Middle Israel: FIFA and the Arab problem

Qatar won its bid on December 2, 2010. Fifteen days later, vegetable grocer Mohamed Bouazizi torched himself in Tunisia, touching off mayhem across the Arab world.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter speaks at the 26th Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Congress in Manama, Bahrain (photo credit: REUTERS)
FIFA President Sepp Blatter speaks at the 26th Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Congress in Manama, Bahrain
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Bribery, said Moses, blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.
One need not look far to appreciate the wisdom of this insight, nor its relevance. Once seen in the West as an exoticism findable among Ottoman viziers or Chinese mandarins, bribery has since become a fixture of any society, regardless of location or ilk. What in 1939 still seemed shocking when US federal judge Martin Thomas Manton was jailed for selling his verdict, today surprises no one, as mankind has already seen even world leaders, from Spiro Agnew to Ehud Olmert, shed their wisdom for bribery’s glint.
And if it could happen to statesmen then surely it could happen to athletes, from the protagonists of baseball’s Black Sox scandal in 1919, when gamblers bought the World Series’ result, to a similar case this decade involving Pakistani cricketers who ended up in a British jail.
And if athletes can be bribed then so could sports’ officialdom, the way the managers of top Italian soccer clubs fixed matches last decade in cahoots with referees.
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Set against this backdrop, the arrests in Switzerland this week of 14 officials related to world soccer’s governing body, and the naming of an additional 25 co-conspirators, are unique not for their alleged crimes’ substance, but for their magnitude.
At stake now is not this or that match, tournament or league, but the global body where the entire world meets to jointly play its most popular sport.
Exceptional is also the time span of the assorted allegations, 24 years, and the seniority of the suspects, some of whom surrounded Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s (French acronym of International Federation of Association Football) president of 17 years.
Even more exceptional are the sums at stake – $150 million, for instance, allegedly paid to FIFA officials in turn for marketing and broadcast rights.
One official reportedly gathered $15m.
in assorted bribes and kickbacks.
Another, according to his indictment in a Brooklyn court, bought a condo in Miami with funds siphoned directly from FIFA.
Yet the truly big bribes, whose alleged sums and recipients have yet to be revealed, are those reportedly charged for backing bids to host the World Cup, humanity’s most profitable and widely viewed single event, one whose final match last year is believed to have been viewed by more than one-tenth of mankind.
With that World Cup earning an estimated $4.6 billion, it is no wonder everyone wants to host it, and some are also prepared to bribe for that privilege.
This, then, is the general background against which FIFA produced its scandalous decision to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It was a choice that brought together two of corruption’s main causes – monopoly and inheritance.
While at it, the scandal exposes the tragedy of the modern Arab world.
FIFA IS a classical monopoly, a financial behemoth that has no competitor whether in practice or in the offing, one that is answerable neither to the markets nor to any government. Representing 206 soccer association, its turnover during the three years that ended last year was $5.7b., most of that through marketing gigs and broadcast rights sold for last year’s World Cup in Brazil.
Staring at such inflows while its operations belong ostensibly to everyone and effectively to no one – it was almost natural for shenanigans to emerge and for corruption to fester.
All this, then, is not unique, other than in its size. What is unique is this affair’s Arab aspect.
According to former FIFA official Chuck Blazer of the US, Qatari soccer administrator Mohamed bin Hammam solicited votes for the sheikhdom’s bid to host the World Cup by handing soccer executives brown envelopes containing wads of greenbacks.
Even regardless of this unorthodox lobbying method, Qatar was a strange candidate.
A peninsular protrusion off of the Arabian Desert’s eastern hip, it is arid, steaming and minuscule, a faceless flatland half the size of New Jersey where some 250,000 Arabs clutch 13 percent of the world’s known gas reserves while employing 1.5 million foreign workers.
Since these workers usually do manual labor, they are mostly male, which makes this already odd society only 25 percent female.
This social deformity is fed by the principality’s economic strangeness, whereby a population dominated by impoverished foreigners gets to watch daily the world’s richest people, the indigenous Qataris whose annual gross domestic product of $94,000 per capita is higher than Switzerland’s.
Underpinning these social and economic abnormalities is a celebration of evil.
Qatar’s World Cup project keeps killing workers, mostly of accidents and heart failure. Since winning its bid in 2010 some 1,200 workers have died on and off the emerging nine stadiums’ scaffoldings, according to The Guardian.
An additional 4,000 are expected to die in the next seven years.
By the time the tournament opens, 62 workers will have died for each of its games, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, which rates Qatar as one of the worst places in the world in terms of worker conditions.
Scorn for human life complements disregard for basic worker rights, including frequent payment defaults, confiscation of passports, 12-hour shifts with no food or water even at 50° C heat, and physical beatings of workers who demanded food.
Nepal, which said it lost 55 workers in Qatar in spring ‘13 alone, has now learned that the Qataris wouldn’t give them leaves to mourn for relatives lost in the recent earthquake. The Nepalese workers’ dominance of this project’s foreign workforce adds up to “one of the richest nations exploiting one of the poorest to get ready for the world’s most popular sporting event,” as the Guardian put it.
Qatar’s treatment of its outsized foreign workforce is of course itself a major scandal, but there is another injustice beside it, and it is the Qatari preference of non-Arab workers.
Most of Qatar’s already disproportionate foreign workforce is imported from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand and other non-Arab lands. Arabs, meanwhile, are kept out.
This is particularly mind-boggling considering that nearby Egypt has surplus laborers, and they speak the Qataris’ Arabic and even profess their Sunni Islam.
This refusal to share its wealth with its own co-nationals is evidently driven by Qatar’s suspicion that fellow Arabs, unlike real foreigners, will quickly feel at home in an Arab society, and therefore be more difficult to exploit. Worse, they might want to stay.
In short, besides abusing foreigners, the Qataris condemn fellow Arabs to misery, in what adds up to an inversion of the Israeli urge to make space and share resources with any Jew, from any place, at any time, no matter the cost.
And the reason the Qataris refuse to share their wealth is the same reason they abuse their workers: They never worked for their wealth, and they never worked at all. God placed a treasure under their feet, and they chose to use that inheritance for pleasure and share it with no one.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the people who treat relatives as enemies and workers as slaves would also shove cash into the armpits of several soccer bureaucrats who stood between them and one of the few luxuries in which they had yet to indulge.
And bribery being the moral blinder of which Moses warned, there will also be no cause for surprise should the investigation the Swiss have just launched into this matter indeed establishes that Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup was bought.
There should also be no cause for surprise if even then FIFA still fails to cancel Qatar’s World Cup, though everyone understands this is what it must do, if not for the sake of the law then at least for the sake of the fairness that competitive sports is meant to hail.
Set against this backdrop, it is also not surprising that the same world that is now decrying FIFA’s and Qatar’s tango is failing to make the connection between the two’s corruption and the current bloodshed across the Arab world.
Qatar won its bid on December 2, 2010. Fifteen days later, vegetable grocer Mohamed Bouazizi torched himself in Tunisia, voicing the impoverished Arab masses’ despair, and touching off mayhem across the Arab world.
Technically, there was no relationship between the two events. Morally, however, they were intertwined.
The $100b. the Qataris are putting into the extravagant project they should never have sought is part of a much greater fortune that could have been used to make the Arabs a happy, wealthy and gainfully employed nation – if only riches like Qatar’s had reached 300 million Arabs rather than 250,000 Qataris, and several soccer-hacks’ armpits.