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Qatar's maverick ruler eyes soft power win with World Cup


The World Cup could hand Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani his crowning achievement on the global stage or a fiasco to be relished by Arab adversaries who resent Qatar for backing outlawed Islamist movements and for punching above its weight.

The 42-year-old ruler hopes a smooth tournament will cement Qatar as a legitimate global player, display strength to regional rivals and placate conservatives at home who have bristled at international criticism of their country.

"A successful World Cup for Qatar would be seen as a culmination of Tamim's rule and a confirmation that he has not only fulfilled his father's vision but can now start new visions and projects of his own," said Allen Fromherz, author of "Qatar: A Modern History".

The 2022 World Cup has been dogged by controversy since Qatar was announced as the first Middle East nation, and Gulf absolute monarchy, to host it.

Organisers strongly denied allegations of bribes to secure the rights and pushed back on criticism over human rights abuses and social restrictions. Holding the event in late autumn instead of summer due to the desert climate also drew ire.

Tamim, who assumed power in 2013 after his father abdicated, has hit back against the critics, denouncing what he described as "ferocious" slander and double-standards, and pointed to Qatar's labour reforms and welcome of all walks of life to the event, testing the tolerance of conservative Sunni Muslim Qataris.

Now all eyes are on the smallest nation to host the event in what will be the most expensive World Cup in history, organised at a cost of $220 billion – almost 20 times what Russia spent in 2018.

Doha is unrecognisable from when Qatar won the bid 12 years ago. New highways, a metro, stadiums, new airport and ports, and hundreds of buildings, hotels and restaurants await some 1.2 million visitors, a construction spree authorities say was planned regardless of the event that accelerated the pace.

"Tamim was quite central in the entire time leading up to the World Cup … by trying to put Qatar in a place where they had as little enemies as possible and as many friends as possible," said Cinzia Bianco, visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"He has done a lot to show that Qatar is a country in progress, a modern country and has been the face of all the development", she said.

Tamim has also championed a "consensus-based policy" to accrue soft power and international prestige – important assets for a small country in a volatile region, she said.

WEB OF FRIENDSHIPS

Tamim's first big test after becoming leader came in 2017 when Saudi Arabia and its allies boycotted Qatar for backing Islamists they deem a threat, giving a platform to their dissidents and befriending Iran and Turkey.

Qatari officials say the country came close to being invaded when neighbour Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed the embargo for 3-1/2 years until Riyadh, under U.S. pressure and in a bid to rehabilitate its own image, announced an end to the dispute.

Tamim moved fast to limit the damage during the blockade by finding alternate trade routes and partners and, like his father before him, using a complex web of friendships nurtured by Qatar's gas riches to garner support.

Ultimately, Tamim exploited the crisis to strengthen his base at home, deepen ties with the West and deploy his nation's gas wealth to overhaul Doha in time for the World Cup.

Qatar's maverick regional policies have enraged its Gulf and Arab neighbours.

It backed alternative sides to those of its neighbours in "Arab Spring" divides from Egypt to Libya.

While housing the largest U.S. military base in the region, Qatar has also been home to myriad non-state actors seen as anti-Western, including Afghanistan's Taliban and the Palestinian militant group Hamas, as well as Muslim Brotherhood members.

Many in the region have long seen the output of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera as inflammatory.

POSSIBLE PITFALLS

But Qatar has built credit with the West by emerging as a diplomatic broker over Afghanistan, an occasional facilitator on Iran, an ally for European leaders facing an energy supply crunch and a big investor in America and Europe.

He wants to ensure Qatar remains internationally relevant by also becoming a sports powerhouse.

"We cannot afford to push countries like Qatar away from us," said a European diplomat in Qatar, remarking on criticism in Europe of Qatar's hosting of the World Cup.

But a successful World Cup is far from guaranteed.

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore, said pitfalls loom including the handling of activists in a country that normally does not brook dissent, possible fan rowdiness and culturally sensitive issues such as possible displays of same-sex affection.

Controlling crowds will be another challenge, with memories raw of recent stampede disasters in Indonesia and South Korea. Another big worry is the risk of cyberattacks.

Dorsey said Qatar could use a successful World Cup as a springboard to reform.

"Ultimately, to fully benefit from the tournament's reputational value, Qatar will, post-World Cup, have to push forward with social, economic, and political reform, even if activist attention moves on," Dorsey wrote.

For now, Soccer fans around the world as well as Qatar's friends and rivals are waiting for the tournament to begin on Sunday.

"This is the first ever World Cup in the region. Who knows when it will happen again? This is a big, big deal," said Mahjoob Zweiri, director of the Gulf Studies Centre at Qatar University.


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