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From World Cup to the Brotherhood: worrying trends for Doha

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Qatar's World Cup bid is just one of a number of headaches facing the Gulf state and its new emir, Tamim bin Hamad. Last week the Sunday Times published news of a stash of emails that it claimed proved a "plot to buy the World Cup". The allegations, centring on Qatari former FIFA executive member Mohammed Bin Hammam and money paid to FIFA delegates and officials to ensure Qatar's win, are not new. Qatar's response has been to distance itself from Bin Hammam, saying he did not act with official blessing. There is a general assumption that Qatar did indeed play dirty to bag the deal, but the bigger issue is the corruption of FIFA to allow such things to happen.

What is worrying for Doha, however, is that events in different parts of the world are conspiring to spoil what was meant to be its golden era. Tamim's father Sheikh Hamad worked diligently with former foreign minister and prime minister Hamad bin Jassim to wrest Qatar from the grip of Saudi Arabia and use natural gas wealth to build up a global brand in media and education and ingratiate itself to the key Western powers. But its Islamist ally the Muslim Brotherhood was booted from power last year in Egypt by the military with Saudi and UAE backing.

The Gulf states, fearful of the possibility of the Islamists rallying opposition, have presented ultimatums to Doha to ditch them, including a threat to eject it from the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saudi Arabia has also worked to push Western nations to change their approach to the Brotherhood - which it branded this year as "terrorist" - and support the new Egyptian government, reaping a reward when Britain announced an official inquiry into the group, its activities and its ideology.

Britain's press have shifted their animus for Dubai and the price of its successes - worker abuse, draconian moral codes, arbitrary authoritarianism, empty glamour - to Doha. While the Sunday Times has gone after Qatar over the World Cup, the Guardian has taken up the issue of migrant labour rights since last summer when it revealed shocking deaths of Nepali workers paid peanuts to facilitate Qatar's urban and World Cup expansion plans. Qatar's efforts to rectify the situation to ensure it gets the Cup are tinged with irritation at having to accommodate so many foreigners in a small society, as I've written before. The press crescendo, whatever its motivations, is making it more conceivable that we could see serious efforts within FIFA to have Qatar stripped of the competition or a revote takes place. FIFA chief Sepp Blatter recently suggested giving Qatar the World Cup was a mistake.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE stepped up immediately upon Sisi's win to back their new client state, as King Abdullah promised more financial aid in a statement that sounded more like a royal decree than a friendly note of congratulations. It included a barely veiled warning to Qatar not to hinder the process, saying any Arab countries which did not support Sisi would find "no place among us in the future" if they should need help like Egypt does now. The Gulf states have ordered Doha to expel Brotherhood politicians wanted by Egyptian justice and keep them off Al Jazeera, as well as a host of other demands such as closing down think tanks deemed pro-Islamist (including Brookings Doha) and silencing Egyptian Doha-based cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi.

Doha's response has so far has been to arrange visas for some Egyptian and Gulf Brotherhood figures to leave Qatar for places such as London or Malaysia, while Qaradawi was prevented from preaching at Friday prayers or appearing on Al Jazeera. Qaradawi issued a form of apology for offending Saudi Arabia and the UAE in sermons, but also issued a call to Egyptians to boycott the election, whose low turnout provoked panic in the Sisi camp, as my colleague Aziz El-Kaissouni writes.

The underlying issues remain the same. Al Jazeera titled its presidential election coverage "intikhab fi zill inqilab", “election in the shadow of a coup”. Egyptian courts continue the trial of three Al Jazeera journalists, accused of belonging to the Brotherhood because they had footage of anti-government protests, and another Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah al-Shami is on hunger strike after being held without charge since August last year. Turkey's continued antagonism towards Egypt's post-Islamist government will encourage Doha to stick to its position. Tamim's terse note of congratulation issued on the day of Sisi's inauguration is another signal that the conflict is set to continue.

The sympathetic view in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi is that Tamim is hamstrung by the power of his father and Hamad bin Jassim. "If Qatar is confronted with a choice between the GCC and the Brotherhood I know Tamim will lean towards the GCC, but I don't know about his father," Emirati politics professor Abdelkhaleq Abdallah says. "So they want to help him and not push him to the wall and into the hardliners' hands." Tamim has established a new Arabic newspaper in London, al-Arabi al-Jadid, and a London-based news channel is the works to follow it. The TV station will be Tamim's own plaything, unlike Al Jazeera which remains very much his father's project, suggesting that there may be something to this reading of Tamim's position. But a desire for independence of manoeuvre and a desire to distance Qatar from the Islamist political movement are two different things, themes developed in the ECFR Qatar policy brief I authored in February.

Given these mounting pressures from different directions, it helps to have foreign friends to count on. Qatar has been keen to demonstrate its use to Washington. The five Guantanamo detainees that the Obama administration released in return to the Taliban freeing hostage soldier Bowe Bergdahl have been passed on to Qatar where they have to stay for a year. It's clear that political relations in the Gulf, profoundly shaken by the Arab uprisings of 2011, are likely to remain extremely tense for some time to come. 

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