JAMES M DORSEY ANALYSIS —- The UAE-Saudi-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar has complicated the Gulf state’s preparations to host the 2022 World Cup but in no way has the event been derailed.
The importation of construction materials needed to build eight stadiums, lay dozens of miles of rail work and erect a brand new city may become more expensive or may take longer to arrive as a result of the boycott, but this should not impair the Gulf state’s ability to complete infrastructures on time.
“The goods from new supply chains are often more expensive and a lot of contractors are already operating on quite low margins… There’s no doubt that the boycott will put an additional premium on what was already going to be a very expensive World Cup,” cautioned Allison Wood, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with strategy firm Control Risks.
Deep pockets filled by revenues from gas exports, a $335 billion war chest invested in blue chips, and a remaining four-year lead time have prevented Qatar’s dream of hosting the tournament from turning into a boycott-battered nightmare.
“There’s a solution for every challenge that presents itself. We work with our contractors to ensure that we can deliver long-term supply chain solutions and alternatives”, said Hassan Al-Thawadi, the Secretary General of the Qatar World Cup Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy.
In some ways, if the Gulf crisis were to last another four years until the World Cup, attendance may prove to be a more important issue, and 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 of before. “This is a wound that has been created for a generation. This will never be forgotten”, noted Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker.
The reason attendance could be an issue is that the demography of fans attending the World Cup in Qatar may very well differ from that of past tournaments. Qatar is likely to attract a far greater number of fans from the Middle East, Africa and Asia whose interests, demands and expectations of experience could differ from those of Europeans and Latin Americans.
Governments in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain, if they were still insistent on maintaining their boycott that involves a ban on travel and the cutting off of all land, sea and air links with Qatar, could find themselves in a sensitive position if they deprived their nationals the opportunity to attend the first ever World Cup held not only in the region but also in an Arab country.
Sensitivity to fans undoubtedly played a role in the UAE’s decision – within weeks of the declaration of the boycott – to exempt beIN Sports, the Al Jazeera television network’s sports franchise, from the blocking of all Qatari television channels in the country.
The shuttering of Al Jazeera was one of the UAE-Saudi-led alliance’s key pre-conditions for lifting the boycott on Qatar. beIN holds broadcasting rights for major competitions, including England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the Champions League, the AFC Champions League, the Asian Cup, the CAF Champions League, and the Africa Cup of Nations.
The ban deprived fans of access to broadcasts of the world’s major tournaments. The lifting of the ban came days after Qatar won more than a symbolic victory with a decision by the European soccer body UEFA to award beIN Middle Eastern and North African broadcasting rights for the Champions League and grant it rights for the UEFA Europa League.
The lifting of the ban also served to pre-empt criticism by fans as well as possible punitive measures by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). The AFC alongside world soccer body FIFA’s African affiliate, the Confederation of African Football (CAF), insisted in June 2017 on almost identical statements with respect to upholding the separation of politics and football. They called on football stakeholders to adhere to the principles of neutrality and independence in politics as “part of the statutory missions” of FIFA and its affiliates “as well as the obligations of member associations”.
The CAF went on to say that it would be “particularly vigilant as regards respect for these principles of neutrality and independence in all future games played under its aegis”. The federation warned that its committees would monitor developments and take punitive action where necessary. Adherence to the policy proved to be perfunctory at times and unevenly enforced. It suggested that the Gulf crisis was putting already sorely battered global and regional football governance to the test.
FIFA and the AFC were silent when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain refused to compete in the Gulf Cup, scheduled to be held in Qatar in 2017. The boycott persuaded Qatar to transfer its hosting rights to Kuwait.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino, rather than chastising the three Gulf states for involving the sport in politics, commended Qatar for its “honourable gesture” and attended the tournament’s opening match. But the world body was silent when on political grounds the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini squads refused to participate in news conferences in Kuwait in which Qatari media were present.
The CAF appeared to be somewhat more assertive than the AFC. It warned Egypt’s two top clubs, arch-rivals Al Ahli FC and Al Zamalek SC, that they could be penalized if they went through with a declared boycott of beIN Sports, in response to a statement by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) supporting Egypt’s participation in the UAE-Saudi-led boycott of Qatar.
