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With eight years to go, Qatar’s World Cup hopes look set to run into some heavy weather

Qatar, where it never rains - except on FIFA’s parade. EPA/Peter Kneffel

There is an old British saying: “It never rains but it pours”. One of Britain’s former protectorates may well have to consider adopting the phrase as its new national slogan. In Qatar, it hardly ever seems to rain (for four months each year, not even a drop); but when it comes to the 2022 World Cup its difficulties have evolved into a persistent deluge.

The weather, specifically the heat, is now an established part of the popular and prevailing discourse about Qatar’s hosting of FIFA’s showcase tournament. Indeed, the country’s ruling Al Thani family should not expect this issue to go away any time soon, as concerns about high summer temperatures are likely to intensify as 2022 draws closer. Even in recent weeks, medical professionals have stressed that they cannot guarantee the well-being of either players at the competition or the fans attending it. And last week, FIFA Executive Committee member Theo Zwanziger publicly stated that he thought Qatar 2022 would not go ahead due to the hot conditions.

Then there is the routine drenching Qatar receives in respect of the status, rights and treatment of construction – and other – migrant workers. Organisations ranging from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch have already expressed concerns about worker deaths, the kafala system and labour oppression. Now, Qatar’s external image has been further undermined following the recent detention of two British human rights investigators by the country’s secret service after a trip there, supposedly to investigate migrant labour conditions.

One should not forget either that FIFA’s ethics investigation could yet still rain on the country’s parade. While FIFA has stated that investigator and lawyer Michael Garcia’s report into the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will remain confidential, pressure is building for it to be made public.

Already, 2015 FIFA presidential candidate Jerome Champagne and UEFA’s president, Michel Platini, have strongly urged global football’s governing body to come clean on the report’s contents. If this happens then who knows, there could therefore be yet more problems ahead for the Middle East state.

Mud slinging

Now there are suggestions that Israel may be orchestrating a deliberate campaign among football fans aimed at ensuring that Qatar loses the right to stage the World Cup. In one recent apparent example of this, football fans protested outside the Qatari embassy in London – a protest organised by the Sussex Friends of Israel and the new Israeli Forum Task Force – claiming that the Qatar supports Islamic terrorism.

The belief is that the campaign actually goes far beyond this, embracing groups in the United States lobbying on behalf of Israel. Qatar is reportedly close to both the Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, relationships that Israel is keen to destroy. It remains to be seen though what impact the recent expulsion from Qatar of Muslim Brotherhood members will have on attitudes towards plans for the 2022 tournament.

There is a certain irony to concerns about the likes of Hamas as the US government sees Qatar as one of its closest allies in the region, which resulted in the US locating a forward command post in Doha. The situation is further complicated by tangible evidence that some other Middle Eastern states concerned about Qatar’s regional aspirations are similarly engaged in attempts to undermine the country and its World Cup plans. If this is indeed a Qatari rainstorm, then surely some of the country’s officials must be mindful of the potential for a consequent sporting and geopolitical mudslide.

Uneasy bedfellows: sport and politics

Qatar 2022 raises some fundamental questions for sport which are not just restricted to this one case, but also to other countries across the world: from mineral-rich, aspirational states like Azerbaijan, to commercial-driven capitalist states such as the US, liberal European democracies like the UK and the emerging rampant affluence of countries including China. Who said sport and politics should not be mixed?

This seems like a forlorn hope, as we do not appear to have a choice; countries such as Germany and Poland have recently held referendums among their populations about hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. In both cases, local people voted against submitting a bid, which means there’s a strong chance the games could be staged in either China or Kazakhstan. Both of these countries are using sport as much for political reasons as anything else.

This is in stark contrast to Western nations which increasingly appear to be bidding to host sporting events based on economic criteria. This raises a range of issues about how we want sport to be, what we want from it, which countries should be hosting sporting events and what their motives are.

As such, Qatar may simply be an obvious focus for a much broader set of issues bound-up in global geopolitical and economic shifts, as well as often dense networks of regional interests and political power struggles. In such cases, it would seem obvious to look to sports’ governing bodies for leadership and clarity. In the case of football however, FIFA’s strongly criticised governance standards have added to the general atmosphere of suspicion, cynicism and confusion.

Moving forward, such organisations need to get to grips with the complex environments in which they operate, otherwise they will be rendered even less fit-for-purpose than they already seem to be. More progressive approaches to their governance are now a necessity rather than simply being desirable.

Storms ahead

Many people inevitably and obviously claim that sports is about fans, but what choices do fans have when it comes to Qatar? They are in a seemingly invidious position caught between the inept governance of FIFA, Qatari ambition, Israeli anxiety and Middle Eastern rivalries. While some fans might be persuaded by Israeli attempts to challenge Qatar’s right to host the 2022 World Cup, the outcry and sensitivities associated with Israel and this summer’s conflict in Gaza do not make such a decision a comfortable one for football fans across the world.

For businesses too, especially those associated with the World Cup or with investments in football, these are challenging times. The continuing strength of Qatar’s economic growth, allied to its hosting of the World Cup present tremendous potential opportunities for business.

However, Israel has powerful friends – particularly in the US – and businesses will be concerned not to fall foul of anti-Qatari sentiment among them. This is without even considering the possible fall-out for business of FIFA’s ethics investigation and Qatar’s own domestic issues.

Many people might think that a thorough drenching of rain would be sufficient to cleanse even the most stubborn of problems. But Qatar’s World Cup is still nearly eight years away and so, one suspects, if FIFA does not effectively address cynicism about the 2022 bidding process, if Israel decides to adopt an increasingly bellicose stance towards Qatar and if Qatar itself continues along its current path of nation building and desire for significant geopolitical influence, then all of the people, businesses and organisations associated with the 2022 World Cup would be well advised to consider carrying an umbrella.

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