Fifa’s World Cup money-grabbing may be running into the sand in Qatar | Marina Hyde

Our heroes’ formula of leaving with all the cash and paying no tax could be coming awry in the Middle East as a Dubai official suggests Qatar should give up the World Cup

Exciting territory for the Middle East ingenues at Fifa, as the Qatar World Cup is elevated to the status of geopolitical bargaining chip. I know! It’ll be hard to know whether to qualify for it or sign a triple entente in the hope it’ll see us through the group stage.

But first, a recap. Back in June, several countries in the region – including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – instituted a blockade of Qatar, severing diplomatic relations and cutting off trade routes and so on. This, they said, was a response to the country’s support for terrorism and closeness to Iran. Among their various demands was that Qatar shut down the Doha‑based al-Jazeera and align itself far more tightly with other Gulf countries. Eye‑catchingly, Dubai’s high-profile security chief has now upped the stakes and claimed the blockade would end if Qatar gave up the World Cup. “If the World Cup leaves Qatar,” reasoned Lt Gen Dhahi Khalfan last Sunday, “Qatar’s crisis will be over … because the crisis is created to get away from it.”

Clarifying his comments the next day, he explained: “I said Qatar is faking a crisis and claims it’s besieged so it could get away from the burdens of building expensive sports facilities for the World Cup. That’s why Qatar isn’t ready and can’t host the next World Cup.” He went on to suggest that “the cost is bigger than what the Hamadein [the ruling family] have planned”.

On the one hand, let’s not get carried away with this somewhat boggling analysis. It seems unlikely that Qatar is confecting a regional crisis solely to get out of honouring its commitment to host the World Cup – though the mere fact it could be suggested shows the Wag-the-Dog nature of the modern sporting mega-event. These things are not quite so expensive that it’s cheaper to have a war to get out of having to deliver them. But, you know … it’s close. Furthermore, I love how even the richest people on earth still apparently end up spending way more than they’re happy with on events of this type. Such is the demented mission creep of the mega-event that even Croesus would have ended up screaming: “I AM NOT MADE OF MONEY,” at the chairman of the Lydian organising committee trying to get him to sign off another bazillion of his newfangled coins for infrastructure security.

On the other hand … the Middle East is starting to look like the place where Fifa might finally find itself out of its depth. With past World Cup hosts, the process for our Zurich‑based heroes has always been simple. Award World Cup to a country while denying inducements from immoral or innumerate local officials; get said country to spend insane amounts of money; get country to spend more money; get country to max out all lines of credit; insist country overrides its constitution and aspects of its rights legislation for your time in situ; leave with all the money and without paying any tax; respond with a hand wave or not at all when people talk about white elephant stadiums and infrastructure. Repeat.

Qatar, on the other hand, is proving slightly formula-resistant. Not only does it have the blockade hampering construction work, but last week also saw the leak to the BBC of a risk report on the tournament. Compiled by management consultants, it judged there is “an increasing political risk that Qatar may not host the World Cup in 2022”. As the report puts it: “Western diplomats have privately stated they do not know whether or not the tournament will take place as planned.” According to Qatar 2022’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the authors of this report have links to the countries blockading Qatar. For this reason, they say, it should be discounted. Alternatively, you may judge it should be paid particular attention to, as evidence that the blockade countries really mean to cause as much trouble as they can in relation to the World Cup.

Qatar rejects allegations it supports terrorism – video

Clearly some sort of PR pushback is necessary, and on Monday the New York Times ran an interview with the Qatar organising committee chief, Hassan al-Thawadai, conducted before the report came to light. Whether sight of it would have tempered some of his answers is unclear but without it there was much for students of sporting platitude and euphemism to enjoy. Did the blockade complicate the idea of making it a regional event, wondered the paper? “No,” came the amusing reply. “We’ve always taken the simple position that sports is elevated from conflict.” That’s certainly a simple position – and time may show it to be a simplistic one. Still, you have to admire him for doubling down, declaring: “We’ve always focused on it being a regional World Cup.” Just to clarify: is the region in question currently the one literally blockading you? “This is a World Cup beyond Qatar,” Thawadai insisted firmly. “It’s a cultural experience.”

Well. It feels very regionist to describe the current diplomatic chicanery over a football tournament as cultural, but perhaps Thawadai meant something else. Indeed, despite the frequency with which the World Cup is used as a political tool – perhaps this time more than ever – he is falling back on the cliche that it will be a peacemaker and healer. It is, he insists, “an opportunity to transform our region to a sustainable and stable future”. That idea may well run up against the limits of its credibility in Qatar. The official slogan for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid was: “Expect amazing.” The unofficial slogan for its delivery period is: “How’s that working out for ya?”


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

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