By James M. Dorsey
British weekly’s, The Sunday Times, disclosure of millions of documents allegedly revealing Qatari vote buying in the Gulf state’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup could alter the Gulf’s fragile balance of power.
It could also reverse hopes that Qatar would initiate significant social change in the region, and return the worst corruption crisis in global football governance to the top of the agenda.
The documents appear to show how disgraced former FIFA Vice President and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, used a secret $5 million slush fund to make dozens of payments. Allegations say these were made primarily to African football executives, to create the basis for a vote in favour of Qatar in FIFA’s Executive Committee. The Committee awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar in a controversial vote in December 2010.
The disclosure comes as Michael Garcia, FIFA’s independent investigator into the corruption allegations, was scheduled to meet members of Qatar’s bid committee. FIFA officials suggested prior to the disclosure that Mr Garcia’s two-year long investigation was unlikely to produce a smoking gun.
Qatar has long denied any wrongdoing and sought to distance itself from Mr Bin Hammam, who was at the centre of the corruption scandal. Two years ago, Mr Bin Hammam was banned by FIFA for life from involvement in professional football on charges of “conflict of interest” related to an internal audit about his financial and commercial management of the Asian football body. Like Qatar, Mr Bin Hammam has consistently denied the allegations.
The documents counter Qatari assertions that they opposed Mr Bin Hammam’s 2011 bid for the FIFA presidency that sparked his downfall. They said that a Qatari win of the World Cup and simultaneous control of the world football body would have been too much at the same time.
The documents also counter Qatari suggestions that the Gulf state and Mr Bin Hammam had parted ways to the degree that the former FIFA executive had supported Australia’s bid against Qatar.
The potential fall-out of The Sunday Times revelations could be massive:
n A possible retraction of Qatar’s right to host the 2022 World Cup, which would likely be quietly embraced by the Gulf state’s detractors led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries oppose Qatar’s idiosyncratic foreign policy, including the state’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, a retraction could fuel perceptions in significant parts of the Muslim world of discrimination on the grounds of religion and ethnicity;
n Increased pressure on global football governance to radically reform, including pressure on the AFC to act on the recommendations of an internal 2012 audit that accused Mr Bin Hammam of using an AFC account as his personal account. The audit also suggested his management of AFC affairs may have involved cases of money laundering, tax invasion, bribery and busting of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Mr Bin Hammam’s successor as AFC president, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, has so far been able to bury the report that recommended possible legal action as well as a review of a $1 billion master rights agreement negotiated by the Qatari national on behalf of the AFC with a Singapore-based company;
n Thwarting of Qatari hopes to use the World Cup as a key tool to build the power to compensate for its inability to create the hard power military strength necessary to defend itself. Qatari defence and security policy sees sport in general, and football in particular, alongside hyper diplomacy with a focus on mediation in multiple conflicts as a way of compensating for its military weakness. Other areas that have encroached on this include projection of the state through its world class airline, the Aljazeera television network, high profile investments and art acquisitions. That soft power strategy depends on garnering global public empathy;
n Set back Qatari moves to improve the living and working conditions and enhance the rights of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the population in Qatar and other Gulf states. This could amount to significant social change, especially as the moves, being driven by the World Cup, were having a ripple effect throughout the Gulf. The moves were also empowering human rights and labour activists;
n Substantially weaken Qatar’s ability to stand up to Saudi Arabia, which, alongside the UAE and Bahrain, earlier this year withdrew its ambassador to Doha in a bid to: force Qatar to end its strategic relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood; expel resident Islamist leaders including prominent Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi; temper Al Jazeera reporting; and close down critical Doha-based think tanks.
Qatar has yet to respond to The Sunday Times report, but has systematically refused to give full accounting of its bid to win its World Cup hosting rights. This would include the budget of the bid, how it was spent, as well as its relationship with Mr Bin Hammam. A simple denial of The Sunday Times report is unlikely to put to bed the allegations that have persisted for more than three years.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.