Qatar, the tiny Gulf monarchy that has spent most of the last decade punching above its weight, is in danger of losing the 2022 World Cup - and with it a peerless showcase for its global aspirations.
An investigator for the international soccer association FIFA was in Doha on Wednesday questioning Qatari officials about allegations that bribery was involved in naming the dark horse as host of the month-long tournament, bringing what many consider the greatest spectacle in sports to the Middle East for the first time. The region was due a turn after the tournament was played in South Africa and divided between Japan and South Korea, but FIFA ethics investigator Michael Garcia was already probing corruption rumors when London's Sunday Times over the weekend revealed documents apparently showing a former Qatari official paid $5 million in bribes to soccer officials to secure the selection. The report is due to be delivered to higher-ups June 9, three days before the 2014 tournament begins in Brazil.
"This is the one way a country can literally be the center of the world for a month," says Laurent Dubois, a Duke University professor of Romance studies who has written a book on the politics of the World Cup. "And from the standpoint of political elites, that is a kind of catnip."
So revoking the 2022 selection of Qatar - as at least one senior FIFA official has suggested could happen - and re-opening the competition for a host nation would strike a huge blow to the country's prestige. And after raising its global profile by investing lavishly in museums, satellite news, and universities, Qatar lately has been already coping with a string of setbacks: the Muslim Brotherhood governments it supported in Egypt and the Gaza Strip are either removed or on their heels, while the rebels it arms in the Syrian civil war are losing to forces aligned with President Bashar Assad. Meanwhile correspondents for its satellite news channel Al Jazeera remain jailed in Cairo.
"The regional situation hasn’t gone very well for Qatar in the last year, so the World Cup becomes that much more important," says Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington. "So much is tied to the success of the World Cup, whether it’s building new hotels, or building an entire metro system from scratch, all of that is to prepare for the World Cup in eight years. So without the World Cup, what is this all going towards?"
Qatari officials emphatically deny authorizing any bribery, insisting that Mohamed bin Hammam, the official at the heart of the Sunday Times' devastating e-mail cache, was not involved in the official effort to land the tournament. Still, the Cup was already a source of controversy for Qatar. The new stadiums and infrastructure are being built by foreign workers who account for 1.4 million of the country's 2.2 million people, and whom human rights groups say are so badly exploited that a number have lost their lives on the job - prompting a promise from FIFA to push for better conditions. The country’s climate is also a problem: temperatures in June and July, when the Cup is played, reach 120 degrees, raising the question of shifting the tournament to a cooler time of year. As former U.S. Treasury official Jonathan Schanzer tweeted about the Taliban prisoners released from Guantanamo into Qatari custody in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl: “To be fair, Qatar in late spring and summer is worse than prison.”
But the corruption allegations play to an image of a petroleum-drenched monarchy so wealthy it simply buys whatever it wants. And they come just as as FIFA is already reeling from a match-fixing scandal, and controversy over the $11 billion Brazil is spending, amid widespread poverty and social ills.
"It's like the pigeons coming home to roost a little bit," says Dubois, who teaches a course on the World Cup. "There’s no justification for FIFA having so little transparency, except corruption. Really, if you think about it. Their job is to organize soccer games. Why all the secrecy?" Yet the global body has answered only to itself for so long that it's difficult to imagine it casting aside its choice of Qatar, even in the face of documents that the newspaper says number over a million. "On the one hand it seems to be inevitable that they'll revisit the decision," Dubois says. "And on the other hand, I can’t imagine them doing it."
It's just as hard for Hamid, who worked in Brookings' Doha office for the last four years, to fathom the loss to the host country. "It would really be devastating, I think," Hamid says. "I’m having difficulty imagining how Qatar would recover, in terms of perception."