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The Sharp Edges of the Beautiful Game: Rethinking Qatar’s “Sports Diplomacy”

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For European football, the usual drama of the off-season was bookended last year by seismic events with sizable price-tags. In April, twelve of Europe’s top teams announced they were forming their own Super League to bolster their billion-dollar bottom-lines. Within 48 hours, the effort collapsed amid widespread opposition, but not before exposing some of the world’s biggest brands, including Spain’s Barcelona and England’s Manchester City, to reputational and legal losses. Five months later, some of these same teams again found themselves in the news when star forward Lionel Messi departed Barca, his club of 21 years, for France’s Paris Saint-Germain. Years of mismanagement had bound Barca in a financial straight-jacket too tight to re-sign the generational talent; PSG was among the few teams able to accommodate his nine-figure contract.

And the winner of the offseason? Probably Qatar.

After all, it’s Qatari brands like Qatar Airways that fans have seen on the front of their favorite kits, including Barca’s. It’s Qatari figures like Nasser al-Khelaifi whom journalists hear at press events, including Messi’s PSG introduction. And it’s Qatari landmarks like Lusail Stadium that dignitaries will soon take in as the site of next year’s World Cup final.

Indeed, Qatar’s presence in international football cuts across the senses—and not coincidentally. These activities are part of a decades-long effort by Qatar’s ruling family to cultivate global goodwill and exercise what analysts call soft power: the moves a state makes to persuade or attract others to its cause. In Qatar’s case, these moves, underwritten by the country’s vast natural gas reserves, have included striking relationships, steering deals, and shepherding its brand in some of the world’s most visible industries. From media and academia to culture and entertainment, so bold and beneficial appear Qatar’s soft power investments that analysts have characterized them as types of diplomacy—“sports diplomacy” among them.

But for years, international football also has had to contend with the seedier side of Qatar’s sports investments. In some cases, Qatar’s headline-grabbing actions have served to distract actors in liberal democracies from the country’s limited freedoms, if not enlist them to help launder its reputation. In other cases, Qatar’s financial transactions have exploited governance gaps in Western organizations, eroding their credibility. Much like analysts have questioned the “soft” hue of China’s international activities, so too should they reconsider the “diplomatic” character of Qatar’s global reach—beginning with sports.

Qatar’s Football Empire

Qatar’s first cap in international football took place in 2003, when the Qatar-based news organization Al Jazeera launched a dedicated channel for live sports. The channel eventually grew into a separate entity called beIN Sports, and today, it holds the broadcasting rights to European and global football in dozens of markets. Last June, BeIN scored a $600 million extension with UEFA, European football’s governing body, to show continental competitions like the prized Champions League across the Middle East and North Africa. 

Media is but one of the ways Qatar has insinuated itself into international football. Beginning in 2011, the Qatar Foundation—and then Qatar Airways—claimed the front of Barca’s kits, the first time the sport’s most valuable club okayed a commercial sponsor. Though the deal ended in 2017, the airliner struck a similar one with Germany’s Bayern Munich and became an official sponsor of FIFA, international football’s governing body. Also in 2011, a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund purchased PSG, its deep pockets credited with guiding France’s most decorated club past a decade of decline. Just a few years ago, that subsidiary almost bought another storied team, this one in England. Perhaps most importantly, Qatar has spent the past decade preparing to host FIFA’s 2022 World Cup, the sport’s top competition. As a warm-up, the country just played host to the Arab Cup, a regional tournament also organized by FIFA.

Reputation Laundering

But even as Qatar’s international brand has evolved, its domestic profile has stayed stubbornly autocratic. Since its independence in 1971, Qatar has been ruled as an absolute monarchy by the Al Thani family. This means family members and allies hold the reigns of state—from federal ministries and the armed forces to more peripheral outlets like the committee organizing its World Cup and the fund brokering its football investments. This also means the public, particularly the 77 percent who are non-citizens, are afforded few civil liberties. As a result, the media are subject to censorship, civil society activists and whistleblowers are detained or disappeared, and labor migrants face exploitative conditions. These are among the reasons why Freedom House has called Qatar an unfree society.

