The US Department of Justice’s charging documents against 14 individuals accused of bribery and racketeering in conjunction with their roles at FIFA, soccer’s international governing body barely mention Qatar.
Nevertheless, the accusations don’t reflect well on the oil and gas-rich Persian Gulf monarchy that won the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.
If the allegations made by DOJ prosecutors are accurate, the hosting rights for the 2010 World Cup, the 2011 FIFA presidential election, and a number of South American soccer tournaments were tainted by nearly $US150 million in bribery. It’s difficult to believe that Qatar’s World Cup bid was any cleaner than the rest of FIFA’s typically sordid day-to-day business.
Indeed, a 2014 report from former US federal prosecutor Michael J. Garcia found certain FIFA officials were paid $US1.5 million each to vote to award Qatar the tournament. FIFA suppressed the publication of Garcia’s report, and the organisation’s only response to the mounting evidence of the 2022 bid’s illicit sale has been to insist Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup won’t be revoked or even reassessed.
It’s possible Qatar’s hosting rights will be able to weather the most intense legal scrutiny FIFA has ever been subjected to. FIFA is obviously loathe to strip the Middle East of its first-ever World Cup — if the soccer world’s sanctioning body is willing to hold the 2022 tournament during the European club season and tolerate widespread labour abuses during the event’s preparations, it seems unlikely its plans will be swayed by accusations that haven’t even made it to a courtroom yet.
At the same time, the arrests fit into a larger trajectory for the Gulf emirate. Qatar once represented a fresh alternative to the traditionally staid and stability-minded governments of the Persian Gulf. The Qatari monarchy built Al Jazeera into the most important media force in the Middle East, often shattering the region’s state-held monopolies ont he flow of information. During the Arab Spring, Qatar supported entities like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda, betting that the opening of the Middle Eastern political space that started in 2011 would result in a wave of elected Islamist governments.
Outside of the Middle East, Qatar hosted peace talks over the future of Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, attempted to broker agreements between the pariah state of Eritrea and its neighbours, and agreed to host the political office of the Afghan Taliban. Qatar attempted to make itself politically indispensable through maintaining relations with terrorist entities and pariah states — while also hosting Al Udeid Air Base, one of the most important US military installations in the Middle East.
That balance hasn’t exactly held.
The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood governments in Egypt and Tunisia dealt a blow to Qatar’s prestige, while Al Jazeera was essentially expelled from Egypt over Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood. Qatari officials are widely accused of supporting Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria (Nusra head Abu Muhammad al Jawlani granted a rare exclusive interview to Al Jazeera Arabic on May 27th). The peace in Darfur hasn’t held, and al Jazeera’s expansions into the US and Turkish markets have floundered.
Qatar’s World Cup bid was once an unmistakable sign that Qatari hard and soft power were one of the major emerging forces on the global scene. The decline of the public’s perception fo the Qatari World Cup, now considered an ill-gotten humanitarian catastrophe, has mirrored the drift in the country’s standing more generally.
Today’s FIFA arrests are further proof there was never any sustainable policy undergirding Qatar’s unorthodox and outsized global ambitions. The controversy over the bid is the end result of the world’s misplaced hope that the apparently pro-American, peace-minded, Al Jazeera broadcasting regime in Doha would be able to deliver on its desire to be an influential and constructive player on the world stage.
However, the World Cup bid may have delivered the tournament to Qatar, but with these serious allegations, the games won’t necessarily come with the prestige the country once hoped for. Instead, the tournament will only expose how unready Qatar was to become a serious global player, and how badly he rest of the world misjudged it.
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