Preparations are being completed in the Qatari capital of Doha for the FIFA World Cup – the international men’s soccer competition set to take place toward the end of the year. Ticket sales have already opened online and some 1.5 million fans are expected to pay between $68 and $1,600 for seats.
It will be an unusual event for two reasons: first, it will be the first time soccer's biggest tournament will take place during the winter, in air-conditioned stadiums. It will also be the first time the Middle East has staged the World Cup.
This tournament has long been a source of controversy, with Qatar suspected of buying the votes of senior FIFA officials in order to become the host country, in a vote that took place back in 2010. According to several reports, Qatar paid sums ranging from $1 million to $2 million to some of the voting delegates. The Al Jazeera Media Network, meanwhile, offered to pay about $400 million for exclusive rights to broadcast the games, with the state contributing another $400 million.
Qatar rejected those claims, saying they stemmed from envy and a desire to undermine its status, pointing the finger mainly at its neighbor Saudi Arabia.
These accusations are not unfounded. In 2017, the Saudis initiated an air-and-sea blockade of Qatar – which was joined by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – due to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, its ties with Iran and the strong criticism aired by Al Jazeera (which is owned by the ruling family) against Arab regimes.
Qatar was not perturbed by the embargo. Within a short space of time, it discovered alternative trade routes via Iran and Turkey, its overflowing coffers compensating citizens and businessmen for their losses. It built local factories to manufacture consumer goods to replace some of the imports. It also continued to be the world's leading natural gas exporter and maintained its close ties with the United States, which has its largest Middle East air base there.
At the same time, Qatar continued to invest between $200 and $300 billion to develop infrastructure designed to meet the requirements of soccer's governing body FIFA, and to prepare the country to provide exceptionally sophisticated services to the numerous visitors expected in November.
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Kilometers of new roads were paved, along with a subway system, seven state-of-the-art stadiums, hotels and hospitals. In the past decade, they expanded the airport and built new shopping malls with the help of tens of thousands of migrant workers brought especially to work on the World Cup project. Over 6,500 of them lost their lives in work accidents.
Qatar expects its profits from the World Cup to total over $20 billion. Although that’s a large sum, when compared to the scope of its investments over the past decade, the return will be between 8 and 10 percent. For a country whose annual GDP is about $170 billion, and which looks to increase that to $214 billion by 2026, that’s small change.
Behind this large investment lies another target: Qatar hopes to become a regional tourist center and strengthen its real estate industry. Primarily, though, it wants to position itself as a leading regional player that will enjoy international recognition and status thanks to hosting the 32-team tournament, which is watched by billions worldwide.
Western economists and consulting companies are doubtful as to whether the World Cup will yield the long-term benefits Qatar hopes. Qatar is not an interesting country in terms of tourism, and its international status has already been severely damaged precisely due to the World Cup and the corruption affairs, not to mention the large number of workers who were killed because of it.
Hundreds of stores and businesses, as well as the new hotels and luxury restaurants that were built to cater for the World Cup, are expected to become dormant after the last of the soccer fans head home.
Qatar is not a UAE-type country that has developed into an international center for trade and services, or branded itself a modern, free country that promotes high-tech and is making an effort to vary its sources of income. As opposed to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Doha is not an air travel hub linking Western countries to Asia. People come to Qatar for a day or two in order to sign business deals, and then go on to Abu Dhabi for vacation or entertainment.
At the same time, Qatar is not a marginal country and its regional status has gradually improved, together with its many investments in Arab countries, Africa and the West. In January, U.S. President Joe Biden named it a “major non-NATO ally,” joining 18 other countries worldwide with this ranking, and only the second country in the Middle East to be granted such status.
Qatar hosted the negotiations between the Taliban and representatives of the U.S. administration before the evacuation of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last year. It was highly praised by Biden for its vital assistance in evacuating Afghan citizens. At the same time, the ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, maintains close ties with Iran – which is its partner in the largest natural gas field in the world, in the Persian Gulf.
Israel, which has described Qatar as a terror-supporting country, benefits from its services in dealing with Hamas, with Qatar paying the salaries of its officials.
Qatar also has extensive ties with Turkey, where it invests some 15 percent of all Turkey’s foreign investment income. Although the extent of trade between the two countries is small, totaling about $2 billion, three years ago Qatar promised to invest $15 billion in Turkey as part of the urgent assistance Ankara needed due to its serious economic crisis.
In addition, the two countries have signed a currency exchange agreement worth a further $15 billion; Qatari companies have purchased Turkish media outlets, along with a partnership in a plant manufacturing armored vehicles and tanks, and in tourism sites. Turkey has a military base in Qatar, and the two countries are also working together in Libya and Syria.
About two weeks ago, when the crisis in Ukraine threatened to halt the flow of Russian natural gas to Europe, Biden asked Qatar to help with providing gas to Europe in the event of a shortage due to any sanctions placed on Russia. Qatar agreed, despite the fact that its commitment to its customers in East Asia limits its ability to help.
In return, Qatar asked to freeze the investigation against it in the European Union for signing restrictive contracts for natural gas distribution, contrary to EU laws. About a week ago, it was reported that the investigation was in fact suspended and apparently will not be renewed.
Qatar and the UAE are tiny countries. Each has a population of less than 1 million native citizens and have succeeded in leveraging their natural resources into political power, overshadowing larger and stronger oil-producing countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
After a new nuclear agreement is signed with Iran, they will also be responsible for Iran’s “absorption” into the Arab Middle East and the international oil market. Each of the Gulf states will have to adapt its policy to the huge quantities of oil that will flow from Iran, to the strong competition that will be created, and to manage ties with their old customers.
This is likely to reflect the difference between the UAE and Qatar. While the former is already in an advanced stage of varying its sources of income, Qatar is far from this target. Its dependence on oil and natural gas are irreplaceable. The World Cup tournament is important in terms of Qatar’s international image. But the country still has a long way to go before this can be leveraged into a new, permanent and significant source of income.