By James M. Dorsey
A Saudi-UAE-led alliance has tabled a long-expected demand that world soccer body FIFA strip Qatar of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights.
With little chance of FIFA acting on the demand any time soon, the move suggests that the alliance, struggling to figure a way forward amid mounting international pressure for a face-saving way out of the six-week-old Gulf crisis, needs to be seen to be acting on its hitherto unfulfilled promise to tighten the screws on Qatar.
Amid mounting international pressure for a negotiated solution to the crisis and calls for the lifting of the alliance’s diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and its allies have so far shied away from promises to tighten the noose around Qatar’s neck if it failed to cave into their demands centred on accusations of Qatari funding of terrorism.
Six weeks into the boycott, Qatar has been able to absorb the boycott, which involves a cut-off of almost all land, sea and air links with the Gulf state. It also has succeeded in standing its ground in a struggle for the moral high ground with its detractors, whose demands have failed to garner a groundswell of international support.
While few in the international community give Qatar a clean bill of health on funding of militancy and political violence, many suggest that its detractors are tainted by the same brush. The alliance has moreover struggled to come up with a set of demands that many in the international community have said need to be reasonable and actionable.
The Saudi-UAE-led alliance initially put forward a set of 13 non-negotiable demands that included cutting ties to a host of Islamist and militant groups and individuals, closing a Turkish military base in Qatar, lowering its relations with Iran, shuttering Qatar-sponsored media such as the controversial Al Jazeera television network, and putting Qatar under guardianship.
Qatar’s rejection of the demands and the alliance’s realization that its quest was being perceived by many in the international community as an attempt to undermine Qatari sovereignty and curb freedom of the media, prompted the alliance to adopt six principles that repackaged the demands and removed some of the sharp edges.
Much like the original demands, those principles also failed to garner the kind of international support the alliance needs to push forward with a tightening of the screws on Qatar.
The alliance also appears to have backed down on at least one of its demands, the shuttering of Al Jazeera. In an interview with The Times, UAE minister for the federal national council Noura al-Kaabi said the Emirates sought “fundamental change and restructuring” rather than closure of Al Jazeera. The Saudi-UAE-led alliance accuses the network of being a platform for militant groups.
“We need a diplomatic solution. We are not looking for an escalation,” Ms. Al-Kaabi said, suggesting that the Saudi-UAE led alliance was looking for a face-saving end to a crisis in which parties have dug in their heels, reducing margins for a way out that would allow all to declare victory.
At the heart of the Gulf crisis, lies a fundamental divide in how Qatar and its main detractors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, envision the future of the Middle East and North Africa. Central to the dispute is the international community’s inability to define what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist.
It is a difference that is likely to weaken the demand to deprive Qatar of its World Cup hosting rights. It is also a difference that has given the Gulf crisis a-pot-blaming-the-kettle character.
While Qatar sees the survival of its autocratic regime in support of political change everywhere but at home in a naïve belief that it can exempt itself, Saudi Arabia and the UAE opted for maintenance of the status quo ante by rolling back the achievements of the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. A sub-text to the struggle is the existential battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The epic struggle has led to a military coup in Egypt that removed from office the country’s first and only democratically elected president, sparked devastating civil wars in Libya and Syria, aggravated conflict in Iraq, and prompted an ill-fated Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen that brought the country to the edge of the abyss.
With efforts to mediate a way out of the crisis in full swing, FIFA has little incentive to act on a letter by six of its members – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Mauritania – demanding that Qatar be deprived of its hosting rights because it is a “base of terrorism.”
Speaking to a European news website, The Local, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said that “the countries warned FIFA of the risks threatening fan and player security in a country that is ‘the base and the castle of terrorism.'”
Mr. Infantino said the six countries had threatened to boycott the tournament should their request not be acted upon.
While the six countries are unlikely to be under the illusion that FIFA will simply accept their demand, tabling it allows the Saudi-UAE-led alliance to assert that it is not backing down in the Gulf crisis and is increasing pressure on Qatar. The alliance also hopes to exploit widespread criticism within the global soccer community of FIFA’s 2010 decision to award Qatar hosting rights.
Nevertheless, FIFA is unlikely to want to take sides in the crisis or weigh in on the debate on definitions of terrorism. Struggling to shake off multiple scandals that have severely tarnished the world soccer body’s image, FIFA is also unlikely to take a decision in a dispute in which all parties are tainted.
Moreover, FIFA is under no real pressure to act. The Qatar World Cup is more than five years away. The Gulf crisis is certain to be resolved long before that, one way or the other. In the meantime, the boycott does not stop Qatar from moving ahead with construction of World Cup-related infrastructure, albeit at a higher cost of construction materials.
Ultimately, FIFA will want to take a decision on the merits of Qatar’s ability to deliver a safe, secure and well managed World Cup rather than based on political arguments, many of which have yet to be substantiated.