A disclosure by British weekly, The Sunday Times, of millions of documents allegedly revealing massive Qatari vote buying in the Gulf state's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup could rejigger the Gulf's fragile balance of power, reverse hopes that Qatar would initiate significant social change in the region and return the worst corruption crisis in global soccer governance to the top of the agenda.
The documents appear to show how disgraced former FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, used a secret $5 million slush fund to make dozens of payments, primarily to African soccer 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. Mr. Bin Hammam was two years ago banned by FIFA for life from involvement in professional soccer on charges of "conflict of interest" related to an internal audit about his financial and commercial management of the Asian soccer 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 because a Qatari win of the World Cup and simultaneous control of the world soccer body would have been too much at the same time. They 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:
- 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, which oppose its idiosyncratic foreign policy, including Qatar'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;
- Increased pressure on global soccer 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 sundry account as his personal account and suggested that 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 a1 billion master rights agreement negotiated by the Qatari national on behalf of the AFC with a Singapore-based company;
- Thwarting of Qatari hopes to use the World Cup as one of its key tools to build the soft and subtle power capable of compensating for its inability to build the kind of hard power military strength necessary to defend itself. Qatari defence and security policy sees sports in general and soccer in particular alongside hyper diplomacy with a focus on mediation in multiple conflicts and projection of the state through its world class airline, the Aljazeera television network, high profile investments and art acquisitions as ways of compensating for its military weakness. That soft power strategy depends on garnering global public empathy;
- Set back Qatari moves to improve the living and working conditions as well as enhance the rights of foreign workers, who constitute a majority of the population in Qatar and other Gulf states in what could amount to significant social change. The moves, which were having a ripple effect throughout the Gulf, were being driven by the World Cup that empowered human rights and labour activists;
- 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.
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.