Ever since Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 football World Cup in December 2010, there has been a persistent whiff of controversy in the air. In September, the bid was under scrutiny again as leading figures within international football questioned the wisdom of a summer tournament.
Citing health concerns relating to high temperatures – summer temperatures in Qatar regularly exceed 40°C – Michel D’Hooghe, the senior medical officer of FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations), recommended that the World Cup be switched to November–December, rather than July–August. His comments provoked the ire of the chief executive of the Qatari bid, Hassan al-Thawadi, who rejected claims that Qatar couldn’t host the tournament in the summer. ‘We are representing the Middle East; it is a Middle Eastern World Cup,’ he said.
However, it’s now looking increasingly likely that the tournament will indeed be moved to the winter, after the 54 member associations of UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, agreed at a meeting in Croatia in September that a summer event couldn’t be played in Qatar.
Unsuccessful bidders, including Australia, have threatened to sue for compensation if FIFA alters the dates. FIFA may face further legal action on the basis of potential disruption to domestic football leagues and speculation abounds that a new location might even be selected instead of Qatar.
Moving the 2022 World Cup from Qatar would be geopolitical dynamite. This is the first time that a World Cup will be held in the Middle East and the Qatari bid made much of this novelty factor.
For Qatar, the World Cup bid made strategic sense. As a country with limited means to defend itself, it relies on its ‘soft power’ (its ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce) to interact with regional neighbours such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the wider world.
The bid’s continuing controversy has exposed the wider political machinations involved in the bidding process. In an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said that there was ‘definitely direct political influence’ on European executive committee members to vote for Qatar. ‘European leaders recommended to its voting members to opt for Qatar, because of major economic interests in the country,’ he said.
The prospect of Qatari national wealth underwriting the 2022 bid almost certainly played a role as well. This small Arabian Gulf state, with a population of 1.9 million people, is the world’s 20th-largest oil producer and has the third-largest proven reserves of natural gas. Unsurprisingly, oil and gas make up 85 per cent of export earnings. The nation’s sovereign wealth fund, established in 2003, is worth at least US$5trillion.
Qatar isn’t a democracy and has thus far escaped an Arab Spring revolt, thanks in part to limited reforms that took place in 2005. The country has long been ruled by the Al Thani family. The latest sheik, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, took over from his father in June last year.
The bid’s success was seized upon by the Qatari authorities as an example of Qatar’s growing global profile, as exemplified by the Al-Jazeera media organisation and the ownership of Harrods. However, the success has also revealed the double-edged nature of so-called mega sporting events such as the Olympics and World Cup.
On the one hand, a successful bid helps to bolster national prestige and pride, raise a country’s profile and confer international ‘soft power’. On the other, however, it focuses attention on the country, which can have unwanted consequences. In this case, a recent Guardian investigation uncovered appalling labour abuses among Nepalese migrant workers involved in World Cup infrastructure projects. Workers were said to be dying at a rate of almost one a day over the summer and there was evidence that thousands of Nepalese, who make up the largest group of labourers in Qatar, faced exploitation and abuses that ‘amount to modern-day slavery’.
International trade unionists had already threatened to boycott the 2022 World Cup unless Qatar introduces stronger protection for migrant labour. Only 15 per cent of Qatar’s population is Qatari; there are large numbers of expatriates working in the domestic and construction labour markets.
The bid was supposed to strengthen Qatari national identity, take the World Cup to the Middle East and act as a positive ‘bridge’ between the West and the Islamic world in the aftermath of the so-called war on terror. There is a danger, now, that those aspirations will be dashed unless a deal is reached regarding not only the timing but also the placing of the 2022 World Cup. In the meantime, Qatar remains geopolitically active – supporting Syrian rebels and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as well as an array of other actors in places such as Afghanistan, Lebanon, Libya and beyond.