Qatar is better off with World Cup than without it

Staging the event seems to have won the Gulf state as many enemies as it does friends
By Reuters
Thu 12 Jun 2014 10:35 AM

Qatar is probably better off with the World Cup than without it. The emirate's reputation is under fire amid allegations that it bribed officials to support its successful bid to host the soccer tournament in 2022. Reversing the decision would spare Qatar eight years of scrutiny and save it a hefty infrastructure bill. Yet without the competition, Qatar has little to distinguish itself from more attractive Gulf neighbours.

Even before the 2014 jamboree kicks off in Brazil, the tournament after next is mired in controversy. Britain's Sunday Times newspaper has published documents suggesting a former vice-president of FIFA, soccer's ruling body, paid bribes to win support for Qatar's bid. Doha maintains it won on merit. But current World Cup sponsors like Visa, Sony, Adidas and Coca-Cola have expressed concern. If the allegations prove correct, FIFA would face immense pressure to revisit the decision.

Losing the World Cup would provide Qatar with the opportunity to scale back its massive infrastructure roll-out to a size more appropriate to its tiny population of 1.2 million. It's hard to imagine Doha becoming an attractive holiday destination in its own right after the fans have dispersed. Yet after its selection in 2010, Qatar announced projects including hotels, roads, port facilities, a rail network, state-of-the-art stadiums and even a brand new city. The total could cost up to $200bn through to 2020.

If it was stripped of the tournament, however, Qatar would also suffer a big setback in the regional race for economic diversification. Despite its enormous wealth, Doha has made it clear it wants to be more than just a home to one of the world's largest gas reserves. A cancelled World Cup would be the largest of a number of costly failed initiatives, including the attempt to turn the emirate into a financial centre to rival the success in neighbouring Dubai.

Qatar has sought to win powerful friends in everything it does, from investments overseas to foreign policy. That's important for a small rich country surrounded by larger powers in a volatile region. But as in much else, Qatar seems to win as many enemies as it does friends. On balance, the tiny nation is probably regretting ever pursuing the World Cup. Now it is stuck in a mess, losing it might just be worse than keeping it.

The author, Una Galani, is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

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