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Potential UK club acquisition could help Qatar polish its image

By James M. Dorsey

Qatar has booked two recent successes in what has become an uphill struggle to improve its tarnished image: a papering over of its rift with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sparked by Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood and reports that it may be interested in acquiring London Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur FC.

The successes come against the backdrop of a host of news reports that have done little to polish Qatar’s controversial image. The possible Tottenham acquisition could generate a counter dote but risks reviving debate whether Gulf states are in part using the purchase of high profile soccer clubs as a reputational management tool or in the words of human rights critics reputation laundering.

To be sure, Qatar’s reported interest in Tottenham is driven by more than its immediate reputational issues. Like its Gulf rival, the United Arab Emirates which owns Manchester City FC, Qatar has long been believed to want an English Premier League presence. Efforts a couple of years ago to acquire Manchester United foundered on disagreement over pricing. Qatar’s most prominent European trophy is Paris Saint-Germain FC (PSG) alongside sponsorships that include FC Barcelona.

Yet, that is where the trouble starts. Reports in Israeli and Jewish media suggest that Barcelona may want to end its association with Qatar when their sponsorship agreement terminates in 2016. Barcelona is said to be concerned about persistent reports of Qatari involvement in the funding of terrorism, including its support for Hamas, the Islamist group associated with the Brotherhood that controls the Gaza Strip.

Barcelona has yet to comment on the reports and it was not immediately clear whether or not they were part of an intermittent Israeli campaign to further sully Qatar’s image. Israel has criticised Qatar for its support for Hamas. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Ron Posner went as far as describing the Gulf state as a ‘Club Med for terrorists’ in an opinion piece in The New York Times.

Reports of Qatari association with funding of terrorism however go far beyond Hamas, a group on which the international community is divided. No Arab state has proscribed Hamas despite brutal crackdowns on the Brotherhood in Egypt and the banning of the Brothers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and their designation as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union. The European Union’s designation was recently called into question by a ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union that reversed the designation.

Similarly, the banning of the Brotherhood by the three Arab states has not sparked similar moves by the United States, the EU or the United Nations, all of which have taken Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to task for human rights abuses, including in their crackdowns on the Brotherhood.

Gulf states opted to gloss over fundamental differences over the Brotherhood with this month’s return to Doha of the ambassadors of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain who had been withdrawn in March in protest against Qatari support for the Brotherhood and the holding of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in the Qatari capital. The fragility of the agreement to set aside differences was however evident from the fact that the summit was cut back from two days to one, assertions by participants that the proceedings had been tense, and the fact that Qatar has not broken its ties to the Brotherhood.

To pacify its critics, Qatar earlier this year asked seven Brotherhood leaders to relocate from Doha but did not withdraw their residence permits or ask their families to leave. The group’s controversial spiritual leader, Sheikh Yousef al Qaradawi, a naturalized Qatari citizen and prominent fixture on state-owned Al Jazeera, remains resident in Doha, but has in recent weeks not appeared on the television network. It was not clear whether his disappearance from Al Jazeera is permanent or as in the past temporary. As part of the setting aside of their differences Qatar and Egypt have further agreed to gradually improve relations broken off as part of the Gulf rift and Qatari support for Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother who was elected president of Egypt but removed from office in a military coup.

Allegations of Qatari tolerance of funding of terrorism this month took a serious turn with the identification as a global terrorist by the US Treasury of Abdullah al Nuaimi, reportedly a former head of the Qatar Football Association. Mr. Al Nuaimi was one of several Qatari nationals that have been designated as terrorism financiers not only by the US but also by the EU and the United Nations.

The Treasury charged that Mr. Al Nuaimi had “provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al-Qa'ida and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen for more than a decade. He was considered among the most prominent Qatar-based supporters of Iraqi Sunni extremists,” the Treasury said. It said Mr. Al Nuaimi had transferred at least $2.6 million to Al Qaeda, had served as an interlocutor between Qatari donors and Al Qaeda in Iraq and assisted the group in its media communications. It also said Mr. Al Nuaimi had channelled funds to Al Shabab jihadists in Somalia and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.

Qatar has rejected allegations that it turns a blind eye to funding while Mr. Al Nuaimi has denied the Treasury claims. There has however been no indication that Qatar has launched an investigation of its own into the Treasury assertions. Mr. Al Nuaimi is believed to remain a free man in Qatar fuelling allegations that he has close ties to senior officials in the Qatari government and ruling family.

