World soccer body FIFA has opened an investigation into potential wrongdoing in Qatar's successful but controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
"As has been publicly announced, certain allegations regarding events surrounding the bidding for the World Cup 2018 and 2022 were referred to the ethics committee by FIFA following media reports. We intend to conduct a thorough review of those allegations, including the evidentiary basis for and credibility of any allegations of individual misconduct," said FIFA ethic investigator Michael J. Garcia in a statement.
Nevertheless, with a proven track record of not wanting to rock the boat or truly tackle fundamental governance issues, FIFA is likely to ensure that the investigation, which will also look at Russia's winning of the right to host the 2018 tournament, will not result in either country being deprived of the honor.
The investigation will however have to further address the worst albeit politically loaded corruption scandal in the history of world soccer in which the bids are inextricably meshed.
The investigation follows more than a year of legal and political battle that late last year led to the final demise of Mohammed Bin Hammam, the highest placed Qatari national who was ultimately stripped of his membership in FIFA's executive council as well as his presidency of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and banned for life by FIFA from involvement in soccer.
The allegations of corruption and bribery against Mr. Bin Hammam raise questions about the degree and nature of his involvement in the Qatari bid.
Qatar has so far successfully denied allegations that its bid may have involved corrupt practices. And to be fair, much of the Qatari efforts, including funding facilities in home countries of FIFA executive committee members and friendlies of some of their national teams, do not violate the world soccer body's bid rules, but raise questions about the integrity of those guidelines.
Qatar has consistently denied that Mr. Bin Hammam was involved in its World Cup bid. While it seems strange that the highest Qatari soccer official in world soccer who enjoyed the backing of Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani at least until he announced that he would challenge FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the group's presidential election, that may be true for the final phase of the Qatari bid. Mr. Bin Hammam's presidential challenge sparked the allegations that ultimately led to his downfall.
To some degree, the interests of Qatar and Mr. Bin Hammam diverged with the announcement of his presidential bid. Mr. Bin Hammam is believed to have felt that an almost simultaneous Qatari winning of World Cup hosting rights and the FIFA presidency may have been too much for world soccer to stomach. As a result, he may have not been really involved in the final phases of the Qatari bid.
That leaves nonetheless the question open of his involvement prior to his presidential campaign against the background of multiple allegations and questions about bribery and corruption in his election campaign as well as the financial management of the AFC. While there seems little doubt that Mr. Bin Hammam violated international standards of financial good governance, his actions, with the possible exception of his negotiation on behalf of the AFC of a controversial $1 billion master rights agreement with Singapore-based World Sports Group (WSG) seem largely the result of sticking to a back-slapping way of doing business in the Gulf that is not internationally accepted rather than greed.
Whether that applies also to the WSG deal will only be clear once Mr. Bin Hammam and WSG justify the negotiation procedure for the agreement that did not involve a tender as well as payments made to Mr. Bin Hammam, according to an internal AFC audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), by a WSG shareholder in advance of the signing of the contract. WSG, which has so far refrained from commenting on much of the PwC audit, including the payments, has initiated legal proceedings against this reporter in a bid to squash reporting and intimidate sources.
While FIFA may steer clear of a renewed look at Mr. Bin Hammam's AFC dealings in its investigation of the World Cup bids, the ball will be in the court of the AFC once it has elected in April a new executive committee that will be expected to demonstrate that it is making a clean break with the past.
Qatar has paved the ground for separating inquiries into its bid from Mr. Bin Hammam's dealings by pressuring him late last year to give up his fight to maintain his position in world soccer. Mr. Bin Hammam's banning by FIFA coincided with his resignation from his posts in FIFA and the AFC.
Nonetheless, the FIFA inquiry makes Qatar more vulnerable to criticism of its hosting of the world's largest sporting tournament, including the rights and working conditions of the country's foreign labor force, who constitute a majority of the population as well as human rights following the sentencing to life in prison in November of a poet for a poem that was critical of Sheikh Hamad and the royal family.
Qatar has in recent months demonstrated that it is not insensitive to criticism and foreign pressure. In a bid to fend off a boycott campaign of the World Cup by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which has 175 million members in 153 countries, Qatar has agreed that it would not penalize workers who form independent unions. The ITUC plans to put that promise to the test later this year.
Similarly, in a rare concession to human rights groups, Qatar recently backed away from deporting to Saudi Arabia a dissident Saudi diplomat. Instead, the diplomat, Mishal bin Zaar Hamad al-Mutiry, who accused his government of involvement in terrorism, was allowed to go into exile in Morocco.
"The spotlight shone on this case resulted in the Qatari authorities curtailing their plans to deport Mishal al-Mutiry long enough for him and his family to leave of their own accord, and the assistance of the NHRC was crucial to ensuring they could travel," said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog where this story first appeared.