When Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, people flooded into the streets to celebrate a moment that saw the tiny gas-rich Gulf state elevated on to the global stage. Almost five years on, initial jubilation has mutated into subdued resignation at the rising tide of corruption claims against Doha’s bid and calls for greater protection for the labourers who will be building the stadiums and related infrastructure.
The steady stream of criticism has now exploded into a dramatic threat to the Qatar World Cup after seven Fifa officials were arrested on corruption charges relating to a US probe into bribery and a Swiss criminal investigation into the awarding of the tournaments in 2018 to Russia and 2022 in Qatar. “Everyone is watching this very nervously,” said one Doha-based businessman. “It is clear that this is very serious, but it is too early to tell.” The Qatari government has not commented on the arrests.
The World Cup was the pinnacle of Qatar’s emerging strategy in the last decade to use its newfound financial muscle to promote the country as a major global player, from developing domestic interest in sports and culture to global investment into London property and European blue-chips.
Deloitte in 2013 estimated that Qatar would spend around $200bn in infrastructure in the run-up to the tournament. The Doha bourse declined 1.5 per cent on Wednesday after paring some of its losses after news of the arrests triggered a sell-off.
“Qatar has been its own worst enemy, wasting its soft power strategy down the drain,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Increasingly Qataris question the point of hosting the event, but officials also recognise that the loss of face in losing the event amid scandal would be even worse. Since the Sunday Times’ revelations of 2014, Doha has always argued that there is no evidence that former Qatari Fifa executive committee member Mohammed bin Hammam, who has been banned from football amid corruption allegations, was acting on behalf of the state’s bid.
An internal Fifa investigation later that year cleared Qatar of wrongdoing, even though the report was not made public and the author disassociated himself from the outcome. At that stage, senior Qataris believed that the country could hunker down and focus on delivering the infrastructure for the tournament, getting newly-hired public relations executives to deflect the unwanted media attention. But observers in Doha are now fully aware that the escalation from internal probes to criminal investigations in Switzerland and the US marks a serious escalation of the crisis.
Mr Dorsey, the author of an upcoming book on the Middle East and soccer, says the government has engaged with critics but failed to do enough to persuade the world that it understands the level of reform needed.
Qatar has announced plans to reform labour regulations to improve worker rights and limit abuse by employers, arguing last week that “significant changes have been made over the last year”, but rights groups say the changes do not go far enough. The highly-publicised case of Zahir Belounis, a French-Algerian football player who was prevented from leaving Qatar for two years because of a labour dispute with his employer, was a particularly embarrassing own-goal. The player’s case highlighted outdated labour laws that place workers at the mercy of their employers thanks to the “kafala” labour system that includes an exit permit system that critics say is open to abuse.
“This was an absolute demonstration of the problems that exist with exit visas with the World Cup host detaining an international player over what is pocket change compared to everything else being spent,” said Mr Dorsey.