Thursday, 4th June 2015

Qatar’s World Cup headache just won’t go away

The late May eruption of a bribery scandal at world football governing body Fifa, which has been bubbling for years, is just the latest chapter in a sordid tale that has put Qatar in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The award of the 2022 Fifa World Cup to Doha nearly five years ago was supposed to shine a spotlight on a small state worthy of global acclaim. But instead, it has illuminated the grubbier side of Qatar’s nature, exposing its appalling treatment of migrant workers, displaying the hubris of its attempts to host a tournament in blistering heat, and – whether or not it played a part in the huge corruption that has blighted Fifa (it says it didn’t) – tainting the very reputation it was hoping the event would help build (GSN 982/6, 974/13, 930/7).

Qatar continues to maintain its integrity, saying it won the World Cup fair and square. But the arrest of a string of Fifa officials and corporate executives on 27 May, by Swiss officials acting on behalf of US authorities, means that Fifa’s practices – and Qatar’s right to hold the tournament – will again be under scrutiny, this time by authorities unbeholden to Fifa. The Department of Justice has charged 14 people, nine of them current or former Fifa executives, with running a criminal enterprise that involved more than $150m in bribes; separately, Swiss federal prosecutors have opened criminal proceedings in connection with the awards of the 2018 (to Russia) and 2022 World Cups.

The resignation of Fifa chief Sepp Blatter on 2 June heralds more revelations to come, and has amplified calls for Qatar to be stripped of the World Cup. Blatter has been a frequent visitor to the emiri diwan, and – while he is thought to have voted for the United States to hold the tournament – has resisted demands to re-run the vote. The investigations into the bidding process will be highly uncomfortable for Qatar which, for now, seems to have adopted an attitude of victimisation, suggesting it is being unfairly singled out. “The attack on Qatar’s World Cup is racist,” foreign minister Khalid Al-Attiyah was quoted as saying by Jaber Al-Harmi, the editor of pro-government newspaper Al-Sharq (who bizarrely resigned a few days later after his paper unintentionally published explicit images from the Kama Sutra). Former foreign minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim (HBJ), talking to Fox News’ ‘Sunday Morning Futures’ on 31 May, blamed the media for the disproportionate attention on Qatar. “Is it because it’s an Arab, Islamic, small country? That’s the feeling of the people in the region,” he said.

If Qatar still has any hope the World Cup could bring it closer to countries in the West (as HBJ suggested), it would do well to distance itself from all things Fifa rather than blame the media, or anyone else outraged by Fifa’s conduct. The Gulf’s dogged support for Blatter – Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad, a new addition to Fifa’s executive committee, has been a particularly vocal supporter – did not play well among constituencies wanting a complete overhaul of a system which has been making money at sport’s expense. The Asian Football Confederation, headed by Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, played a key role in re-electing Blatter to a fifth term on 29 May, something it may regret if he becomes directly implicated in corruption.

Even if the scandal leaves the Doha World Cup intact, the suffering of those building the stadiums has already done huge damage to Qatar’s international reputation. To put that right, Doha needs to rapidly and publicly improve its treatment of migrant workers, many of whom have died in work-related incidents, or from cardiac arrests that some human rights groups link to dreadful working and living conditions. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that 4,000 migrant workers will have died by the time the tournament arrives – if indeed it ever does.

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