Now that Qatar is embroiled in controversy with nearly the entire Sunni Islamic world, led by Saudi Arabia, the 2022 FIFA World Cup is suddenly at risk. You almost have to laugh, as this very fact reveals Saudi Arabia’s considerable hard and soft power globally. The Qatar World Cup has been dogged by controversy since the day it was announced in 2012. But even years of international and humanitarian moral outrage could not do to Qatar what Saudi Arabia proved able to do almost instantly: isolate Qatar’s ruling emir and take away his biggest soft-power achievement.
The first controversy, which didn’t ultimately threaten Qatar’s World Cup, was how that nation won its hosting bid. Like most odd nations that win a bid from the notoriously corrupt FIFA, Qatar was credibly accused of bribing everyone and their nieces. Then it was accused, again credibly, of intimidating officials who exposed the bribery. No matter, the Cup must go on.
But maybe the bid wouldn’t survive people coming to their senses about what Qatar’s climate is like because of its location on Planet Earth: an inhospitable one for outdoor sports. A summer-months World Cup is absurd on this peninsula on the Arabian Peninsula. But no. Not a problem. The Cup was moved to November and December, interfering with most other international soccer leagues and displacing the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations. Not only that, but the stadiums would be air-conditioned. Qatar has already finished building one of these monstrosities. The Cup must go on.
A few years ago, I was silly enough to think that Qatar’s own legal regime would create such a storm of controversy that the Cup would be moved. After all, in 2014, the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, became the occasion for great international protest. Russia had passed laws criminalizing the promotion or normalization of homosexuality. Worldwide corporate behemoths such as McDonald’s and Dow Chemical joined the condemnation of the Russian laws. President Obama withdrew himself and his family from the U.S. Olympic delegation and sent openly gay athletes instead. How could the World Cup be held in Qatar, where homosexuality (at least for Muslims) is a capital crime? Or where conversion to Christianity is a capital crime? No, I was totally wrong. The Cup must go on.
Then I thought FIFA and the world would take the games away from Qatar because it put its stadium’s migrant builders in appalling work conditions that in any Western country would be lambasted as a cruel and racist system of exploitation akin to slavery, with eye-popping death rates. The Cup must go on.
Until this week. Qatar has plunged into conflict with Saudi Arabia, and with it the wider coalition of Sunni powers in the Islamic world. And . . . FIFA is staying quiet, saying only that it is staying in “regular contact” with Qatar. The land crossings into Qatar have been closed. The airspace of several nations in the region is closed to flights leaving from Qatar, making a mess of the international travel that flows through its airlines and airport.
The Guardian reports:
Qatar’s ruling family and emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, have always intended that hosting an event as globally captivating as the World Cup will dramatically boost the tiny but wealthy country’s profile, and that such “soft power” could help be a bulwark against interference from its neighbours. Now, although there are five years to go, the entire project is facing major doubt.
Why is the Saudi government leading this economic blockade of Qatar? For PR reasons, Saudi Arabia accuses Qatar of slipping money to extremists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The accusation that Qatar and elements therein fund some bad guys and dubious movements is obviously true. The accusation in the mouth of Saudi Arabian officials is a mind-bending hypocrisy. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has been an ally of the United States. In fact, Qatar in some ways has been a more reliable ally to the West; it is able to host U.S. military personnel with less controversy than Saudi Arabia. But, as with Saudi Arabia, its wealthy actors pay out great gobs of money to advance the cause of extremist Islam across the world, as if they were buying an Islamic indulgence for their riches.
The truth is that Saudi Arabia thinks that al-Thani has been too close to Iran. Al-Thani recently described Iran as an “Islamic power” and criticized Donald Trump’s anti-Iran policies.
So far, Donald Trump is playing along with our Saudi allies in this charade. Maybe that is to be expected — Trump just concluded a major arms deal with the Saudis and was obviously impressed with the extravagant welcome he received in Riyadh. In truth, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is the only “special relationship” that the United States maintains in the world. It’s what is leading us to refuel Saudi planes as they bomb Yemen in a futile and destructive war to restore a government that many in Yemen have firmly rejected.
If Saudi Arabia can do this much damage to Qatar in just a few days, what else can it do?
And there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has been cooperative with the United States as it sought to deprive Russia of energy-resource wealth. But Trump should think carefully about where he is willing to let Saudi Arabia lead the United States. The United States has been working at cross-purposes in the region for some time, getting as much as it can out of Saudi Arabia, even as the Sunni radicalism supported by the House of Saud wreaks havoc across the region and in Europe. If Saudi Arabia can do this much damage to Qatar, formerly a U.S. ally, in just a few days, what else can it do? If it can get the president to tweet angrily about a nation where U.S. military personnel are still (gratefully) stationed, what else can it force a U.S. president to do? What exactly are we enabling in the Middle East?
One more question. If Qatar is about to lose its World Cup over a snit with the Saudis, will it fall to the runner-up in the bid? That is, will it come to the United States?