The ruling regime’s politics don’t end at the water’s edge, though—they shade Qatar’s actions abroad, including on the pitch. One manifestation is in Qatar’s manipulation of the information space through sports-washing, the practice of using sport to launder one’s reputation. In some cases, this laundering is explicit. During a 2019 visit, retired English footballer David Beckham praised Qatar’s World Cup preparations, and last November, FIFA President Gianni Infantino highlighted improvements in Qatar’s labor rights practices. Statements like these, when the evidence suggests otherwise, serve as transnational character references, lending the imprimatur of popular or prominent figures to a nation’s blemished brand. To shore up its references, Qatar recruited several former football stars—including Xavi Hernandez, Tim Cahill, and Cafu—to serve as player-ambassadors for its World Cup, and it just added Beckham in a deal reportedly worth $277 million.

In other cases, this laundering is implicit. Since the 1970s, Qatar has hosted over 80 major sporting events overseen by non-governmental bodies. These attributes play into the selection biases that shape what events the media covers. Sprawling crowds, powerful organizations, celebrity athletes, unfolding drama—international sporting events not only reflect values attractive to the media; they can also, in the competition for coverage, enable host nations to displace other, less flattering stories. After a decade of scrutiny, Qatar seems to be experiencing this now, as reporters turn their attention to its World Cup’s qualifying field and architectural feats.

Corrosive Capital

A second manifestation of Qatari politics is in its disruption of sporting institutions through corrosive capital, financing that exploits governance gaps to influence political developments. Both regional and international governing bodies have had to deal with the downsides of doing business with the Qataris. Regionally, Qatar-owned PSG was the subject of a 2017 UEFA investigation into whether the club had run afoul of financial regulations when signing two of the world’s top talents to record sums in the same month. Despite evidence that the French club had used inflated sponsorship agreements to circumvent spending caps, UEFA cleared PSG of any wrong-doing. The decision prompted allegations of an investigative cover-up as well as questions about EUFA’s relationship with PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi, who has since joined the body’s executive committee and is under investigation by French and Swiss authorities for bribery and corruption.

Internationally, Qatar’s original bid to host the 2022 World Cup sparked multiple probes into FIFA, the event’s Swiss-based organizer. U.S. prosecutors found that several FIFA executives—responsible for selecting competition locations and broadcasters—received bribes in exchange for their votes. The fallout from these investigations has been far-reaching, calling into question FIFA’s culture and Swiss authorities’ credibility amid upheaval in the body’s leadership and indictments against dozens of its officials and associates. 

Sports Beyond Borders

To be sure, these sporting tools and targets are hardly unique to Qatar. Since 2008, an Emirati private equity firm with links to Abu Dhabi’s ruling family has owned Manchester City, and last October, a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund purchased England’s Newcastle. In international sport, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have drawn ire in democratic circles for recruiting transnational references, manipulating media coverage, and corrupting governing bodies. Additionally, the excesses of international sport may have as much to do with their old organizational cultures as with their new autocratic investors. As Gulf officials see it, their sports investments are meant to diversify national economies long dependent on oil and gas and to encourage youth wellness amid troubling healthcare trends.

Still, Qatar’s outsize influence in international football merits serious concern. With its extensive rolodex and active checkbook, Qatar’s ruling family is rare among entrenched authoritarians for its ability to export its designs abroad. So long as those designs were seen as “soft,” they were acceptable to many. But much like China’s “charm offensive,” Qatar’s designs may actually be “sharper”—and do more harm to open societies—than analysts appreciate. Democratic actors across Europe are beginning to feel that and take action. If football is to remain the beautiful game, they’ll need to stay engaged, both on and off the pitch.

Sarath K. Ganji is a Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. He previously served as a strategy and transformation consultant with the U.S. Department of State and as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar based in the Arabian Gulf. Follow him on Twitter @Sarath_Ganji.

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‘Protracted political impasse’ further polarizing Libya

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Libya continues to struggle to recover from conflict and insecurity. UNOCHA/Giles Clarke

Despite UN efforts, political, economic and security deadlock continues in Libya, the UN political affairs chief told the Security Council on Thursday, adding that human rights there have also deteriorated.

“We are concerned that the protracted political impasse is having an increasingly negative impact on security,” said Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo.

“A coordinated and constructive effort is required to prevent further polarization and end the political stalemate.”

Commendable progress

Last week, UN Special Advisor Stephanie Williams convened a second round of consultations of the Joint Committee of the House of Representatives and High State Council, in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, reviewing a reformed constitution for a democratic way forward for the country, the 2017 Constitutional Draft.

The delegations reached agreement in several areas, including basic rights and freedoms; the structure and powers of a two-tier new parliament; and the prerogatives of the President and Prime Minister.

Under UN auspices, members will reconvene on 11 June for a final round to reach consensus on finalizing constitutional arrangements to hold key national elections – delayed from last December – as soon as possible.

The Special Adviser also met Presidency Council members, who expressed their intention to continue working on a national reconciliation process with UN and African Union support.

‘Fragile’ security

While the 2020 ceasefire continues to hold, Ms. DiCarlo stated that the security situation “remains fragile”.

She drew attention to clashes in the capital on 17 May, following the recent political crisis which began in March, which saw the eastern parliament select a new government. The incumbent UN and internationally-backed Prime Minister however, refused to stand aside.

The parliamentary choice for the top job, Fathi Bashagha, entered Tripoli backed by armed groups, leading to skirmishes with supporters of incumbent Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah.

One militant died, a policeman was injured and several buildings were damaged.

Following mediation by local actors and outreach by military representatives, from the 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission (JMC), Mr. Bashagha was escorted out of Tripoli.

“While fighting has ceased, the situation remains tense. Tripoli-based armed groups supporting either Mr. Dbeibah or Mr. Bashagha remain in a state of high alert,” the political chief said.

Positive note

She reported that the JMC’s eastern and western delegations met on Monday and Tuesday in Spain for the first time since the end of February.

After discussions with the 5+5 Commission, the Special Adviser said that the members expressed their readiness to resume negotiations over the Ceasefire Agreement implementation.

Meanwhile, the reluctance of the Government of National Unity (GNU) to pay the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) salaries for the first quarter of this year – the military wing of the rival eastern administration – triggered the closure of several oil fields and ports, “cutting the country’s daily oil output in half,” Ms DiCarlo told ambassadors.

However, following Special Adviser Williams’ intercession with the GNU, the outstanding salaries were paid. Mr. Dbeibah confirmed that he would authorize regular monthly payments.

“Oil production, however, has yet to return to normal,” she added.

Rights concerns

The human rights situation in Libya remains a source of great concern, Ms. DiCarlo told the Council, elaborating on a new wave of youth arrests for alleged crimes against “Libyan culture and values”.

And restrictions persist on the work of civil society organisations, including women’s rights groups accused of violating “the principles and values of Libyan society.”

Special Adviser Williams visited mass graves in Tarhouna and met with families of victims who disappeared between 2012 and 2020.

“The perpetrators of these horrific crimes have yet to be brought to justice,” said Ms. DiCarlo, shining a light on the “highly precarious” situation of internally displaced people.

Equally worrying are the continued campaigns of mass arrests and detention – in inhumane conditions – of undocumented foreign nationals and migrants in the western region.

Resolving differences

“It is imperative that the ceasefire in Libya be maintained, calm preserved and any steps that could result in renewed violence be avoided,” the political chief underscored.

She stressed the need for all parties to uphold their commitment to “the peaceful resolution of political differences” and for political and security actors to “look beyond their personal interests and continue to engage constructively” in upcoming talks supporting the electoral/constitutional track.

“This is the only way to fulfil the aspirations of the Libyan people to select their representatives through the ballot box,” Ms. DiCarlo said, maintaining that the UN would “spare no effort” to support Libyans in building “a stable and peaceful country.”

Staunch allies

The Under-Secretary-General flagged the importance of the Council’s support, which she described as “invaluable in keeping a political process alive”.

Meanwhile, a coordinated and constructive effort is required to prevent further polarization and end the political stalemate.

During a time of “aggravated global turmoil,” she upheld that unity in the Council and the international unity on peace in Libya is “especially important”.

“It is what Libyans deserve. It is what the world needs,” concluded Ms. DiCarlo.

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Israel admits involvement in the killing of an Iranian army officer

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Image credit: MEHR News Agency

Col. Sayad Khodayee, 50, was fatally shot outside his home in Tehran on Sunday when two gunmen on motorcycles approached his car and fired five bullets into it, according to state media. Iran has blamed Israel for the killing, which bore the hallmarks of other Israeli targeted killings of Iranians in a shadow war that has been playing out for years on land, sea, air, and cyberspace.

Although a spokeswoman for the Israeli prime minister declined to comment on the killing. But according to an intelligence official briefed on the communications, Israel has informed American officials that it was behind the killing.

