Ever since winning the right to host the 2022World Cup, Qatar has been the source of an almost constant and negative stream of press.
From high level political gas deals and allegationsof corruption surrounding the vote back in 2010 to widespread reports of human rightsabuses concerning the migrant work force that is building the stadiums and infrastructureof the tournament.
So far, Qatar’s teflon World Cup has managedto 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 pawnin a global political battle between Qatar and its neighbours Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE – whereManchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour is one of the most powerful economic and politicalfigures – were the leading countries in a five nation coalition that cut all tieswith 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 thecountry’s vast reserves were used to counter any damage.
The country spent billions of dollars, andre-routed supply chains to keep construction on the World Cup going.
What brought Qatar’s neighbours to such adrastic course of actions? The official explanation was Qatar’s allegedsupport for terrorist movements in the Middle East and its close links to Iran, a Shia theocracyviewed 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 andthin skins of a new generation of Arab leaders.
Of pirated football streams and a trench fullof 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 usingits financial clout from owning the world’s biggest oil reserves to spread its unwaveringform of Islam across the world.
But Saudi Arabia has taken a new, more muscularpath with its foreign policy, under its young Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.
Since rising to power he has shaken up Saudisociety, lifting the ban on women driving in the Kingdom as well as the ban on womenwatching football.
On the other hand, he has also cracked downon dissent, locking up dozens of the country’s richest men in a five star hotel until theyhanded back some of their wealth as well locking up dozens of feminist activists who have longcampaigned against what has been described as Saudi Arabia’s “gender apartheid”.
In the UAE, another crown prince, Mohamedbin Zayed – the brother of Sheikh Mansour – has also been cracking down on dissent.
The UAE has virtually no democracy and someof 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 socialmedia accounts to publish “false information” and “spread hatred and sectarianism.
” The roots of the conflict can be found inthe Arab Spring, the series of uprising across the Middle East that began in Tunisia in 2010and spread across the region.
In Egypt the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarakwas removed from power after hundreds of thousands of people filled Tahrir Square.
After Egypt’s first free elections, MohamedMorsi became president, a candidate aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood but who was alsoa member.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a popular politicalIslamic organisation banned in much of the Middle East as it poses the biggest threatto the Gulf’s conservative monarchies.
The election of Morsi terrified the Gulf Arabstates who feared that they would be next.
So much so that when Mohamed bin Zayed metthe British prime minister David Cameron in 2012, he raised the issue of the UK banningthe Brotherhood.
If they didn’t, British businesses would finddifficulty in getting business from the UAE, especially when it came to arms and securitycontracts.
When that didn’t work, the UK’s ambassadorto 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 politicalimplications when three of its most important allies in the region [Egypt, Saudi Arabiaand the UAE] have taken a clear decision regarding the Mbs [Muslim Brotherhood], ” the Guardianreported 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 Brotherhoodand loaned Egypt billions of dollars to help prop up the Morsi government.
There was also support for other Islamic groupsin the Middle East, including some that were fighting Bashar Al Assad’s government in Syria’scivil war, a complicated patchwork of armed groups that were being funded by various outsideactors including the US and the Saudis, sometimes on the same side, sometimes against each other.
But what has really antagonised Qatar’s neighboursover the years is Al Jazeera, the freewheeling state-funded TV network based in Qatar thataired 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 toagitate 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 presidentpresented an opportunity.
The Saudis and the UAE – who had been supportiveof a Trump presidency after becoming enraged with President Barak Obama’s softening ofties with Iran and the signing of a deal designed to stop it developing nuclear weapons – convincedhim that Qatar was the bad guy.
Shortly after the blockade was announced, Trump tweeted: “During my recent trip to the Middle EastI stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology.
Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!” Since then an information and economic warhas been raging, alongside some more petty moves, like the Saudi announcement that itwould build a huge trench that would separate Qatar and make it an island.
It was announced that Saudi Arabia would fillthe trench with nuclear waste.
There was the case of beoutQ, a TV networkthat emerged over night and has brazenly been bootlegging Premier League and World Cup footballmatches 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 biggestway to hurt Qatar is to take away its World Cup, in which it has invested huge resourcesand political capital.
When the emails of the UAE’s ambassador tothe US – Yousef al-Otaiba, a well connected scion of Washington’s political elite – wereleaked it laid bare a trail of plans aimed at diminishing Qatar’s ability to host theWorld Cup, including one that would force the Qatar to share the World Cup with itsneighbours.
Although apparently unconnected, FIFA presidentGianni Infantino has raised the prospect of bringing forward an expanded 48 team WorldCup for 2022.
Such a move would be impossible for Qatarto accommodate, and would force them to share the finals.
It is unclear whether that move will go aheadstill.
But Saudi Arabia and UAE may be deepeningits ties with FIFA.
A new revamped Club World Cup that would challengethe Champions League and bring in a staggering $25 billion was recently proposed and enthusiasticallybacked 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 humanrights groups and Twitter accounts set up to seemingly disparage and amplify Qatar’shuman rights record.
Consultancies and think tanks – the provenanceof their funding unknown – have published critical reports on Qatar’s World Cup.
Often, their claims have ended up being reportedin respected media outlets like the BBC and the Sunday Times.
And then there was the recent launch of theFoundation For Sports Integrity, a new anti-corruption organisation, at a glitzy event in Londonfull of celebrity speakers.
The event focused primarily on Qatar and generatedthousands of column inches in the international media criticising Qatar 2022.
But the organiser refused to say who was providingthe funding for it.
Nicholas McGeehan, a worker rights activistswho has long been a critic of Qatar’s World Cup was invited to speak.
“I asked for assurances it wasn’t Gulfmoney – it was clear there was a lot of money behind it, ” he told The Guardian.
“Those assurances were given and then twodays later I was uninvited.
They couldn’t give a reason as to why Iwasn’t appearing.
It just yells Saudi and UAE money.
” Qatar has largely managed to weather the stormso far.
It has repatriated hundred of billions ofdollars to refill its reserves and has deepened economic ties with Turkey, Iran and Oman tomake up for the loss of trade with its neighbours.
The royal family has even managed to win backTrump’s affections.
A new $1 billion arms deal was announced lastyear.
The country’s young Emir Tamim bin Hamad AlThani 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 Qatar2022 is slated to begin.
A decision on the 48 team World Cup will haveto be made before then.
Qatar’s World Cup has had plenty of legitimatecriticism when it comes to human rights and worker abuses.
But there is also a bigger game at play, involvingtwo countries whose human rights records are perhaps even worse.
The only thing we know for sure, is that thebad news stories on Qatar 2022 will continue.
The question is, from where are they reallycoming from?.