Fifa’s Doha dilemma

Published in Gulf States News, 17 July 2014 The quality of football in Brazil has seen this summer’s World Cup branded a triumph, but now that the tournament is over, attention will return to the murkier side of the game. US lawyer Michael Garcia, chairman of the investigatory chamber of Fifa’s Ethics Committee, is due to submit his report on the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively, on or around 21 July.

There are a few possible scenarios for Qatar. At first glance, the best outcome would be if Fifa agreed that Doha had done nothing wrong. Given the extent and detail of the allegations published by the UK’s Sunday Times and others in recent months, such a decision would come under huge scrutiny from the media, sponsors and losing bidders. The nuclear option would be to strip Qatar of the tournament and re-run the competition. While this would certainly be humiliating for Qatar, it might actually bring some benefits.

“Economically it would probably help if they didn’t have it,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “Do they really want to have to spend tens of billions of dollars on infrastructure, on stadiums, on 80,000 hotel rooms that they’ll never need again for a month? Is that the wisest use of funds or resources? Probably not.”

Paul Gamble, director of Sovereigns at Fitch Ratings, agreed, pointing out that it would give the government a chance to re-evaluate its huge project pipeline. “It would have a positive impact on the fiscal position because they would be doing less of these projects,” he said. “It is pretty clear Lusail City and the Doha Metro would be scaled back very significantly if Qatar was stripped of the World Cup. The side that is more difficult to assess is the reputational risk it would cause.”

The reputational damage from keeping the World Cup could be just as bad, however, given the extent of campaigning against allowing Qatar to host. Another scenario could, therefore, be that, even if Fifa does not rescind the hosting rights, Qatar could voluntarily give them up, as Colombia did for the 1986 World Cup, despite years of preparations.

“They might wonder if eight years of this relentlessly negative publicity is worth it, and my suspicion is it might not be,” Coates Ulrichsen said. “It is doing incredible damage to their branding. The scrutiny is going to get a lot worse. They don’t seem to have factored that in. They didn’t necessarily anticipate what would come with the World Cup. It’s not doing them any good. In the short term, there would be a lot of hurt feelings, but they’ll get over it.”

Whatever happens, the authorities in Doha are likely to look back on the day in December 2010 when they won the hosting rights with some circumspection. And if they decide to fight to retain the tournament, it may well be something they live to regret. “They’re going to have a very messy path to the World Cup, that’s clear,” said one senior banker in the Gulf.