A historian of religion, who was detained in 1988 for his opposition to government-led reforms particularly regarding women’s rights, Mr. Al Nuaimi was released in 1991 on condition that he no longer would speak out publicly. Although Mr. Al Nuaimi was originally arrested on the orders of the then emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, he was received by Sheikh Hamad after the emir had ordered his release. Qatari newspapers said that the current emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who also serves as chairman of Qatar’s National Olympic Committee (NOC) and is a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as NOC head gave Mr. Al Nuaimi an award for his contribution to Qatari sports in 2010. Sheikh Tamim was at the time crown prince.

Qatar has defended the maintaining of open lines to all parties to a conflict as part of their mediation-focused foreign policies that allows the Gulf state to step in at times that others are unable to propose solutions or build bridges. “I am very much against excluding anyone at this stage, or bracketing them as terrorists, or bracketing them as al‑Qaeda. What we are doing is only creating a sleeping monster, and this is wrong. We should bring them all together, we should treat them all equally, and we should work on them to change their ideology, i.e. put more effort altogether to change their thinking,” Qatari Foreign Minister s Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah told an international security conference in Manama in December 2012. Al-Attiyah was referring to Syria but his remarks go to the heart of Qatari policy.

Speaking on CNN in September 2014, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim, said that “we have to see the difference between movements. I know that in America and some countries they look at some movements as terrorist movements. In our part of the region, we don't. But if you're talking about certain movements, especially in Syria and in Iraq, we all consider them terrorist movements. And we don't accept any fund for those and we don't accept anybody funding those groups… We have a strong law against funding terrorist groups… There are differences that some countries and some people that any group which is -- which comes from an Islamist background are terrorists. And we don't accept that.”

Qatar shares with its Gulf detractors a desire to ring fence the energy rich region from the winds of political change that have recently swept the Middle East and North Africa. But contrary to its critics, it believes it can best do so by supporting forces of change elsewhere in the region. Its approach appears to have a degree of resonance among the Arab public.

Despite the fact that public opinion in the Arab world has soured towards the popular Arab revolts as a result of the coup in Egypt and the turmoil in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria according to recent research by Zogby Research Services, most of those polled with the exception of Saudi and UAE nationals felt that Egypt was far worse off following the military coup.

Source: Zogby Research Services

Only a majority of Lebanese and Emiratis believed that the Brotherhood had played a negative role in Egypt but only Turks said that the group played a positive part in their own country. In Egypt itself opinions were evenly divided, suggesting that popular support for the Brotherhood as increased since the crackdown on the group by general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

Source: Zogby Research Services

With the exception of Egyptians, Emiratis and Saudis, most of those polled judged Saud Arabia’s role in the region as negative.

Source: Zogby Research Services

While Qatari positions did not witness a wholesome rejection in the poll, its image problems were worsened not only by the terrorism designations and the Israeli campaign but also efforts by the UAE to undermine its rival’s credibility. And the problems challenging Qatar’s image don’t end there.

World soccer body FIFA is set to decide in March on the dates for the 2022 World Cup to be hosted by the Gulf state. That decision coincides with a deadline for the creation of an independent commission to oversee reform of Qatar’s controversial labour sponsorship ship system that puts migrant workers at the mercy of their employers. The system has been denounced by trade union and human rights activists.

A Qatar-sponsored study of its labour legislation by British-based law firm DLA Piper recommended the establishment of the commission. FIFA executive committee member Theo Zwanziger, who is in charge of working with Qatar on the labour issue, warned that Qatar could be deprived of its hosting rights if it failed to meet the deadline.

Further tarnishing Qatar’s image was an Associated Press investigation that disclosed that Qatar paid foreign workers to attend soccer matches in otherwise often empty stadia to counter often biased criticism that it lacks a soccer culture or history. A poll among Qataris earlier this year cited the paying of migrant workers to be fans as a reason for reluctance to attend matches, alongside among others weather, scheduling, and traffic.

A Qatari acquisition of Tottenham would no doubt at least temporarily refocus some of the negative reporting on the country. But it could also revive assertions that wealthy Gulf countries are seeking to launder their reputations through soccer acquisition. Human Rights Watch charged the UAE with just that in 2013 while former English Football Association chairman Lord Triesman called for making a country’s human rights record one of the criteria for establishing whether a state entity or member of a ruling family passes the "fit and proper person test" for ownership of a Premier League club.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.


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