could grow out of control and spark a major war. It would be a great leap to say that Qatar itself is currently threatened, but then few expected a burgeoning revolution in Bahrain, just a few short miles away.

Most will be hoping that this worst case scenario is averted, but it seems increasingly hard to imagine that the Arab world can quickly turn the clock back to its status quo of relative stability at the expense of freedom.

The idealistic alternative to a major war or a return to tyranny would be the peaceful transition to true democracy throughout the region. Much seems stacked against this path, from internal power battles to external influences, but maybe, just maybe, it might happen.

Out of these three choices it is certain that FIFA would most dread war, but perhaps it also would have something to fear from democracy. If Qatar did adopt real democracy then it would be a very different country a decade from now. Sitting on the world’s third largest natural gas reserves, it would still be able to afford the World Cup bill, but whether an elected government would really be able to justify spending so much of the public’s money is another matter.

With a population of just 1.7 million it would probably be cheaper for the Emirate to pay for each of its citizens to have a first class trip to a World Cup abroad than to host one on home ground. Some of the construction will provide a lasting legacy for Qataris, but much will not. The total capacity of the twelve giant white elephant stadiums will dwarf its fledgling soccer culture. As it is unlikely to be dealing with anything else close to the tourist influx of this tournament, much of the transport infrastructure may be redundant.

An enfranchised population might decide that it is better to scale down and reduce costs, breaking promises made to FIFA, but conserving money that could be better spent more directly on the Qatari people. After all, why waste funds on small things when the country will still have made history by becoming the first ever Arab nation to host the World Cup, even if it is not quite the tournament Sepp Blatter is hoping for?


  1. Intetesting article, shines the light on the narrow and sometimes misguided criteria these decisions are reached by....

  2. Indeed, its an interesting perspective and valid question that is all the more relevant now even though Qatar is likely to be one of few Arab states unaffected by the wave of protests.

  3. I think Qatar's biggest problem is selling the tournament to the rest of the world. Qatar should remain immune to the unrest going on in the rest of the region. Unlike its neighbor, Bahrain, Qatar has vast Oil and Natural Gas reserves, a heterogenous population, and low unemployment (estimated at .5%).

    The ruling family appears to be benevolent and have reinvested the nation's wealth in various sectors of the economy. Freedom of Expression is for the most part respected (although I haven't seen or heard anyone really putting that to the test by insulting the Sheikh Hamad). I think it is important to remember that Qatar vis-a-vis Al-Jazeera has done more than anyone to spread Democracy in the Arab World. Curiously enough, it has done very little to advance it in Qatar since the approval of the new constitution in 2003 by popular referendum. Elections are slated for 2013, but even when that comes to effect Qatar would be left with a system that mirrors the one in Jordan and Bahrain.

  4. You're spot on. I would make one caveat, Qatar has a problem selling its hosting of the tournament to a part of the World i.e the West rather than rest of the world. You may be interested in the story I just posted on Cameron's visit to Doha

  5. Qatar always seems like a weird paradox. It is technically an absolute democracy, but at the same time is (through Al-Jazeera) a big supporter of freedom of speech, usually regarded as a critical part of any functioning democracy (and perhaps a route to democracy)...


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