Qatar’s handling of persistent suspicion that it illicitly employed its financial muscle to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup has earned it a conviction in the court of public opinion even if revelations of alleged bribery have yet to produce a smoking gun.
Qatar’s refusal to provide transparency and accountability about its World Cup bid, including details of its budget and the way that budget was spent as well as its relationship to disgraced former FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, has only served to cement a public conviction that the Gulf state has much to hide.
Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, the body responsible for organizing the World Cup, issued this week a bland response to a report in Britain’s The Sunday Times asserting that it had obtained millions of documents proving bribery by Mr. Bin Hammam on behalf of the Qatari bid of African soccer officials who mostly are not members of FIFA’s executive committee who vote on the awarding of World Cup hosting rights.
The brief statement simply denied any wrongdoing or relationship with Mr. Bin Hammam who in 2012 was banned by FIFA for life from involvement in professional soccer on charges of conflict of interest in his management of the AFC’s financial and commercial affairs.
Like earlier generic denials of wrongdoing, the statement failed to convince the court of public opinion of Qatari innocence even though much of the suspicion stems from repeated controversy about the Gulf state’s bid and deep-seated distrust of global governance of soccer that has been wracked in the past four years by the worst corruption crisis in the 109-year history of FIFA. Mr. Bin Hammam was a central figure in those scandals.
The suspicion was also fuelled by the fact that Qatar invested a multiple of what its competitors, including the United States, South Korea and Australia, were willing to spend on their World Cup bids. Qatar’s massive spending generated envy and sour grapes despite the fact that FIFA bidding rules do not set a ceiling on expenditure for World Cup bids.
Qatar’s failure to engage in the debate in a substantive way much as it engaged with human rights and labour activists who denounced abominable living and working conditions of foreign workers in the Gulf state has not only earned it a conviction in the court of public opinion but also undermined the goal it hoped to achieve with massive spending on sports and the World Cup.
For Qatar, sports in general and soccer in particular is a means of building soft and subtle power – the kind of empathy in the international community and in public opinion that would persuade its friends to come to its aid in times of need like they did for Kuwait after it was invaded in 1990 by Iraq.
Qatar sees soft power as a compensation for the fact that it is tiny and has too small a population to build the kind of hard military power it would need to defend itself without international assistance. Being identified in the public mind with bribery and slavery, the term used by labour activists for labour conditions in the Gulf state, does not engender empathy.
If Qatar has all but lost its case in the court of public opinion, it has done little to counter questions left unanswered by The Sunday Times revelations. Those revelations appear to provide further documentation of partly previously disclosed corruption and conflict of interest in the governance of world soccer as well as of Mr. Bin Hammam’s dubious financial dealings and management of both the AFC and FIFA’s soccer development Goal Programme that is designed to fund projects of the group’s member associations.
The Sunday Times asserts that multiple payments it has documented are related to the Qatari bid, some of which were already referenced in an internal audit of the AFC’s finances two years ago that provided the grist for Mr. Bin Hammam’s downfall. That is not always immediately clear from extracts it has published nor it clear that the Qatari’s beneficiaries had the clout or authority to dictate the votes of FIFA executive committee members.
Extracts of emails published by the British paper do appear to establish a relationship between Mr. Bin Hammam and the Qatari bid committee. In some cases, the effort to influence the vote in favour of Qatar seems plausible. Those cases include the bribing and wooing of mostly non-FIFA executive committee member African soccer officials who are alleged to have influenced the vote Africa’s representatives on the committee as well as Mr. Bin Hammam’s funding of legal expenses of a disgraced member from Oceania who refused to vacate his committee seat so that he could cast his vote in favour of the Gulf state. Qatar’s funding of the costs of a congress of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in which Qatar was the only bidder allowed to present its case for hosting the 2022 tournament seems equally evident.
Nevertheless, one still will have to prove that the African soccer officials were in a position and succeeded in dictating the votes of African members of the FIFA executive committee. The statutes of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) do not suggest that its FIFA executive committee members are obliged to follow CAF instructions. The statutes vaguely state that the president of CAF, who is automatically a vice president of FIFA will “make sure that the African representatives elected and/or appointed to the FIFA Executive Committee fulfil their duties in a spirit of African solidarity.” CAF president Issa Hayatou was one of the beneficiaries of Mr. Bin Hammam’s largesse.
At the same time, the purpose of other payments disclosed by The Sunday Times may have been related to Mr. Bin Hammam’s bid to challenge FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the group’s 2011 presidential election. Mr. Bin Hammam was forced to withdraw his candidacy after he was initially suspended by FIFA on charges of trying to buy the votes of Caribbean soccer officials. While some of the emails from African officials who benefitted from Mr. Bin Hammam’s funding make explicit reference to Qatar’s World Cup bid, others appear to be supportive of Mr. Bin Hammam himself at a time that he was preparing for his attempt to wrest the FIFA presidency from Mr. Blatter.
The distinction between Qatar’s World Cup and Mr. Bin Hammam’s presidential bid is further blurred by The Sunday Times’ report that the self-made multi-millionaire used slush funds controlled by his company rather than by either the Qatari committee, FIFA or the AFC. The issue becomes even murkier when one takes into account that Mr. Bin Hammam is alleged to have been Mr. Blatter’s bag man in earlier FIFA presidential elections when Qatar supported the incumbent FIFA president.
Qatari officials have repeatedly suggested that they were opposed to Mr. Bin Hammam’s candidacy because they feared that Qatar’s winning of the hosting rights coupled with control of FIFA might be too much for the global soccer community to accept. The officials however never provided evidence of their assertion.
If Qatar is in the hot seat, FIFA appears about to join it. Independent FIFA investigator Michael Garcia has suggested that he will not take The Sunday Times files into consideration in drawing conclusions from his investigation. In doing so, he is doing neither a favour to Qatar or to FIFA. On the assumption of innocent until proven guilty, it is Qatar’s interest to have its name cleared beyond doubt. In FIFA’s case, Mr. Garcia’s decision reinforces a widespread impression that the group is run by an old-boy network that unsuccessfully tries to maintain a façade of transparency and accountability but in effect is determined to preserve its old ways which over the last four years have produced one scandal after the other.
Published in permission with James M. Dorsey, 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.