Qatar 2022: Be careful who you listen to

August 17, 2018 17:52
Joseph Blatter (right), then the FIFA head, presents the World Cup to the chairman of the Qatar bid, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, in 2010. Blatter now claims Qatar cheated in its pursuit of the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Photo: Reuters

Sepp Blatter’s claims that Qatar cheated in its pursuit of the right to host the 2022 World Cup ring hollow. After all, this was the man who was supposedly presiding over FIFA, world football’s governing body, during a time when all manner of misdemeanors and crimes were being perpetrated inside the organization (including the Qatar hosting decision).

In other such situations, honorable people have fallen on their swords as they have accepted responsibility for things that have happened with their organizations on "their watch". Not Blatter though, whose recently published memoirs have merely provided him with another opportunity to reassert his position.

The Sunday Times’ (ST) supposed recent exclusive on Qatar’s use of "black ops" during the country’s successful 2010 bid campaign further, if rather disingenuously, reiterated Blatter’s stance.

Having spent years attempting to undermine the former FIFA president, the ST’s reporting somehow felt like an unholy alliance with the disgraced Swiss former bureaucrat. Blatter is hardly poacher turned game-keeper of good governance, whilst the ST by virtue of its ownership is unable to freely claim that it is immune from the political influence of its owners.

Indeed, the ST’s owner, News International, is also the proprietor of Donald Trump’s favorite Fox News in the United States. This could be one reason why the likes of Saudi Arabia’s Arab News so gleefully jumped upon the ST story. Not only is the Gulf country engaged in a regional feud with Qatar, it is was also the destination for Trump’s first overseas state visit. The kingdom is close to Trump and getting ever closer to the United States.

The ST’s claims that Doha had sanctioned spying on its bid rivals had an equally hollow ring to Blatter’s related protestations. All of which made the subsequent, gleeful condemnation of Qatar by western liberals all the more unfathomable.

It is striking that while many people across the world have maintained their unhealthy obsession with Qatar, few have ever taken the time to question whether the likes of Russia (or, for that matter, the United States ahead of the 2026 World Cup vote) have similarly engaged in supposed "black ops" and subterfuge.

One wonders also about the extent to which Qatar’s regional rivals have been using illicit techniques to undermine and discredit the country. For example, late last year, one of an endless stream of reports was published condemning its hosting of the World Cup. Several commentators were nevertheless forced to retrench from their initial coverage of this report when it emerged that its author was a well-known and vehement critic of Doha’s government.

The lesson for everyone ahead of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup in 2022 is, therefore, to be careful what one reads, and always to verify one’s observations by referring to multiple sources of information, which should ideally provide competing perspectives.

And this includes whatever comes out of Qatar itself. The tone of this piece may appear to cast the country as an innocent victim, rather than as the evil empire it is otherwise so often presented as being. Yet whatever it is now being subjected to is the inevitable consequence of the high-stakes ambitions that Qatar seems to have.

A grand national vision, massive government spending, the pursuit of soft power influence and a desire to play a role in international and global politics was always going to put Qatar in the spotlight, and so now it must decide how to withstand the scrutiny it faces.

It may seem simplistic, but money can’t buy you love, a stark reality that Doha needs to quickly embrace.

Whether or not Qatar has used black ops’ techniques will probably remain a moot point until such time it is proved one way or another. Even so, for every skewed story that comes out of Riyadh, there will be another of questionable provenance coming out of Doha.

Just as the likes of Saudi Arabia, the US, Britain and others have learned to play the game, so Qatar has now joined in.

If ever one needs a guide to how Qatar manages information, a perusal of the country’s daily newspapers provides ample evidence. Just as many readers of British newspapers are used to salacious gossip and vilification of the European Union, so newspapers in the small Gulf nation are an ongoing, endless celebration of all things Qatari.

This sets the tone for all manner of other activities in which Qatar is embarked. The country is a not a liberal western democracy, a fact reflected by it media outlets but also by its desire to utilize the World Cup as an instrument of brand positioning and influence – both domestically and elsewhere.

As one drives around Doha, there are endless boards and hoardings upon which the obsequious declaration "Qatar deserves the best" is posted. This leaves one in no doubt about Qatari self-identity and aspirations, something that implies Doha’s government will go to whatever lengths are needed to deliver on its promises.

Still, blithely following the recriminations of a disgraced former president, or else buying into a PR-driven narrative designed to weaken a rival, is not going to bring about a constructive debate about Qatar’s hosting of the next World Cup. For that matter, blindly accepting the cash-induced soft power offensive of a hugely aspirational state is naïve too.

Furthermore, the conflation of multiple issues within this context also confuses the situation; a regional feud and the treatment of immigrant labor are two different matters, as are the failings of a governing body and its president and the representation of a nation across the world.

Qatar is not innocence personified, just as Sepp Blatter and Saudi Arabia are not pillars of virtue. Always beware the agendas that are at play, especially as 2022 draws closer.

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A mock-up of the World Cup trophy is displayed at a shop in Souk Waqif in Doha, Qatar. Photo: Reuters
The Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, is the first completed venue for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Director of Eurasian Sport, Professor of the Eurasian Sport Industry Director, Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry.