Qatar WC weathers Gulf crisis but fresh storms brew
DOHA, JUNE 4: Qatar's World Cup organisers have ridden out the initial shock caused by the country's ongoing confrontation with its powerful neighbours, but experts warn bigger crises may lie ahead.
FIFA is looking at a proposal to expand the 2022 football tournament from 32 to 48 teams, an increase that could pose the greatest risk yet to Qatar's plan to host the first World Cup in the Arab world.
Qatar has already come under scrutiny over allegations of corruption and human rights abuses -- but that may be nothing compared with pressures it faces in the run-up to 2022.
"I think FIFA's proposal represents the biggest threat to the tournament simply because it would wrong-foot Qatar into sharing the tournament with other countries," said Simon Chadwick, a sports and geopolitics expert at Britain's Salford University.
Sharing the cup, he said, would represent "something of a defeat for Doha".
In the year since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies including Egypt abruptly froze relations with Qatar -- accusing it of supporting terrorism and being too close to Iran -- World Cup organisers have proved resilient.
The embargo, in place since June 5, 2017, cut off the supply of construction materials from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but they were swiftly replaced by imports from Malaysia and China.
By the end of 2018, three of the eight stadiums earmarked for 2022 will be completed.
The design for Lusail, the stadium set to host World Cup 2022 final, is expected to be unveiled by the end of the year.
Qatar's colossal weekly budget of $500 million (428 million euros) on World Cup infrastructure has built new roads, hotels, neighbourhoods even towns its $36 billion metro system is on track to open in 2019.
"Our projects are going ahead as scheduled," said Hassan al-Thawadi, one of the World Cup organisers, after the crisis began.
"This is no risk in relation to the hosting of the World Cup."
And while gas-rich Qatar has proved it can weather the economic consequences of the crisis, the politics of the boycott have proved more difficult.
Football, it seems, has found itself fully in the fallout's firing line.
Officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have openly called for Qatar to be stripped of the World Cup.
A Swiss investigation into the controversial awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar is ongoing.
Qatar's sports broadcaster beIN Media -- which has exclusive Middle East rights to televise this year's World Cup -- has found itself the victim of a vast pirating operation allegedly based in Saudi Arabia.
"The crisis is not about football, but the World Cup does seem to have become a tool in the ongoing standoff," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute.
"It would be an enormous coup for the Saudis and Emiratis if they could do anything to throw Qatar's hosting rights into question." -AFP