Al Jazeera’s World Cup
Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By LEE SMITH
Now that the 2022 World Cup has been given to Qatar, details of improprieties in the decision-making process of international soccer’s governing board, FIFA, are starting to trickle out. There are rumors that the small emirate in the Persian Gulf with the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas paid more than $6 billion just to win the bid, some of it over the table and much of it not. In any case, the Qataris will spend billions more in preparation for the event, building hotels and restaurants as well as soccer facilities, like nine new air-conditioned stadiums to accommodate the players and fans who will overwhelm a tiny peninsula of around 1.5 million people where the temperature regularly reaches 130 degrees in the summer months.
Winning the right to host the world’s greatest sporting event should be seen as the culmination of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s grand plans for Qatar—a project that began when he deposed his father in a 1995 coup. Since then, the 58-year-old emir has been on a steady shopping spree, with a particular interest in Western goods and baubles and institutions, like the I. M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art and a campus of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, lured to Doha with large sums of cash to offset endowments shrunken by the financial crisis. All along, the emir has been accompanied by his famously appealing and stylish wife, Sheikha Mozah, who’s regularly profiled in society and fashion magazines—most of which neglect to mention that this standard-bearer of Arab female modernity is the second of the emir’s three wives. That is to say, there’s something a little off about Qatar.
The country is “problematic,” Mossad chief Meir Dagan told U.S. diplomats. The emir himself, said Dagan, in State Department cables stolen by WikiLeaks, “is annoying everyone.” Dagan advised the Americans to remove their bases from Qatar, the most important of which is an air field in Doha that can serve as a forward headquarters for the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM. Interestingly, CENTCOM’s main adversaries—the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional assets, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and insurgent outfits in Iraq and Afghanistan—are stars on the Qatari emir’s most famous asset, the TV network Al Jazeera, which has made the emir one of the Arab world’s top political powerbrokers. Without the fame and influence of Al Jazeera paving the way, Qatar never would have won the World Cup bid.
It is instructive to consider the role Al Jazeera plays in the region. The network, said an American diplomat in one of the WikiLeaks cables, “will continue to be an instrument of Qatari influence.” But it is more useful to think of it the other way around—Qatar is an extension of Al Jazeera. The Doha-based satellite network is the most successful and dynamic Arab cultural and political institution of the last half-century.
If major Arab powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia resent Qatar, they have only themselves to blame for stagnant regimes ruled by monarchs and hereditary republics. Qatar is typically belittled even in comparison with another tiny Persian Gulf emirate, Dubai—the flashiest of the seven United Arab Emirates, with giant skyscrapers, the world’s only “six-star” hotel, celebrity chefs, and bordellos that cater to every whim. And yet the financial crisis crippled Dubai, exposing it as little more than a real estate Ponzi scheme, while Qatar has gone from strength to strength. Dubai prided itself on staying out of politics, which in retrospect was precisely the problem, for Qatar’s chief export is one valued in the Middle East even more highly than oil—political ideology. The Al Jazeera revolution was a variation on an old theme: By playing the heartstrings of the Arab middle classes with anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment, Qatar wended its way into the mainstream of Arab politics.
It was Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser who first showed how the media could be used as a strategic asset in the Middle East. Thanks to its recording and movie industry, Cairo was the media and entertainment capital of the Arab world through most of the twentieth century. In mid-century, the region’s two best-known voices belonged to Umm Kulthum, the renowned Egyptian diva, and Nasser himself, whose broadcasts electrified the Arab masses across the Middle East while they set his Arab opponents on edge.
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