Qatar’s Football War

Ever since winning the right to host the 2022
World Cup, Qatar has been the source of an almost constant and negative stream of press. From high level political gas deals and allegations
of corruption surrounding the vote back in 2010 to widespread reports of human rights
abuses concerning the migrant work force that is building the stadiums and infrastructure
of the tournament. So far, Qatar’s teflon World Cup has managed
to survive. But Qatar’s tournament is still under threat,
and not because of any of the things we have mentioned before, at least not directly. The tournament has become the central pawn
in a global political battle between Qatar and its neighbours Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE – where
Manchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour is one of the most powerful economic and political
figures – were the leading countries in a five nation coalition that cut all ties
with Qatar. All trade was banned. Borders were closed. Flights between the countries stopped. Families were separated. Qatar called it a “blockade”. The move brought temporary chaos to Qatar. Supermarket shelves were emptied, and the
country’s vast reserves were used to counter any damage. The country spent billions of dollars, and
re-routed supply chains to keep construction on the World Cup going. What brought Qatar’s neighbours to such a
drastic course of actions? The official explanation was Qatar’s alleged
support for terrorist movements in the Middle East and its close links to Iran, a Shia theocracy
viewed as a historic enemy and an existential threat to Sunni Saudi Arabia in particular. But the truth is much more complex, and opaque. It is a story of jealousy and greed. Of Trump and failed deals. Of hacking and propaganda wars. Of Al Jazeera and the competing whims and
thin skins of a new generation of Arab leaders. Of pirated football streams and a trench full
of nuclear waste. More on that later. The case against Qatar, that it funds terrorism,
is a strange charge to levy, given that Saudi Arabia has been accused in the past of using
its financial clout from owning the world’s biggest oil reserves to spread its unwavering
form of Islam across the world. But Saudi Arabia has taken a new, more muscular
path with its foreign policy, under its young Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman. Since rising to power he has shaken up Saudi
society, lifting the ban on women driving in the Kingdom as well as the ban on women
watching football. On the other hand, he has also cracked down
on dissent, locking up dozens of the country’s richest men in a five star hotel until they
handed back some of their wealth as well locking up dozens of feminist activists who have long
campaigned against what has been described as Saudi Arabia’s “gender apartheid”. In the UAE, another crown prince, Mohamed
bin Zayed – the brother of Sheikh Mansour – has also been cracking down on dissent. The UAE has virtually no democracy and some
of the harshest social media laws in the world. The country’s best known human rights activist,
Ahmed Mansoor, was arrested, held incommunicado and jailed for ten years for using his social
media accounts to publish “false information” and “spread hatred and sectarianism.” The roots of the conflict can be found in
the Arab Spring, the series of uprising across the Middle East that began in Tunisia in 2010
and spread across the region. In Egypt the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak
was removed from power after hundreds of thousands of people filled Tahrir Square. After Egypt’s first free elections, Mohamed
Morsi became president, a candidate aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood but who was also
a member. The Muslim Brotherhood is a popular political
Islamic organisation banned in much of the Middle East as it poses the biggest threat
to the Gulf’s conservative monarchies. The election of Morsi terrified the Gulf Arab
states who feared that they would be next. So much so that when Mohamed bin Zayed met
the British prime minister David Cameron in 2012, he raised the issue of the UK banning
the Brotherhood. If they didn’t, British businesses would find
difficulty in getting business from the UAE, especially when it came to arms and security
contracts. When that didn’t work, the UK’s ambassador
to the UAE was summoned to a meeting with Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak,
who is also Mohammed bin Zayed’s right-hand man and at the heart of the UAE government. “The UK will need to consider the political
implications when three of its most important allies in the region [Egypt, Saudi Arabia
and the UAE] have taken a clear decision regarding the Mbs [Muslim Brotherhood],” the Guardian
reported Mubarak as saying. “Difficult conversations we’ve been having,
will become far more difficult. We are raising a red flag.” Qatar, meanwhile, supported the Muslim Brotherhood
and loaned Egypt billions of dollars to help prop up the Morsi government. There was also support for other Islamic groups
