DOHA (Reuters) - “It will blow over” tends to be Qatar’s unofficial response to criticism of its World Cup bid, but with a FIFA corruption scandal exploding onto the world’s front pages, the Gulf state has glumly realized it may have a real fight on its hands.
Super-rich Qatar would suffer no economic pain if it lost the right to host the world’s top soccer event. At stake is influence, including its use of sport as a platform to operate on the global stage, opening doors to finance, media, diplomacy, property and tourism.
Years of allegations of corruption in the vote that won it the 2022 cup, and of abuse of migrant workers, mean Qatar has struggled to convince world opinion of the justness of its cause.
Now Qatar must work even harder to protect its brand after U.S. prosecutors charged nine international soccer officials with corruption and Swiss authorities announced their own investigation into the award of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.
In Doha there is resentment at the prospect of having to spend the next seven years fending off allegations of sleaze, and a feeling the country is being made a scapegoat.
Some suspect anti-Arab bias. Others blame countries sore at losing hosting rights to Qatar.
“The attack on Qatar’s World Cup is racist,” foreign minister Khaled al-Attiyah was quoted as saying on the Twitter account of the editor in chief of Qatar’s pro-government newspaper, al-Sharq.
“Hosting the tournament is not only in our interest but in the interest of all Arabs.”
Former prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani told America’s Fox News on Sunday that attention was on Qatar rather than Russia, which hosts the 2018 cup.
“Is it because it’s an Arab, Islamic, small country? That’s the feeling of the people in the region,” he said, adding Qatar won the rights fairly and cleanly. The charges, he said, came from countries that had lost the cup.
Qatar beat Australia, Japan, the United States and South Korea. The decision to stage the tournament in country where daytime summer temperatures rarely fall below 40 Celsius (104°F) startled many in global sport.
Also critical were rights groups highlighting harsh working conditions in Qatar’s construction sector.
In private, Qatari officials sound resigned, but resilient.
Qatar manages criticism daily, said a senior Gulf source who declined to be named. “It comes with the territory, we’re under attack all the time. It doesn’t faze us.”
Qatar’s sports diplomacy has been persistent. Year after year, Qatar denied wrongdoing in its 2022 bid, while also pursuing global influence, including in sports.
It owns France’s Paris Saint-Germain club, sponsors top European clubs, acquired soccer television rights for its Al Jazeera Sport channel, hosts of a slew of international sports events and runs a soccer training network in poor countries.
But the latest crisis raises the stakes, even if the business impact of a loss of the cup would be limited. More serious is the potential impact on the country’s image.
Ben Sturner, chief executive of U.S. sports marketing company Lever Agency, said it would be “tough” for Qatar to restore that image. Qatar must be transparent about its dealings involving the cup, he said.
Pressure on Qatar increased in 2013 when Britain’s Guardian newspaper said dozens of Nepalis had died while working on World Cup related projects. Qatari and Nepali officials denied the report.
In 2014 Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper alleged Qatari former FIFA executive committee member Mohamed Bin Hammam had lobbied on behalf of his country for the 2022 rights, paying millions in cash, gifts and junkets, especially to African officials.
Qatar says said Bin Hammam played no official or unofficial role in Qatar’s 2022 bid committee.
On Friday, Qatar’s organizing committee said it had made its bid with integrity but would comply with further investigations.
Analysts say simple denials are not a viable strategy.
“It’s not good enough,” said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They have never given chapter and verse of what their dealings were with Bin Hammam.”
Dorsey said the Qataris “never expected this, which was naive. And when it started they basically felt they couldn’t win, so they figured they would let it would blow over, despite being warned it won’t blow over.”
Theodore Karasik, a UAE-based geopolitical analyst, said Qatar and its advisers “should have been preparing for this day for a long while now. All indicators showed that the FIFA scandal would not exempt Doha.”
Qatar’s reputation as a regional political mediator could be harmed, analysts and diplomats say, but legal terms between FIFA and Qatar mean there is little chance of it losing the cup.
They note that Qatar in 2014 approved better treatment of migrant workers, making firms set up bank accounts for workers, pay wages electronically and stop midday outdoor work in the summer heat.
Some Qataris would not miss the tournament if it went.
“I will be the first to celebrate if the cup gets taken away from us,” said one executive. “It’s only brought us traffic and headaches from the international media.”
Additional reporting by William Maclean; Editing by Giles Elgood