A few years ago, I was silly enough to think that Qatar's own legal regime would create such a storm of controversy that the Cup would be moved. After all, in 2014, the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, became the occasion for great international protest. Russia had passed laws criminalizing the promotion or normalization of homosexuality. Worldwide corporate behemoths such as McDonald's and Dow Chemical joined the condemnation of the Russian laws.
President Obama withdrew himself and his family from the U.S. Olympic delegation and sent openly gay athletes instead. How could the World Cup be held in Qatar, where homosexuality (at least for Muslims) is a capital crime? Or where conversion to Christianity is a capital crime? No, I was totally wrong. The Cup must go on.
Then I thought FIFA and the world would take the games away from Qatar because it put its stadium's migrant builders in appalling work conditions that in any Western country would be lambasted as a cruel and racist system of exploitation akin to slavery, with eye-popping death rates. The Cup must go on.
Until this week. Qatar has plunged into conflict with Saudi Arabia, and with it the wider coalition of Sunni powers in the Islamic world. And . . . FIFA is staying quiet, saying only that it is staying in "regular contact" with Qatar. The land crossings into Qatar have been closed. The airspace of several nations in the region is closed to flights leaving from Qatar, making a mess of the international travel that flows through its airlines and airport.
The Guardian reports:
Qatar's ruling family and emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, have always intended that hosting an event as globally captivating as the World Cup will dramatically boost the tiny but wealthy country's profile, and that such "soft power" could help be a bulwark against interference from its neighbours. Now, although there are five years to go, the entire project is facing major doubt.
Why is the Saudi government leading this economic blockade of Qatar? For PR reasons, Saudi Arabia accuses Qatar of slipping money to extremists such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The accusation that Qatar and elements therein fund some bad guys and dubious movements is obviously true. The accusation in the mouth of Saudi Arabian officials is a mind-bending hypocrisy. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has been an ally of the United States. In fact, Qatar in some ways has been a more reliable ally to the West; it is able to host U.S. military personnel with less controversy than Saudi Arabia. But, as with Saudi Arabia, its wealthy actors pay out great gobs of money to advance the cause of extremist Islam across the world, as if they were buying an Islamic indulgence for their riches.
The truth is that Saudi Arabia thinks that al-Thani has been too close to Iran. Al-Thani recently described Iran as an "Islamic power" and criticized Donald Trump's anti-Iran policies.
So far, Donald Trump is playing along with our Saudi allies in this charade. Maybe that is to be expected — Trump just concluded a major arms deal with the Saudis and was obviously impressed with the extravagant welcome he received in Riyadh. In truth, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is the only "special relationship" that the United States maintains in the world. It's what is leading us to refuel Saudi planes as they bomb Yemen in a futile and destructive war to restore a government that many in Yemen have firmly rejected.
And there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia has been cooperative with the United States as it sought to deprive Russia of energy-resource wealth. But Trump should think carefully about where he is willing to let Saudi Arabia lead the United States. The United States has been working at cross-purposes in the region for some time, getting as much as it can out of Saudi Arabia, even as the Sunni radicalism supported by the House of Saud wreaks havoc across the region and in Europe. If Saudi Arabia can do this much damage to Qatar, formerly a U.S. ally, in just a few days, what else can it do? If it can get the president to tweet angrily about a nation where U.S. military personnel are still (gratefully) stationed, what else can it force a U.S. president to do? What exactly are we enabling in the Middle East?
One more question. If Qatar is about to lose its World Cup over a snit with the Saudis, will it fall to the runner-up in the bid? That is, will it come to the United States?
Commentary by Michael Brendan Dougherty, senior writer at National Review. Follow him on Twitter @michaelbd.
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