On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all announced that they were severing diplomatic relations with Qatar, along with banning all air, water, and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, land travel either through or over the small nation. Libya, Yemen, the Maldives, Mauritius, and Mauritania all followed. Other nations have similarly become cautious about the situation in the Gulf state. For example, the Philippines have imposed a temporary partial workers ban. In contrast, Turkey has backed Qatar, with troops sent to put boots on the peninsula. This is one of the biggest diplomatic crises in the region in decades. Why these nations cut Qatar off is complicated. In the formal declaration, the UAE cited Qatari connections with terrorism (an allegation that Qatar has always denied). A CNN report makes the claim that closeness to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s major rival, also contributed. The situation is very complicated. Qatar has been trying to position itself as a major power in the region, competing against its neighbors for influence in everything from sports, to international business, to airlines and flights. In particular, Al Jazeera, the Qatari backed news station, is unpopular with competing governments because of negative coverage, especially during the Arab Spring.
What does this mean for the World Cup in five years time? Well, it depends. If this conflict is resolved soon or in the coming months, it might mean nothing. But if it lasts for an extended period of time, it could cripple the Qatari economy. The airspace restrictions means that accessing Africa or North America by air travel potentially requires a significant detour. The only land border Qatar has is with Saudi Arabia. The peninsula relies on the Saudis in order to import food and other goods, including construction material. Qataris have reportedly already started to buy food in bulk in case there is a shortage. If the boycott lasts, it could cause food prices to rise substantially. It could also prevent construction of the stadiums from continuing (only one stadium of the eight needed for the tournament has been completed). If the economy as a whole stalls, it could mean an exodus of the migrant workers, further straining the economy.
As of now, FIFA remains committed to a Qatari World Cup. They have already started to make plans for a winter World Cup and greased the palms of television broadcasting partners in order to rebuild trust. To back out now would represent a huge loss of investment in money and undermine the time spent trying to withstand the negative publicity. However, while it appears unlikely, this doesn’t mean that FIFA can’t be forced into changing their mind. Reinhard Grindel, president of the German football federation and a member of FIFA’s ruling council, said the following: “One thing is certain, the world’s football community should agree that large tournaments cannot be played in countries that actively support terror.” Again, these claims aren’t accepted by Qatar and the definition of who a terrorist is can depend on the country and who their enemies are. I personally find it much more likely that Qatar would be forced to give up the World Cup than FIFA forced to strip it from them.
A nation has only backed out of hosting the World Cup once in the tournament’s history. Before the 1986 World Cup, Colombia backed out of hosting largely due to economic reasons a mere 18 months before the tournament. FIFA held a new round of bids and votes, with the North American trio of the United States, Canada, and Mexico applying. At the time, FIFA had a policy of New-World and Old-World rotation, so Europe was precluded from bidding. Mexico, who had hosted in 1970, won with a unanimous vote. If Qatar were to back out, FIFA would presumably require a new bid and vote. The current edition of the tournament is much larger than it was in ‘86, so few countries would be able to handle the tournament on a quick turn around. FIFA’s continental rotation policy complicates matters. Europe would likely be kept out of the bidding process because of Russia 2018. If the US, Canada, and Mexico receive the tournament for 2026, they similarly may be kept out. That leaves very few options. The most likely would have to be China. China developed Beijing extensively for the 2008 Summer Olympics. With many large cities, China would be a very attractive option. However, the capital is also hosting the Winter Olympic games that year, so a bid would be very complicated.
Essentially, what happens to the World Cup depends on how things unfold. It’s too early to do anything but speculate, so we must wait and see.