|Qatar is to hold the World Cup in 2022. Will the international sports event help resolve the protracted blockade on the Middle East country? Reuters|
By Park Si-soo
DOHA, Qatar ― Like South Korea, like Qatar?
As was the case of South Korea that used the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang as a bargaining chip to reduce military tension with North Korea, Qatar is looking to resolve its "diplomatic bullying" by surrounding countries with another big international sports event: the FIFA World Cup.
Qatar, the host country of the 2022 World Cup, has been bullied since June 2017 by four neighboring countries ― Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt. They have cut political, trade and transport ties with Qatar, accusing the gas-rich country of supporting "terrorism," maintaining cordial relations with rival Iran and meddling in their internal affairs.
Qatar has vehemently denied the allegations. Nevertheless the four countries have kept the blockade in place, sticking to a set of conditions for reconciliation, which Qatar says are unacceptable.
But it doesn't mean Qatar is leaving the impasse unsolved.
Watch: This Reporter's VLOG in Qatar
|Dr. Abdulaziz Al-horr, director of the Diplomatic Institute under Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Korea Times photo by Park Si-soo|
"His Highness the Emir said this World Cup is not just for Qatar, this World Cup is for the whole Arab people, for the whole Middle East people. He knows we are part of the region, and we would like to present the region in the best way possible. So we hope this will work out."
Several Qatari officials said in a move to offer the olive branch, Qatar could make a decision to share hosting duties with one or more of the blockading countries. And the first visible signal for co-hosting, if any, would emerge during the 69th FIFA Congress on June 5 in Paris, France, they said.
Watch: 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar Stadium Progress
The meeting's top agenda will be expanding the size of the tournament to 48 teams from the current 32.
In March, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said a feasibility study showed it was possible to increase the size of the competition to 48 "providing certain conditions are met."
Infantino said doing so would require some neighboring countries to share hosting duties and that FIFA was "working very closely" with Qatar to explore the possibility of tournament expansion.
FIFA has reportedly identified stadia in Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain as possible World Cup venues should the 2022 tournament be expanded.
A spokesperson for Qatar's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which oversees planning and infrastructure of the 2022 event, told CNN in March that Qatar had been open to discussing the possibility of expansion since last year, and had always wanted to ensure the tournament belonged "to the entire Arab World and the Middle East."
"We will work with FIFA to determine whether or not a viable operating model does exist and importantly, whether it is in the best interests for football and for the tournament, and for Qatar as the host nation," CNN quoted the spokesman as saying.
"After these consultations, the final decision will be made by Qatar and FIFA. Until we reach that conclusion, we will continue to work toward hosting a 32-team World Cup in 2022 hosted in the state of Qatar."
The welcoming news is that the blockading countries are showing interest in hosting some matches. The UAE is the most interested.
"If this (blockade) is resolved, we are more than happy to help them organize the World Cup," UAE General Sports Authority Chairman Mohammed Khalfan al-Romaithi told Reuters in February.
"But I know that if the crisis remains we cannot."
He said the UAE as well as Kuwait and Oman can meet FIFA requirements to host World Cup matches. Kuwait and Oman have remained neutral in the dispute.
|Skyline of Doha downtown. Korea Times photo by Park Si-soo|
'Blockade didn't stop Qatar growing'
|Minister of Commerce and Industry Ali bin Ahmed Al Kuwari. Korea Times photo by Park Si-soo|
Foreign investors ran away and so did imported laborers who kept its industries up and running.
Nearly two years into the crisis, however, Qatar looks healthy from all aspects.
Its economy grew by 1.6 percent in 2017, and is expected to rise to 2.4 percent in 2018 and 3.1 percent in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
So what is the secret behind Qatar's consistent growth amid the blockade?
"This was one of the best things that happened to Qatar," Minister of Commerce and Industry Ali bin Ahmed Al Kuwari said smiling.
The minister said the crisis forced Qatar to diversify supply routes for key materials, which otherwise wouldn't have happened.
"We have a changed business climate, legislation completely," said the minister. "We will continue our diversification plan."
On top of this, Qatar has announced economic reform related to labor laws, privatization, special economic zones and higher foreign ownership limits as part of efforts to bolster its economic resilience.
"Let me tell you one thing," said the minister, "We will not go back to the situation where we depend 90 percent (for our supplies) on one or two countries. This will never happen again."