The 2022 World Cup: A disaster for Qatar, whether it hosts it or not

With the World Cup or without it, Qatar is set to lose an uphill battle to improve its tarnished image.
Sunday 05/08/2018
Bumpy ride. Two Qatari men at the Majlis Qatar pavilion in Moscow’s Gorky Park, on July 12.        (AFP)
Bumpy ride. Two Qatari men at the Majlis Qatar pavilion in Moscow’s Gorky Park, on July 12. (AFP)

Revelations that Qatar engaged in dubious practices to secure the 2022 FIFA World Cup have led to renewed calls for it to be stripped of its hosting duties as punishment. However, given the growing list of scandals implicating Doha, the country might be more damaged if FIFA allows it to press ahead with the tournament, which it is woefully underequipped to host.

Almost eight years after it was announced that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, scandals, including allegations of bribery, corruption, illicit smear campaigns and abuse of migrant workers, continue to pile up. A report in Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper detailed how Qatar employed an American public relations firm to attack the bids of its principal competitors, the United States and Australia.

The fallout has been devastating for Qatar. Instead of rehabilitating its image and helping it leverage its soft power, Doha’s ruthless World Cup bid has turned into a humiliating expose of the government’s malign practices. And, if the buildup to the football tournament has been rough, imagine how painful the actual organisation of the event will be.

Qatar, which has never been to a World Cup, is struggling to both organise a world-class tournament and build a national team capable of competing on the world’s biggest stage. As is its practice, Qatar has thrown lots of money at the problem to try to fix it, to no avail. It has gone so far as to naturalise foreign players to bolster its team’s chances of winning, stirring controversy in a country where children of foreign nationals born and raised there have no clear path to citizenship

This is only the beginning of Qatar’s problems. To host a successful tournament, it must navigate serious logistical hurdles and accommodate fans from around the world with different cultural norms — particularly relating to alcohol.

After salvos of criticism, Qatar, which bans alcohol in public places, agreed to set up controlled, “far-away” sites where football fans can consume alcohol. While that might seem like a concession, it is hardly a solution for international fans who are used to more freedom and could face harsh penalties if they violate Qatar’s strict policies.

There is also the climate to contend with. While FIFA has moved the tournament from its traditional June-July timetable to November-December, helping temper the heat, fans travelling across venues will still deal with high temperatures. The new timetable will also mean that the 2022 World Cup will cut into Britain’s Premier League schedule, angering many football fans.

In addition, Qatar must figure out where all the players and fans expected to attend the tournament will stay. This will be a challenge for the tiny Gulf state, especially as its neighbouring countries — the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — have closed their borders. While Qatar has promised to build 100,000 hotel rooms by 2022, it is struggling to complete even 45,000.

This has led Doha to float a far-fetched plan that could add another layer of controversy to the tournament: Having Iran take on some of its hosting duties. If such a plan materialises, it would put Qatar under further scrutiny and shed light on the deepening ties between Qatar and Iran.

There is also the question of how Qatar will cope with a surplus of stadiums and hotel rooms after the tournament. While South Africa faced a similar problem after hosting the tournament in 2010, Qatar, which has no large football market to cater to close by, stands to lose even more. Despite growth in the country’s tourism industry, it would struggle to fill the hotel rooms it builds.

Finally, with Qatar cut off from its natural and cultural environment, fans visiting the Gulf for the first time will have hardly anything to see beyond sports. Most of the region’s renowned historical sites are in Saudi Arabia and some of the world’s greatest museums are in the UAE, so visitors stuck in Qatar may be sorely disappointed with their trip to the Gulf.

With the World Cup or without it, Qatar is set to lose an uphill battle to improve its tarnished image. Allegations of workers’ abuse, corruption, bribery, support for terrorist groups and dubious dealings with Tehran and Iran-backed militias, particularly the Houthis in Yemen, make matters worse.

That said, if the Qatari people are fine with their government wasting billions of dollars on an already failed endeavour to restore a tarnished image, why be more Roman than the Romans?

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