Documents from an email account of Youssef al-Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to the United States, who was either hacked or the victim of a leak by an insider, showed he had devised a complex financial manoeuvre to undermine Qatar’s currency and deprive the Gulf state of its hosting rights.
The effort to deprive Qatar of the World Cup stood in stark contrast to Qatar’s failure to adopt a similar tactic by targeting the 2020 World Expo in Dubai, for example.
The Qatari-UAE competition for jaw-dropping headlines has been about far more than trophy acquisitions and performance on the pitch. By driving the price of soccer players into the stratosphere, Qatar was telling its Gulf detractors it could shake off their boycott as it would swat a fly. That was priceless in an environment in which the UAE-Saudi-led alliance has failed to garner widespread support for its boycott in both the Muslim world and the broader international community.
For Qatar, the soccer acquisitions were part of a far broader soft power strategy that in many ways might be the most strategic and thought-through approach in the Gulf. It envisioned sports as much as a pillar of national identity as it was a key leg of its effort to amass soft power. The 2022 World Cup was the strategy’s crown jewel. Yet, the strategy has produced only mixed results. Performance on the pitch has not offered the Qatari government the kind of success that various other Arab autocrats have been able to exploit in their bid to boost their image. Qatar is the first World Cup host in almost a century not to qualify for the World Cup on its own meritt.
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 then, 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.
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 and the resignation from FIFA’s Council of Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, long seen as one of the three most powerful men in international sports.
Ahmad, a pony-tailed member of Kuwait’s ruling family, and former minister and head of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), is the living denial of a separation between sport and politics.
A statement by the US Attorney’s Office in New York’s Eastern District did not refer to Ahmad by name. The statement asserted however that Richard Lai, a member of FIFA’s Audit and Compliance Committee and President of the Guam Football Association, had received more than $850,000 in bribes between 2009 and 2014 “from a faction of soccer officials in the AFC region” to help “officials in that faction identify other officials in the AFC to whom they should offer bribes.
The goal of this scheme was for the faction to gain control of the AFC and influence FIFA”, the statement said.
Ahmad is believed to be one of four co-conspirators listed in Lai’s indictment that include a Kuwaiti official of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which has been headed by Ahmad for the past 26 years. Ahmad’s resignation constitutes the first instance in which US legal proceedings against corruption in global soccer governance have touched Asia.
Ahmad denied the assertions made by Lai who pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy in the United States, as well as past allegations that the OCA had offered bribes to influence past elections in the Asian Football Confederation.
Ahmad’s decision to resign and not to run for re-election at this month’s FIFA congress in Bahrain put an end to his effort to exploit his international sports stature to further his political ambitions in a bitter power struggle within Kuwait’s ruling family.
To be fair, both parties within the family played politics with sports. Ahmad’s position, however, allowed him to persuade the International Olympic Committee (IOC), of which he is a member, as well as virtually all international sports associations, to suspend Kuwaiti membership as part of the Kuwaiti politician’s bid for power.
Ahmad long used his position to put his own men in office. The IOC lifted the 18-month suspension in December 2017 in time for the Gulf Cup.
Men like Ahmad and his long-time protégé, AFC president Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, a Bahraini national, symbolize the intertwining of sports and politics. They are imperious, ambitious, power-hungry products of autocracies who have worked assiduously to concentrate power in their hands and side-line critics clamouring for real reform.
Hailing from countries governed by autocratic, hereditary leaders, they have been accused of being willing to occupy their seats of power at whatever price. Ambition, alleged corruption, and greed is their potential Achilles’ heel. That is what caused the demise in 2012 of Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national who headed the AFC and was a member of FIFA’s governing council. Bin Hammam was banned for life by FIFA from involvement in soccer on charges of ‘conflict of interest’that related to both Qatar’s World Cup and his own campaign in 2010-2011 to become FIFA president.
If the Qatar World Cup – given the controversy swirling around it and the fact that the World Cup has become a geopolitical football – ultimately leads to an honest and open debate about the relationship of politics and sports, Qatar, unwittingly rather than deliberately, will have made a fundamental contribution to a healthier governance of sports in general, and soccer in particular.