Since being controversially awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup in 2010, Qatar has faced a barrage of serious accusations. Suspicions of corruption and bribery in the bidding process were followed by reports of migrant-worker abuse in building World Cup committee offices, and of the deaths of hundreds of others on the country’s sprawling construction sites. Those reports added to concerns over the surprising choice of a tiny Persian Gulf nation with limited soccer tradition and a scorching desert climate to host arguably the world's biggest sporting event.
Qatar has managed to stay the course, but recent claims that the country may be playing both sides of the nascent anti-ISIS war have added another element to the case against the country hosting the tournament.
“I see no reason why Qatar should be rewarded with the World Cup when it continues to financially support a wide variety of Islamist groups, many of which have been involved in terrorism,” said Jim Phillips, Middle East and terrorism analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative-leaning Washington think tank.
While Qatar has funded Syrian rebels against Bashar Assad’s regime and brokered the deal that saw Bowe Bergdahl released from Taliban captivity, it has also managed to accelerate the growth of radical jihadi factions, according to a Foreign Policy magazine report. For example, the war in Libya is being fought by a range of proxy-funded militias, and Syria’s Qatar-funded opposition rebels have been split by infighting, allowing extremists to take control.
“I think the concerns over the financing of terrorism should be a much higher priority than allegations of bribery and corruption,” said Phillips. “As important as they are, innocent people are dying as a direct result of Qatar financing of these groups.”
The State Department has refused to comment but released a fact sheet on Aug. 26 that describes Qatar as "a valuable partner to the United States" and credits it with playing "an influential role in the region through a period of great transformation."
But while the government in Doha may count on the good will of the U.S., its credibility within FIFA, the soccer’s world governing body, is waning. On Sept. 22, FIFA Executive Committee member Theo Zwanziger told German publication Sport Bild that the 2022 World Cup will not take place in Qatar. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has denied this to be the case, even though many in footballing circles believe he is desperately looking for a way out.
“Of course Blatter wants out. Nobody wants to go. That’s the real story. No fans, no clubs, no sponsors, no TV networks want it. If Blatter can’t find the exit door from Qatar, UEFA [the European footballing body] will walk away,” said Andrew Jennings, an author and journalist who first began investigating FIFA in the 1990s. “The simple story is a dozen degenerates on the FIFA executive board took the money and now we have to waste time putting it right.” (Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and FIFA board member, refused to comment for this article.)
Qatar has remained tight-lipped on many of the accusations against it, only recently speaking out to refute allegations of a connection to terrorism.
"We don't fund extremists," Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said during his first interview as Qatar's leader on Sept. 25. Just over a week earlier, Qatar instituted a new law to regulate charities and prevent them from engaging in politics, in an attempt to quell terrorism financing.
But this slew of allegations is just one of many that have rocked the country and its preparations for the World Cup.
Qatar has been accused of paying off the FIFA executive committee, something that the Swiss-based organization has been guilty of in the past. The recent accusations surfaced in March, when the Telegraph reported that Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president, and his family were paid nearly $2 million by a company controlled by a Qatari soccer official, shortly after FIFA awarded Qatar the World Cup.
FIFA’s announcement in December 2010 that Russia and Qatar would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, respectively, immediately drew criticism and suggestions of foul play. While Russia may have received a pass despite the need to build a majority of stadiums from scratch, Qatar was perceived as a shocking and confusing decision. The country, roughly the size of Connecticut with a population of about 2.1 million, lacks the basic infrastructure to host the tournament, and doesn’t have a domestic soccer league. There is also the issue of searing summer temperatures above 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 degrees centigrade), which sparked the ambitious possibility of air-conditioned stadiums. Independent doctors have said that players could die on the pitch in the desert heat, and fans could face the same fate.
In light of the corruption accusations that have been circulating for years, FIFA hired ex-New York district attorney Michael Garcia, now of the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, to conduct an investigation. His two-year inquiry, which largely centered on growing Qatari influence within FIFA, was completed in September, but FIFA has already said that its contents will remain secret, except for a summary report to be released in 2015.
And while the future of the 2022 World Cup remains in the balance, Qatar is pressing ahead with construction projects, with workers almost exclusively from India, Nepal and Bangladesh. In addition to the poor working conditions, resulting in the death of at least one person a day during 2012 and 2013 (964 in total), there is a curious employment law that means migrant workers cannot leave the country without their employer’s permission. The so-called kafala system was discussed widely during the recent case of Zahir Belounis, a French soccer player who spent nearly three years trying to leave the country while his employer refused him permission. After a suicide attempt, advocates reached out to French politicians, and his exit visa was finally issued.
All of the negative publicity surrounding World Cup 2022 might be too much for FIFA to disregard. However, Ariel Cohen, director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, says it may be premature to expect Qatar will lose hosting rights.
“Whether this will be enough to derail Qatari hosting of the 2022 World Cup remains to be seen, just like the war in Ukraine did not undermine Russia's win in hosting the event in 2018. Moreover, Qatar has deep pockets, and money talks,” said Cohen.