Qatar’s underdog rulers anticipate soft-power victory at World Cup

DOHA, Nov 18 (Reuters) – The World Cup could give Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani his coronation on the global stage or a fiasco enjoyed by Arab opponents who anger Qatar for supporting banned Islamist movements and about weight.

The 42-year-old ruler hopes a smooth tournament will cement Qatar as a legitimate global player, show strength to regional rivals and appease conservatives at home who balk at international criticism of their country.

“A successful World Cup for Qatar would be seen as the culmination of Tamim’s reign and a confirmation that he has not only fulfilled his father’s vision, but can now launch new visions and projects of his own,” said Allen Fromherz, author of “Qatar: Eine modern history”.

The 2022 World Cup has been dogged by controversy since Qatar became the first Middle Eastern nation and the first absolute monarchy in the Gulf to be announced as hosts.

The organizers firmly rejected allegations of bribes to secure rights and rejected criticism of human rights violations and social restrictions. Holding the event in late fall instead of summer due to the desert climate also raised anger.

Tamim, who came to power in 2013 after his father’s abdication, has stood up to critics, denouncing what he called “savage” slander and double standards, pointing to Qatar’s labor reforms and welcoming of all walks of life to the event pointed out. Testing the tolerance of conservative Sunni Muslim Qataris.

Now all eyes are on the smallest nation hosting the event at the most expensive World Cup in history, which is being organized at a cost of $220 billion – almost 20 times what Russia spent in 2018.

Doha has been unrecognizable since Qatar won the bid 12 years ago. New highways, a subway, stadiums, new airports and ports, and hundreds of buildings, hotels and restaurants are expecting around 1.2 million visitors. A construction frenzy was planned, according to authorities, regardless of the event that sped up the pace.

“Tamim was pretty pivotal throughout the period leading up to the World Cup…trying to get Qatar to a place where they had as few enemies as possible and as many friends as possible,” said Cinzia Bianco, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“He did a lot to show that Qatar is a country on the move, a modern country and he has been the face of all developments,” she said.

Tamim has also advocated “consensus-based politics” to gain soft power and international standing — important assets for a small country in a volatile region, she said.

NETWORK OF FRIENDS

Tamim’s first major test after becoming leader came in 2017, when Saudi Arabia and its allies boycotted Qatar for supporting Islamists they see as a threat, giving a platform to their dissidents, and befriending Iran and Turkey.

Qatari officials say the country was on the brink of invasion as neighbors Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed the 3-1/2-year embargo until Riyadh, under US pressure and in an attempt to to rehabilitate his own image, this heralded an end to the dispute.

Tamim acted quickly to limit damage during the blockade, finding alternative trade routes and partners and, like his father before him, using an intricate web of friendships nurtured by Qatar’s gas wealth to rally support.

Ultimately, Tamim used the crisis to strengthen his base at home, deepen ties with the West and use his nation’s gas wealth to overtake Doha in time for the World Cup.

Qatar’s unconventional regional policies have infuriated its Gulf and Arab neighbors.

She supported alternative sides to those of her neighbors in the “Arab Spring” between Egypt and Libya.

As well as being home to the largest US military base in the region, Qatar has also been home to countless non-state actors considered anti-Western, including the Afghan Taliban and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

For many in the region, the output of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera has long been inflammatory.

POSSIBLE gotchas

But Qatar has taken credit from the West by emerging as a diplomatic facilitator on Afghanistan, an occasional facilitator on Iran, an ally of European leaders facing an energy crisis, and a large investor in America and Europe.

He wants to ensure Qatar remains internationally relevant by also becoming a sporting powerhouse.

“We cannot afford to push countries like Qatar away from us,” said a European diplomat in Qatar, commenting on European criticism of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup.

But a successful World Cup is by no means a guarantee.

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore, said there are pitfalls, including how to deal with activists in a country that doesn’t typically condone dissent, possible fan scuffles and culturally sensitive issues such as possible displays of same-sex affection.

Crowd control will be another challenge as memories of recent stampede disasters in Indonesia and South Korea linger. Another major concern is the risk of cyber attacks.

Dorsey said Qatar could use a successful World Cup as a springboard for reform.

“Ultimately, post-World Cup Qatar must pursue social, economic and political reforms to fully capitalize on the tournament’s reputation, even as activist attention continues,” Dorsey wrote.

Right now, football fans around the world, as well as Qatar’s friends and rivals, are waiting for the tournament to start on Sunday.

“This is the first ever World Cup in the region. Who knows when it will be held again? It’s a big, big deal,” said Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University.

Reporting by Andrew Mills and Ghaida Ghantous; Edited by Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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