in the Middle East, including some that were fighting Bashar Al Assad’s government in Syria’s
civil war, a complicated patchwork of armed groups that were being funded by various outside
actors including the US and the Saudis, sometimes on the same side, sometimes against each other. But what has really antagonised Qatar’s neighbours
over the years is Al Jazeera, the freewheeling state-funded TV network based in Qatar that
aired views from dissidents that openly criticised the policies of Saudi and Emirati leaders
(whilst, of course, refraining to criticise Qatar’s own royal family who bankroll it). They accused Qatar of using Al Jazeera to
agitate opposition in their own backyards. There had been various fallings out before,
including a diplomatic break in 2014. But the election of Donald Trump as US president
presented an opportunity. The Saudis and the UAE – who had been supportive
of a Trump presidency after becoming enraged with President Barak Obama’s softening of
ties with Iran and the signing of a deal designed to stop it developing nuclear weapons – convinced
him that Qatar was the bad guy. Shortly after the blockade was announced,
Trump tweeted: “During my recent trip to the Middle East
I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” Since then an information and economic war
has been raging, alongside some more petty moves, like the Saudi announcement that it
would build a huge trench that would separate Qatar and make it an island. It was announced that Saudi Arabia would fill
the trench with nuclear waste. There was the case of beoutQ, a TV network
that emerged over night and has brazenly been bootlegging Premier League and World Cup football
matches in Saudi Arabia. The Middle Eastern rights are held by beIN,
a Qatar owned sports network that was spun off from Al Jazeera. But Qatar’s opponents have realised the biggest
way to hurt Qatar is to take away its World Cup, in which it has invested huge resources
and political capital. When the emails of the UAE’s ambassador to
the US – Yousef al-Otaiba, a well connected scion of Washington’s political elite – were
leaked it laid bare a trail of plans aimed at diminishing Qatar’s ability to host the
World Cup, including one that would force the Qatar to share the World Cup with its
neighbours. Although apparently unconnected, FIFA president
Gianni Infantino has raised the prospect of bringing forward an expanded 48 team World
Cup for 2022. Such a move would be impossible for Qatar
to accommodate, and would force them to share the finals. It is unclear whether that move will go ahead
still. But Saudi Arabia and UAE may be deepening
its ties with FIFA. A new revamped Club World Cup that would challenge
the Champions League and bring in a staggering $25 billion was recently proposed and enthusiastically
backed by Infantino. It is believed that investors from Japan,
the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are behind the proposal. There have been several astroturfed human
rights groups and Twitter accounts set up to seemingly disparage and amplify Qatar’s
human rights record. Consultancies and think tanks – the provenance
of their funding unknown – have published critical reports on Qatar’s World Cup. Often, their claims have ended up being reported
in respected media outlets like the BBC and the Sunday Times. And then there was the recent launch of the
Foundation For Sports Integrity, a new anti-corruption organisation, at a glitzy event in London
full of celebrity speakers. The event focused primarily on Qatar and generated
thousands of column inches in the international media criticising Qatar 2022. But the organiser refused to say who was providing
the funding for it. Nicholas McGeehan, a worker rights activists
who has long been a critic of Qatar’s World Cup was invited to speak. “I asked for assurances it wasn’t Gulf
money – it was clear there was a lot of money behind it,” he told The Guardian. “Those assurances were given and then two
days later I was uninvited. They couldn’t give a reason as to why I
wasn’t appearing. It just yells Saudi and UAE money.” Qatar has largely managed to weather the storm
so far. It has repatriated hundred of billions of
dollars to refill its reserves and has deepened economic ties with Turkey, Iran and Oman to
make up for the loss of trade with its neighbours. The royal family has even managed to win back
Trump’s affections. A new $1 billion arms deal was announced last
year. The country’s young Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al
Thani was invited to the White House earlier this year and warmly welcomed by Trump. But that is unlikely to be the end of it. In a few months time qualification for Qatar
2022 is slated to begin. A decision on the 48 team World Cup will have
to be made before then. Qatar’s World Cup has had plenty of legitimate
criticism when it comes to human rights and worker abuses. But there is also a bigger game at play, involving
two countries whose human rights records are perhaps even worse. The only thing we know for sure, is that the
bad news stories on Qatar 2022 will continue. The question is, from where are they really
coming from?