Trouble in sport's paradise: Can Qatar overcome the diplomatic crisis?
By James M. Dorsey
The crisis in the Gulf that pits Qatar against a UAE-Saudi-led alliance is Qatar’s least problem when it comes to the 2022 World Cup.
Beyond the fact that efforts by Gulf states, first and foremost among which the United Arab Emirates, have sought to discredit Qatar as a host long before the UAE and Saudi Arabia in June declared their diplomatic and economic boycott, Qatar has proven 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 the Gulf state’s ability to complete infrastructure on time.
In some ways, if the Gulf 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 neighbours. 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 far greater number of fans from the Middle East as well as from Africa and Asia.
Governments in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, if they were still maintaining their travel bans, could find themselves in a difficult position if they were depriving their nationals from attending the first ever World Cup not only in the region, but also 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, they’ve also closed borders and closed air and sea links.
The Asian Football Confederation’s Competition Committee recently urged governments to exempt football teams from travel bans. The call was in response to the travel ban Saudi Arabia announced last year following the rupture in relations with Iran as well as the more recent bans on travel to Qatar. The question is why that advice should not also be applicable to fans.
Equally immediate and significant is the fact that particularly the UAE is not going to give up its covert efforts to get Qatar deprived of 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 the controversy about 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 in world soccer body FIFA and potential wrongdoing in the awarding of World Cups, irrespective of the fact that Qatar has categorically and repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. 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 Qatar has suffered. To be sure, the Gulf crisis has enhanced Qatar’s reputation to some degree. After all, the perceptions of the Gulf 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 labour sponsorship system that are likely to become a model for the region. In doing so, it cemented the 2022 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 early on 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 that engagement produced real results, the reputational damage had been done. Qatar is realizing that reputations are easy to tarnish and difficult to polish. There is little doubt that the World Cup more recently was not the only driver in labour reform, one critics’ major bone of contention. So was the International Labour Organization (ILO) that was about to censor Qatar and the Gulf crisis.
There is no doubt that Qatar has learnt from mistakes it made in the public diplomacy and public relations aspects of the labour issue. That is evident in Qatar’s markedly different handling of the Gulf crisis. It’s 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 its lost strategic advantage.
That leaves Qatar with the issue of the integrity of its bid, which may be in terms of public diplomacy 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 Asian Football Confederation AFC at the time of the Qatari bid, would have been helpful.
The integrity issue, Qatar’s weak point, will without doubt be exploited by its detractors, first and foremost in the Gulf. For critics of Qatar, there are two questions. One is, who do they want to get in bed with? Qatar’s detractors, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia hardly have stellar human and labour rights records. If anything, their records are worse than that of Qatar, which admittedly does not glow.
It is doubtful that the World Cup is at the core of the Gulf crisis, despite a declaration by Dubai’s top security official, Lt. General Khalfan, that the crisis would be resolved if Qatar surrendered its hosting rights. Nonetheless, it is an important enough symbol and vehicle for reputational capital for Qatar’s detractors, and particularly the UAE, to target.
That is evident from the emails of the UAE ambassador in Washington, Youssef al-Otaiba, whose account was either hacked or leaked by an insider. Al-Otaiba had devised a complex financial manoeuvre to undermine Qatar’s currency and deprive the Gulf state of its hosting rights. While Qatar has sought to counter the UAE efforts, its noticeable that it has not adopted a similar tactic by, for example, targeting the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.
The second question 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 how to exact retribution for a wrong doing that was common practice in global football governance. Leveraging should focus on how to achieve a fundamental reform of global sports governance that has yet to emerge six years into a crisis that was in part sparked by the Qatar World Cup. 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.
The future of the Qatar World Cup and the Gulf 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, deprival would be a victory for its detractors. It is with good reason that the UAE no doubt will continue its covert campaign to undermine Qatar’s hosting rights.
The real yardstick in the debate about the Qatari World Cup should be how the sport and the integrity of the sport benefit most. And even than, politics is never far from what the outcome of that debate is. Obviously, instinctively, the optics of no retribution raises the question of how that benefits integrity.
Yet, the potential legacy of social and economic change that is already evident with the Qatar World Cup is more important than the feel-good effect of having done the right thing with retribution or the notion of 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, 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 Gulf crisis, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict increasingly permeate soccer with a mounting number of decisions that upend the notion of a separation of 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 soccer as a bridge builder rather than a divider.
In a bizarre and contradictory sequence of events, FIFA president Gianni Infantino in June rejected involving the group in the Gulf crisis by saying 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, Mr. Infantino waded into the Gulf crisis by removing a Qatari referee from a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the request of the UAE. FIFA, beyond declaring that the decision was taken “in view of the current geopolitical situation,” appeared to be saying by implication that a Qatari by definition of his nationality could not be an honest arbiter of a soccer match involving one of his country’s detractors. In FIFA’s decision, politics trumped professionalism, no pun intended.
A demand this month by the Egyptian Football Federation (EFA) to disbar a Qatari from refereeing Egyptian and Saudi matches during next year’s World Cup in Russia puts FIFA in a position in which it will have to decide to either opt for professionalism over politics or also disbar from refereeing politically sensitive matches game officials from Qatar’s distractors– Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – who have likewise been appointed for the tournament.
FIFA’s tying itself up in knots in response to the Gulf crisis like the politics underlying corruption charges in New York and Zurich cries out for putting the inextricable relationship between sports and politics on the table and developing ways to govern a relationship that is a fact of life. It is a relationship that sports executives, politicians and government officials deny even though it is public, recognizable and undeniable.
If the Qatar World Cup because of the controversy that surrounds it and because of its World Cup having become a geopolitical football leads ultimately to an honest and open debate about the relationship of politics and sports, Qatar, unwittingly rather than wittingly, would have made a fundamental contribution to a healthier governance of sports in general and soccer in particular.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North AfricaThis article is based on James’ remarks at Play the Game’s 2017 Riding the Wave of Change conference