How the World Cup played into a global power struggle

It was an uncomfortable moment. Mohamed bin Hammam, who until last week was the head of Qatar’s secretariat of soccer diplomacy, was being grilled by a trio of former Qatar Football Association executives who…

How the World Cup played into a global power struggle

It was an uncomfortable moment. Mohamed bin Hammam, who until last week was the head of Qatar’s secretariat of soccer diplomacy, was being grilled by a trio of former Qatar Football Association executives who were anxious about Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. The matter was raised on their behalf by Issa Hayatou, the longtime president of the Confederation of African Football, and Jacques Anouma, who heads the Confederation of Arab Football.

Some Qatari officials are openly skeptical about any labor violations and believe they have been operating above board, but it was a fraught situation that created the chance for a small group of wealthy and powerful individuals, including Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the country’s prime minister, to show they were no pushovers.

A month before the MPs’ visit to Doha, just after Bin Hammam left the QFA, one of his emissaries was working the phones in Qatar with important people in the world of diplomacy, begging for the support of countries. Among the eager buyers of Bin Hammam’s message: countries who have not warmly welcomed Qatar, including Qatar’s political neighbor and ally, Saudi Arabia.

According to a person familiar with the call, among the addresses and phone numbers his emissary offered was one belonging to Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister. The idea was to tell these people Qatar has made a number of concessions in its quest to host the tournament, including reforms of its migrant labor rules. The message was well received in Saudi Arabia, which had previously been hostile to Qatar’s World Cup, and the big payday was duly accepted, these people said.

Qatar’s battle for the World Cup has had other unexpected benefits for some of its traditional allies, many of whom have undergone dramatic political and social changes under the Doha government’s rule. The ambitious, young, Qatari-style policies used to develop a great deal of pent-up frustration in the region.

During more than 30 years of Egyptian authoritarian rule, Muhammad “al-Sisi” Morsi, who seized power last year, and his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, were targets of disgust in the Gulf for their efforts to suppress any political freedoms. A series of American jubilees and other events involving President Barack Obama gave the Qataris confidence that they were on a winning streak — just two months ago, the American political commentator Roger Friedman wrote that the Qataris had become “more aggressive in their posturing than ever before.”

Now, the staging of the 2022 World Cup has given them leverage, to say the least. Middle Eastern politics, in particular, has become more transactional, less about lofty ideals. The favor that the Qatari foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, performed for Saudi Arabia’s Faisal by pressing that country into the World Cup’s bidding process — while maintaining respectful relations with Cairo — was likely to have been a modest price.

The Qataris also used the World Cup to attempt to buttress their diplomatic power. Privately, they tried to persuade some friendly nations to persuade FIFA, the international soccer body, to put off its final vote on the World Cup. Sometimes this was successful; when the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to back Saudi Arabia in the dispute with Qatar, Qatar’s prime minister was dismayed. But in private, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, told friends he considered the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar a mistake that would be a “black mark” on FIFA’s international reputation.

Even after FIFA cast its final vote, the Qatari people continued to lobby for the favor of Qatar’s closest allies. The favorite, Egypt, was in the middle of a debate between military and civilian leaders that was to dominate the nation for months, until the successful transfer of power from the deposed president, Mohammed Morsi, to Sisi.

The message to Egypt was that Qatar had worked hard behind the scenes and was ready to go a long way to please Cairo and the Arab world as a whole. The other emirate, the United Arab Emirates, has already scored a major success. In April, Abu Dhabi signed a memorandum of understanding with Qatar’s prime minister to promote each other’s tourism industries and cooperate in other fields. Their leaders are close, in contrast to their leaders in Doha. Both, like the Qataris, value business as a way to balance their often divergent global and regional positions.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent years have seen their resources cut by both the growth of both

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