Saudi Arabia just executed 37 people. It is leading a military intervention in Yemen that has triggered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. It is also leading an ineffectual economic blockade of its hated little neighbour, Qatar. The regime continues to arrest women’s rights activists; some have been tortured. All this seems to be the kingdom’s way of living down its sawing to pieces of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October.
Yet Saudi Arabia now hopes to co-host the world’s biggest party. Nearly a decade after Qatar was crowned host of the 2022 World Cup, the kingdom has belatedly decided to pursue international prestige through football. Helped by the global football authority Fifa, the Saudis want to muscle into the hosting of 2022 and stage some matches. At the very least, they intend to force Qatar to share its party with other Gulf states.
The game-changer — the thing that makes the Saudis’ ambition credible — is that their friend, Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino, wants to expand the next World Cup from 32 teams to 48. Fifa’s feasibility study said this would require at least two more stadiums in one other country.
Fifa and Qatar are now working on a proposal for an expanded World Cup. This would be put to Fifa’s next congress, in Paris on June 5, two years to the day after the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar began. (Fifa is also looking into moving its headquarters from Zurich to Paris, but that’s another story.)
The additional matches would generate an estimated $400m in revenue. The 200-plus presidents of national football federations will always opt for more money and more berths in the World Cup, so if they get to vote, the proposal should pass. Qatar would hate that, but it doesn’t want to upset Fifa or be seen to block the stampede to the trough.
The question then is which country or countries in the Gulf would co-host. Fifa wants the issue sorted by the summer. The only palatable choices for Qatar are Oman and Kuwait, both of which sat out the blockade. Indeed, Fifa asked them first. But Oman said it wasn’t ready, and Kuwait doesn’t seem desperate either. Moreover, as a dry country that bans anyone with an Israeli passport, it’s an inconvenient host.
Fifa’s feasibility study (seen by the Associated Press) says: “Due to the geopolitical situation in the region and the recent blockade that Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have imposed on Qatar, the involvement of such countries in organising a co-hosted tournament with Qatar would require the lifting of such blockade.”
These words open the route to a deal: the Saudis agree to drop the blockade (which hasn’t hurt Qatar much anyway), and in return, they (and possibly other neighbours) share the World Cup. Infantino could then preen as peacemaker of the Gulf and fantasise about a Nobel Peace Prize. He would tout the World Cup as his cunning plan to liberalise Saudi Arabia through football.
But his real aim is to please his biggest funders. Saudi and Emirati money was central to last year’s offer of $25bn — fronted by Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank — to create two new international football tournaments, a revamped club World Cup and a global Nations League.
The plan has since stalled, but Infantino correctly called the $25bn “the — by far — highest investment football has ever seen”. For comparison, Fifa’s revenues from the last World Cup (its only reliable cash cow) were $5.4bn. No wonder Infantino has become chummy with Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (“MBS”). They sat fraternally with Vladimir Putin at the opening match of the Russian World Cup, MBS grinning ruefully as Saudi Arabia lost 5-0 to the hosts.
Now Qatar is unhappily negotiating with Fifa about how exactly to expand the World Cup. After 10 years planning the tournament, taking heat over its poor labour standards and alleged corruption in the initial bid, to have to include the Saudis or Emiratis even as junior partners would feel like defeat.
Saudi Arabia’s plan may yet fail. Qatar might succeed in insisting on its existing contracts with Fifa for a 32-team tournament, says James Dorsey of Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies and Middle East Institute. But if the Saudis do share the World Cup, the daily global scrutiny might shock a regime that isn’t exactly a master of international public relations. Fifa is now proactively contacting human-rights groups to discuss the tournament’s expansion.
Still, a few additional stains on Saudi Arabia’s character wouldn’t make much difference. The Khashoggi affair taught MBS that he can do what he likes. There may be some initial awkwardness, but business-class cabins to Riyadh will soon be full of westerners angling for deals again. “It’s a privilege to be back in Saudi Arabia,” said John Flint, HSBC’s chief executive, at a Riyadh conference last month. He had pulled out of a similar conference after Khashoggi’s murder.
Anointing Saudi Arabia as co-host would make the ultimate statement about today’s world. The message: be as brutal as you like. The powers that be no longer even pretend to care.
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