A sporting triumph, a culture war, and now an unfolding corruption row over alleged Qatari lobbying methods — the soccer World Cup delivered it all. History will look back at Qatar 2022 as the zenith of petrostate soft power projection, but possibly also the ultimate model for sportswashing hubris. There are potential energy implications for Gulf energy relations, the EU-Qatari gas relationship and even the wider energy transition.
The PR benefits of Qatar’s World Cup bid have looked dubious for years, with Doha having to handle first the fallout from the major scandal involving allegations of corruption to get the bid, then the outrage over the treatment of migrant workers, plus opposition to Qatar’s position on LGBTQ rights. It took too long to respond, but to its credit, Doha did make tangible improvements to labor laws in the run-up to the cup kickoff. Qatar could have been forgiven for believing that once the soccer began, criticism would evaporate, as it has historically tended to with other controversial sports events.
Instead, criticism was dialed up to the max, with some Western newspapers running multiple anti-Qatar articles a day. That contrasts with Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup (when it was occupying Crimea) and China this year’s Winter Olympics (despite its mass detention of ethnic Uighers). Much of the criticism employed exaggerated worker fatality numbers. There was also the issue of hypocrisy — and the fact some of Doha’s critics had either accepted its money in the past or had holidayed in Dubai, with its virtually identical labor regime.
What must have been especially galling for Doha was to see German Economy Minister Robert Habeck, who for the last nine months has been imploring Doha for LNG, publicly comment on how a Qatari World Cup was a “stupid idea that can’t really be explained otherwise than by corruption.”
For its part, Qatar remained insistently LGBTQ unfriendly, in opposition to explicit pledges given by organizer Fifa ahead of the tournament. Whatever the improvements made, Qatar, indeed the whole region, comes up short on labor rights. Qatar’s lack of transparency on worker fatality figures didn’t help calm the storm.
The Greatest Show on Earth
However, it soon became apparent that a soccer tournament was breaking out in the middle of the culture war. Make no mistake, as a competition, Qatar 2022 was special. There were some gripes over a lack of host “football culture,” with its paid fans, and lack of non-soccer activities. But fan feedback was broadly of a family-friendly, crime-free, hooligan-free, compact event, with state-of-the art stadiums, managed by a well-organized and welcoming host nation.
Most importantly, the soccer delivered stadium-rocking drama, time and time again. Saudi Arabia stunned the soccer world to beat eventual champions, Argentina. Morocco managed multiple giant killings to become the first Arab and African nation to reach the semifinals of a World Cup. And Japan disposed of both Germany and Spain to top its group.
Qatar has always been something of a maverick in the Gulf. In much the same way as the three-year Gulf blockade of 2017-20 triggered a surge of support for the emir, public opinion has closed ranks in the face of Western criticism. “Qatari nationalism is coming of age,” notes the latest issue of Middle East Report magazine, published by Merip.
This has also been a major cultural event for the whole region. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was in Doha to witness his country’s greatest sporting moment. The victory against Argentina will have bolstered his legitimacy and boosted Qatari-Saudi relations. The Qatar-Gulf Cooperation Council split seems a long time ago.
Will there be revival of pre-2017 talks on Saudi imports of Qatari gas? Probably not, but the idea does not seem as farfetched as it did a month ago. This was also a good World Cup for Palestine, with its ubiquitous flag in Doha, and a bad one for Tehran, with the regime’s unpopularity on display for all to see.
The PR tide was beginning to turn in Doha’s favour. Then, in the knockout phase, news broke that a vice president of the European Parliament, Eva Kaili, and former MEP Antonio Panzeri, among others, had been arrested in possession of large amounts of cash in connection with alleged bribes from Qatar and Morocco over influence peddling.
An investigation is under way, with all contacts between the parliament and Qatar suspended, along with a visa-free travel arrangement about to be implemented. The scandal has hit at a particularly sensitive time for the EU, which is struggling to manage its response to the Ukraine invasion. Whatever the results of the investigation, this is an inflection point for EU governance. “The European Parliament, dear colleagues, is under attack. European democracy is under attack,” European Parliament president, Roberta Metsola told parliament on Dec. 13, referring to the corruption scandal.
A Qatari diplomat told the Financial Times that gas exports would not be affected by the row, but energy security cooperation might. But Doha might not be appreciating the scale of the hornet’s nest these arrests have disturbed. As with Russia, if proved, the allegations could cement in the minds of many EU parliamentarians the complete incompatibility between dependency on fossil fuels and good governance. The issue has the potential to both reinforce EU efforts to minimize energy dependency, accelerating the continent’s clean energy transition in doing so, and generate bad will toward other producer advocacy efforts — for instance over the energy transition.
Rafiq Latta is a senior correspondent with Energy Intelligence’s Middle East team. A version of the article originally appeared in Energy Compass.