DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The downfall of Mohamed bin Hammam has put Qatar’s surprise success in bidding to host the 2022 World Cup under fresh scrutiny.
FIFA on Saturday banned bin Hammam for life from soccer for his role in a bribery scandal, making the Asian soccer president the most senior official convicted of corruption in the governing body’s 107-year history.
The link between the fall from grace of bin Hammam, Qatar’s soccer powerbroker, and the 2022 World Cup may come naturally for Qatar’s critics.
But the prospect of dealing with two controversies is a daunting one for Qatar and the whole of the Gulf region where sport has been elevated to something akin to a national cause.
Qatar’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and his fellow rulers around the Gulf toasted Qatar’s World Cup win as a “source of pride” for the entire Muslim world.
Rulers of the region’s oil-rich states compete for vanity projects. Dubai boasts the world’s tallest skyscraper, while Abu Dhabi has a New York University campus and will soon be home to Louvre and Guggenheim art museums.
The competition between the Gulf’s deep-pocketed sheiks has been particularly fierce in sports with one oil-rich sheikdom trying to outdo the other in hosting a tennis or a golf tournament and luring A-list athletes to their desert fiefdoms.
The World Cup is by far the biggest prize yet awarded to the Gulf. It is, however, in danger of being compromised.
The FIFA scandal unfolded just months after the 62-year-old bin Hammam helped secure for his tiny, but immensely rich country the world’s biggest sporting event after the Olympics.
“The fact that he was a key figure in the bid could rub off on Qatar’s World Cup for sure,” said James Dorsey, a senior research fellow of the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
Managing bin Hammam’s quest to clear his name and waging an international campaign to prove the critics of Qatar 2022 wrong is a daunting task for any Gulf ruler, unaccustomed to being held accountable by anybody.
“It’s a tall order, let’s face it,” Dorsey said.
The ruler’s dilemma: save a disgraced soccer official who helped win Qatar the World Cup or defend the World Cup from critics who claim his country was a poor choice to host the 2022 event.
Part of good governance in the oil-rich region is boosting the importance of loyal servants and wealthy allies, but keeping them firmly in their place and pulling the plug on their ambitions before they overshadow their own.
“Guys like bin Hammam never operate independently from the rulers,” said Christopher Davidson, an expert on the Gulf and a lecturer at Britain’s Durham University.
One way to separate the World Cup from the bin Hammam scandal is to direct attention toward the technological developments that will enable Qatar to stage the event in the sizzling Gulf summer, experts said.
“They need to reinforce the message that they can deliver good matches and entertainment for fans at 50 C,” said Sean Ennis, a professor of sports marketing at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.
A lengthy legal fight by bin Hammam will not help divorce the bribery scandal from the World Cup, even though the Qatar bid has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
“All this comes as a package — the presidential election and the World Cup,” said former Asian Football Confederation general secretary Peter Velappan after the punishment against the 62-year-old Qatari.
Velappan described the one-time candidate for the FIFA presidency as “the architect of bribery and corruption” in the region. Bin Hammam maintains he’s innocent and says he’ll will prove in Swiss courts he was a victim of a conspiracy.
While soccer officials around the Gulf remained silent on bin Hammam’s guilty verdict, newspaper editorials — often the only insight into the thinking of the Gulf’s ruling elite — heavily criticized soccer’s governing body.
Most papers encouraged the disgraced Qatari to fight back, although they also fear his personal battle might plunge the whole region into a media war.
For now at least, bin Hammam has every intention to fight FIFA and Blatter in order to stay in soccer and be part of his country’s decade-long effort to stage the World Cup.