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The stakes are high in Qatar’s World Cup drama (JMD on Al Jazeera America)

Losing the game would have geopolitical consequences, but Doha can turn the situation to its advantage June 8, 2014 1:00AM ET by James M. Dorsey @mideastsoccer

FIFA president Joseph Blatter (R) is greeted by president of the Asian Football Confederation Mohammed bin Hammam upon his arrival at airport in Doha on Dec. 16, 2010. AFP/Getty Images

Qatar this week faced fresh allegations of corruption over the hosting of the 2022 World Cup, a cornerstone of the emirate’s effort to burnish its soft power by fostering international goodwill. Those allegations represent a risk to the tiny Gulf state far greater than the embarrassment of losing the right to host the world’s premier sporting event; if proved true, they could have significant geopolitical consequences.

On June 1 the British Sunday Times reported obtaining millions of documents that allegedly show that member associations of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, were bribed to vote, three years ago, for awarding the 2022 tournament to Qatar. If the new FIFA investigation of those allegations finds evidence of foul play, the international body will face huge pressure to annul the vote and strip Qatar of its hosting rights.

Doha denies any wrongdoing in its successful World Cup bid, and has sought to distance itself from disgraced former FIFA executive and Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari national at the center of the Sunday Times’ bribery allegations.

Losing the World Cup would damage the prestige on which Qatar’s foreign, defense and security policy is built.

In addition to its bid to host the World Cup, Qatar also serves as mediator in multiple conflicts — most recently it was in the headlines for its role in brokering the prisoner swap with the Taliban that allowed the U.S. to recover captive soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan. Its diplomatic exertions, together with its world-class Qatar Airways, its ownership of Al Jazeera and Doha’s high-profile international investments and art acquisitions, help present the country as an engaged global citizen, helping it compensate for its limited military strength.

Soft-power influence

Doha’s financial muscle and soft-power influence have helped it carve out a niche in a volatile and changing part of the world by supporting popular revolts against Arab autocrats. Its support for the long-repressed Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups was a source of tension and controversy with the region’s behemoth, Saudi Arabia.

Qatar’s standing has helped it stave off Saudi-led diplomatic pressure from Gulf states to expel the Brotherhood and its prominent spiritual leaders, including the Egyptian turned Qatari national cleric Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and to limit critical coverage of Saudi allies in the region by Doha-based media and think tanks.

If Qatar were to suffer the embarrassment of losing the World Cup — the awarding of which was a massive statement of its global prestige — the move would undermine Qatar’s confidence in adopting independent and at times idiosyncratic foreign policy positions. It could also foil the country’s efforts to provide a new lead in the way the region interacts with its critics and handles foreign laborers, who in several Gulf states constitute a majority of the population.

After winning the World Cup, amid pressures from labor and human rights activists over construction work on the tournament’s infrastructure, Qatar has broken the Gulf’s mold of refusing to engage with critics. Doha’s engagement and willingness to work with international rights groups to address concerns over labor conditions have won the country respect and credibility. Unlike other states in the region, Qatar has, for example, allowed international organizations to do more or less unfettered research into labor practices to substantiate their criticisms, and to publicly announce their conclusions at news conferences.

If Qatar successfully defeats the bribery allegations and holds on to the World Cup, it will have contributed to greater transparency and accountability in the murky world of global soccer governance.

Even though much of it is yet to be implemented, the resultant package of labor reforms announced by Qatar is having ripple effects throughout the region as other Gulf states tweak their own labor regulations. These reforms suggest that the Qatar World Cup has had the potential to become one of the rare instances when the tournament became a real engine of social change.

Moreover, if Qatar successfully defeats the bribery allegations and holds on to the World Cup by being transparent and accountable, it will have contributed to greater transparency and accountability in the murky world of global soccer governance.

On the flip side, the fallout of its losing the World Cup would be felt across the globe. While Qatar’s detractors in the Gulf and the global soccer community would relish the defeat, it could also be viewed in some parts of the world as an act of discrimination against the first Arab and Muslim country to host the World Cup.

As a result, the stakes are high for all parties involved. On the principle of innocent until proven guilty, Qatar could still turn the current public relations fiasco into a trump card. But to do so, it would have to demonstrate through transparency and accountability the kind of leadership it has shown in its engagement with international critics of its labor practices.

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

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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