At the funeral in Tehran for a colonel in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, thousands of mourners packed the streets around the cemetery chanting “Death to Israel” and calling for revenge for his killing.

“We will make the enemy regret this and none of the enemy’s evil actions will go unanswered,” Gen. Hossein Salami, the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, said in a speech on Monday. A member of Iran’s National Security Council, Majid Mirahmadi, said the killing was “definitely the work of Israel,” and warned that harsh revenge would follow, according to Iranian media.

The United States has designated the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group unilaterally — a decision that has been a sticking point in the negotiations with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran has demanded that the designation be removed as a condition for restoring the deal, but the United States has refused, leaving the negotiations frozen. The Nuclear deal was terminated by President Trump, but President Joe Bidden wanted to resume the deal and is in communication with Iran for restoration. Definitely, Iran had bitter experiences and concerns about the sincerity of Washington. It wanted safeguards and certain guarantees. Iran is willing to such a nuclear deal, which protects the interest of both sides, any unilateral deal may not be accepted by Tehran.

Israel is openly opposed to the nuclear deal. In fact, President Trump, after meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, took the unpopular decision of terminating the deal unilaterally. Some Iranian analysts close to the government said the attack was aimed at derailing the nuclear talks at a delicate point and undermining any possibility that Iran and the United States might reach a consensus over the issue of the Guards.

However, the Israelis told the Americans the killing was meant as a warning to Iran to halt the operations of a covert group within the Quds Force known as Unit 840, according to the intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information. Whereas, Iran has portrayed the colonel as a martyred hero who joined the Revolutionary Guards as a teenager, volunteered as a soldier in the Iran-Iraq war, and went on to play a prominent role in the Quds force fighting the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria. The people of Iran are proud of his contributions.

What so ever is the justification presented by Israel, is a clear violation of international laws and practices. It has violated the UN charter and all norms of the civilized world. It might bear consequences, and Iran’s warning to retaliate is legitimate as a victim has not been provided justice yet. The aggressor needs to be taught a bitter lesson to avoid any future misadventure.

It has created new tension in the region and many speculations are roaming in the middle-east. Iran is a sovereign state and has the legitimate right to protect its safety, security, and vital interests. Iran has the capability to react, but, the visionary leadership in Tehran, might be waiting for an appropriate time, and opportunity. Iran does not want to escalate further and trying to minimize the existing tension, while committed to safeguarding its sovereignty and interests.

As matter of fact, Israel is the root cause of all problems in the Middle East and since its inception is over-engaged creating problems one after another. It is a defaulter of the UN and denied the implementation of several resolutions passed by the UNSC. It strongly urged that the UN and the International community must keep eye on Israeli activities and atrocities that are spoiling the peace and security of the whole region.

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Playing games in NATO, Turkey eyes its role in a new world order

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erdogan

NATO’s spat over Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish membership is about more than expanding the North Atlantic military alliance. It’s as much about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s immediate political goals as Turkey’s positioning itself in a new 21st-century world order.

On its surface, the spat is about Turkish efforts to hinder support for Kurdish ethnic, cultural, and national aspirations in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq and a crackdown on alleged supporters of a preacher who lives in exile in the United States. Turkey accuses the preacher, Fethullah Gulen, of instigating a failed military coup in 2016.

The spat may also be a play by NATO’s second-largest standing military to regain access to US arms sales, particularly upgrades for Turkey’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets as well as more advanced newer models of the F-16 and the top-of-the-line F-35.

Finally, playing the Kurdish card benefits Mr. Erdogan domestically, potentially at a time that the Turkish economy is in the doldrums with a 70 per cent inflation rate.

“Erdogan always benefits politically when he takes on the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) and groups linked to it, like the YPG in Syria… In fact, attacking the PKK and the YPG is a two-for-one. Erdogan is seen to take on genuine terrorists and separatists, and at the same time, he gets to take a swipe at the United States, which taps into the vast reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey,” said Middle East scholar Steven A. Cook.

While important issues in and of themselves, they are also likely to influence where Turkey will rank as the world moves towards a bi-polar or multi-polar power structure.

The battle over perceived Scandinavian, and mainly, Swedish support for Kurdish aspirations involves the degree to which the United States and Europe will continue to kick the can down on the road of what constitutes yet another Middle Eastern powder keg.

