Workers are seen on the construction site for the Al-Wakrah Stadium, a World Cup venue designed by celebrated Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, some 15 kilometers outside Doha, on February 6, 2018. Photo: Karim Jaafar / AFP

On Friday (February 23), the popular Saudi TV channel al-Arabiya carried several “BREAKING NEWS” stories in Marlboro red, stating that, in September of this year, Qatar will be stripped of its hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup.

The story was given high prominence, almost drowning out reports of atrocities in Syria. Inevitably, it went viral on social media networks and was followed by an avalanche of tweets and articles, penned by Saudi bloggers and journalists, confirming what al-Arabiya had reported. The popular Emirati newspaper al-Bayan said FIFA wanted to “correct the biggest mistake in its entire history” (i.e. that of awarding Qatar hosting rights to the tournament back in 2010).

All the reports, however – including the al-Arabiya one – have been based on one single “media source.” The popular German online magazine Focus ran a story on Friday saying that Qatar was set to lose the World Cup. The Germans’ source? Turki al-Sheikh, president of the Saudi General Assembly of Sports, or “sports minister” as the German paper had it.

Al-Sheikh advocated changing the venue from Qatar either to the US or England, but he did not indicate that this was what FIFA was planning to do. “England is the birthplace of modern football. Its history and pedigree would make it a great host,” he said, adding that: “The USA has tremendous experience in hosting global sporting events. I would greatly enjoy watching the World Cup if hosted in England or the USA.”

Evidently, this story has been blown out of all proportion, with Arab media – as they are wont to do – milking it to death for political ends.

The location of the 2022 World Cup has been controversial ever since Qatar won the bid. Besides the enormous coverage devoted to accusations of bribery and vote-rigging, human rights groups have highlighted stories of abuse of migrant workers. Many are also concerned that the country’s very hot weather is wholly unsuited to hosting the world’s biggest football tournament.

To father and son, hosting the World Cup is a dream come true. Engineering its withdrawal is, therefore, a clear goal for Saudi Arabia in its open-ended war on the country

Qatar has gone to great lengths to head off critics and doubters. For example, it will allow the Israeli national team to participate (if it qualifies, which is unlikely), even as Arab states refuse to recognize the State of Israel’s existence. And it will allow the sale of alcohol during the event, despite being a conservative Islamic country that hosts firebrand clerics such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual head of the global Muslim Brotherhood network.

Pressure mounted further after relations with its regional neighbors hit rock bottom last June. Since then, Saudi Arabia has led a boycott of Qatar, with full participation from Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt. Planes have been prohibited from flying to Doha, banks from dealing with Qatari banks, and the country’s influential satellite TV channel, al-Jazeera, remains off the airwaves throughout most of the Arab World.

Instead of backing down, the Qatari Government refused to countenance a change of editorial tack on al-Jazeera, refused to sever relations with Iran, and said “no” to the expulsion of Brotherhood members based in Doha. Qatar also refused to end its alliance with the Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, and authorized its powerful media outlets to demonize the powerful House of Saud and its heavyweight Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

The longer the Gulf conflict has dragged on, the more the Saudis have been determined to strike at Qatar with every weapon at their disposal. The 2022 World Cup, therefore, has every potential for becoming the proverbial “political football,” not least because the Saudis know how much it means to Qatari Emir Tamim Bin Hamad and his father, the former Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The event will, reportedly, cost them an approximate US$220 billion, sixty times as much as South Africa spent on the 2010 World Cup. More than 1.5 million people are expecting to attend, which is more than half of the tiny country’s population. To father and son, hosting the World Cup is a dream come true. Engineering its withdrawal is, therefore, a clear goal for Saudi Arabia in its open-ended war on the country.

Last year, the Saudis pushed to prevent Doha from hosting another football tournament, the biennial Gulf Cup. A threatened Saudi boycott led to the event being moved to Kuwait — a heavy blow to Qatari officialdom. Media reports speculating about a FIFA reversal started circulating as early as June 2017, but they have all come from Saudi sources. True to form, the weekend’s story quotes no single FIFA official or independent observer.

Whatever the Saudis may hope, FIFA has shown an absence of political will to change course with regard to an event that is now little more than four years away

In the Tweet on which the Focus story was based, Turki al-Sheikh said FIFA’s position on the 2022 World Cup will be revised in September. He Tweeted: “September 2018 will be an intense month in the corridors of football’s powerbrokers,” adding that, “If found guilty of any ethical violations, the Qatari Government must accept the consequences of their actions.”

“Ethical violations” have been heavily rumored from as early as 2010 but they did not prevent FIFA President Gianni Infantino from saying — as recently as mid-February — that he was satisfied with Qatar’s 2022 preparations. “We are confident that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be up to expectations,” he said. Earlier, in December, he said the Doha World Cup would be the best ever hosted.

Swiss and US prosecutors are currently investigating wide-scale corruption within FIFA ranks, spanning numerous issues, Qatar among them. French football legend Michel Platini, who formerly headed the Union of European Football Association (UEFA), acknowledges having changed his intended vote for the 2022 tournament the day before it was cast following a lunch with the then president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the current Emir of Qatar, Tamim al-Thani. In 2015, Platini and the former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, were banned from any involvement in football for eight years, over unexplained payments to Platini.

In November, a court heard that Blatter’s most senior vice-president at FIFA, the Argentinian Julio Grondona, who died in 2014, took at least US$1 million in bribes to vote for Qatar in 2010.

That any of this leads to FIFA changing its mind about 2022 is unlikely, however. In 2014, FIFA’s own investigation found that Qatar’s former football administrator, Mohammed bin Hammam, had “manipulated” the vote for the tournament but that there was not enough evidence to strip the Gulf state of the event. FIFA has been under Infantino’s new regime since February 2016. But whatever the Saudis may hope, it has shown an absence of political will to change course with regard to an event that is now little more than four years away.

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