Qatar World Cup 2022: Tournament’s sanctity a bargaining chip for Gulf foes
FIFA isn’t talking. Neither is Qatar. Nor Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the UAE.
They’ve all gone silent about the elephant in the room: How the latest Gulf crisis pitting Qatar against some of its regional neighbors has the potential to derail the 2022 World Cup.
The current stalemate, escalated by charges of terror funding, is the latest in a long line of obstacles that Qatar has had to negotiate after winning the highly coveted right to stage one of the globe’s biggest sporting events — both in terms of global viewership and financial stakes.
“This cuts to the heart of what Qatar has tried to do for the past 10 years: To use sports as a means of increasing its brand awareness,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, professor of international studies at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.
“Clearly now its brand awareness is being tarnished by all the accusations.”
The Gulf state won its bid under controversial circumstances seven years ago, and quickly drew attention to questionable employment practices used to build or redevelop a cluster of new stadiums.
Rights groups have charged that migrant workers have been abused and exploited, while Qatar has rejected any notion that it is unfit to host the event.
That glare has been unrelenting — especially from non-governmental organizations.
Out in the cold
The Gulf crisis has the ability to severely compromise the 2022 tournament by way of limiting air space around Qatar, and barring goods to pass through its land border with Saudi Arabia.
Ulrichsen says that Qatar’s sole land border, a narrow stretch of 37 miles that separates it from Saudi Arabia, could create a delay in building facilities with only five and a half years left before the tournament’s November 2022 kickoff.
“A lot of the materials necessary for the construction would not be able to come in,” he says of the potential of a protracted economic blockade.
As things stand, taking off and landing into Qatar during the tournament would be hampered by a lack of available airspace around the country — its planes are barred from flying over Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — while its national carrier Qatar Airways would be restricted from the use of international airport hubs in those countries.
Meanwhile, Qatar is already getting a taste of what being left out in the cold in sporting terms could feel like.
Saudi Arabia — one of nine countries that have cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar — has canceled an Asian Champions League qualifying match scheduled in Qatar between Saudi club Al Ahli and Iranian club Persepolis
The Saudis have requested that the match be moved to Abu Dhabi, a Saudi Arabian official confirmed.
Qatar’s sporting ambitions — it owns French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain, plans to host the 2019 World Championships in athletics, and reportedly spent nearly $200 million on a sponsorship deal with Barcelona — have been a means for the Gulf state to enter the global stage.
But that “soft power” play has just taken a hard knock, according to James Dorsey, author of “The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.”
“Saudi Arabia and particularly the United Arab Emirates may want to rekindle the controversy over the Qatari hosting of the World Cup, particularly in regard to labor conditions and the integrity of the Qatari bid,” Dorsey told CNN’s World Sport show.
“That is a controversy that has largely died down, but that the Emiratis and the Saudis may well want to exploit.”
Dorsey says the potential of this giant diplomatic rift — which appears to involve the US in the form of a series of critical tweets from President Donald Trump on Tuesday — presents “a loss of prestige” to Qatar, especially if the sanctity of its World Cup bid is affected.
The Saudi General Authority of Sports was contacted by CNN for comment on how the standoff with Qatar will impact the country athletically, but did not respond. State run organizations from the UAE, Egypt, Yemen and the Maldives also didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment on the matter.
When asked whether it would attend the 2022 World Cup should it qualify, the Bahraini Embassy in London said “it serves no purpose to respond to hypothetical questions,” and referred to a statement from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs which includes accusations of Qatari terror funding and an intention to topple the Bahraini government.
In a blanket statement, Qatar says the actions of the countries and allegations that it supports terrorism and destabilizes the region are “unjustified” and “baseless,” while the country has continually denied any ties to terror organizations.
Meanwhile Qatar’s World Cup organizing committee declined to comment, while FIFA told CNN earlier in the week that that it was “in regular contact” with the Qatari organizing committee. FIFA did not address questions on whether the diplomatic breaks would affect the tournament.
Huge potential blow
Ulrichsen says losing the World Cup would be a “huge blow to Qatar” because of all the resources that have already gone into planning and preparation.
That threat is a benefit to the countries attempting to wage power against Qatar — namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE — says Ulrichsen, author of “The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics and Policy-Making.”
“They know that this is an area where they can really escalate pressure on the (Qatari) leadership. They’ve identified these pressure points where the Qataris do place an incredible amount of value on certain things; one is the World Cup.”
A major priority for the Qataris will be fending off views that it is politically unstable or is associated in any way with acts of terrorism says Ulrichsen.
“It’s concerning for the Qataris because the whole bid in 2010 was pitched on the notion that Qatar was the most stable and secure location to have the World Cup in the Middle East,” he says. “And that message of stability is now being shredded.”
“It was always a bit of a gamble in 2010 to predict security and stability 12 years into the future, especially in such a (definitive) way when you have had conflicts on such short notice,” he says.
Last month Qatar officially open the first completed football venue — the Khalifa stadium. Would FIFA take the nuclear option and move the 2022 tournament?
It has done it before — the 1986 tournament was staged by Mexico after Colombia pulled out as hosts due to economic reasons in 1982.
“If this continues for any length of time you could well see a move within FIFA or the international community, especially, to reopen the case if Qatar is no longer seen as necessarily a stable location,” said Ulrichsen.
“There is always going to be vulnerability, isn’t there? Who’s to say it wouldn’t happen again?”
FIFA does have one ready-made alternative up its sleeve which affords it a last-minute decision, according to Ulrichsen.
“The danger for Qatar is, who did they beat in the final round of voting? It was the US. Well the US could host it next week.
“They already have the infrastructure and all the stadiums; they have everything. And the Qataris probably know that.”