Mr. Erdogan announced this week that Turkey would soon launch a new military incursion against US-backed Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. Mr. Erdogan said the operation would extend the Turkish armed forces’ areas of control in Syria to a 30-kilometer swath of land along the two countries’ shared border.

“The main target of these operations will be areas which are centers of attacks to our country and safe zones,” the Turkish president said.

Turkey asserts that the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian militia that helped defeat the Islamic State, is an extension of the PKK. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Turkey, home to some 16 million Kurds. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union have designated the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Mr. Erdogan charges that Sweden and Finland give the PKK sanctuary and is demanding that the two countries extradite the group’s operatives. Turkey has not officially released the names of 33 people it wants to see extradited, but some were reported in Turkish media close to the government.

Swedish media reported that a physician allegedly on the list had died seven years ago and was not known to have had links to the PKK. Another person named was not resident in Sweden, while at least one other is a Swedish national.

Swedish and Finnish officials were in Ankara this week to discuss Turkey’s objections. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson insisted as the officials headed for the Turkish capital that “we do not send money or weapons to terrorist organizations.”

Conveniently, pro-government media reported the day the officials arrived that Turkish forces found Swedish anti-tank weapons in a cave in northern Iraq used by the PKK. Turkey recently launched Operation Claw Lock against PKK positions in the region.

Mr. Erdogan’s military plans complicate Swedish and Finnish accession to NATO. The two Nordic states slapped an arms embargo on Ankara after its initial incursion into Syria in 2019. The Turkish leader has demanded the lifting of the embargo as part of any deal on Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

A renewed incursion that would cement Turkey’s three-year-old military presence in Syria could also throw a monkey wrench into improving relations with the United States due to Turkish support for Ukraine and efforts to mediate an end to the crisis sparked by the Russian invasion.

Turkey slowed its initial incursion into Syria after then US President Donald J. Trump threatened to “destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy.

The State Department warned this week that a renewed incursion would “undermine regional stability.”

Revived US arms sales would go a long way to cement improved relations and downplay the significance of Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile system, even if Turkey’s opposition to Scandinavian membership will have a lingering effect on trust. The United States expelled Turkey from its F-35 program in response to the acquisition.

This week, Mr. Erdogan appeared to widen the dispute in NATO after Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis lobbied the US Congress against military sales to Turkey. “Mitsotakis no longer exists for me. I will never agree to meet him,” Mr. Erdogan said. He said that Mr. Mitostakis’ lobbying violated an agreement between the two men “not to involve third countries in our bilateral issues.”

The US arms sales would also impact Turkish Russian relations, even if Turkey, in contrast to most NATO members, will continue seeking to balance its relationships and avoid an open rift with Moscow or Washington.

“Russia’s geopolitical revisionism is set to drive Turkey and the West relatively closer together in matters geopolitical and strategic, provided that Turkey’s current blockage of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bid is resolved in the not too distant future,” said Turkey scholar Galip Dalay.

Turkey’s NATO gamble is a game of high-stakes poker, given that Russia is as much a partner of Turkey as it is a threat.

NATO is Turkey’s ultimate shield against Russian civilizationalist expansionism. Russian support in 2008 for irredentist regions of Georgia and annexation of Crimea in 2014 created a buffer between Turkey and Ukraine and complicated arrangements between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea.

Nevertheless, Mr. Erdogan risks fueling a debate about Turkey’s membership in NATO, much like Prime Minister Victor Orban’s opposition to a European embargo of Russian energy has raised questions about Hungary’s place in the EU.

“Does Erdogan’s Turkey Belong in NATO?” asked former US vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace, a former senator, in an oped in The Wall Street Journal. Unlike Finland and Sweden, the two men noted that Turkey would not meet NATO’s democracy requirements if it were applying for membership today.

“Turkey is a member of NATO, but under Mr. Erdogan, it no longer subscribes to the values that underpin this great alliance. Article 13 of the NATO charter provides a mechanism for members to withdraw. Perhaps it is time to amend Article 13 to establish a procedure for the expulsion of a member nation,” Messrs. Lieberman and Wallace wrote.

The two men implicitly argued that turning the tables on Turkey would force the complicated NATO member back into line.

Adding to that, prominent Turkish journalist and analyst Cengiz Candar cautioned that “giving into Ankara’s demands amounts to letting an autocrat design the security architecture of Europe and shape the future of the Western system.”

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