Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Qatar, a dubious ally to fight corruption in soccer

Organization of American States’ Secretary General Luis Almagro has announced a worthy plan to create a new agency within the 34-country OAS to clean up the corruption-ridden soccer business in the region. Problem is, the anti-corruption unit is funded by Qatar.

Qatar, which also faces criticism for its human rights record and possible links to Middle Eastern terrorist groups, is suspected of having paid bribes of at least $5 million to soccer officials around the world in order to win its bid to host the 2022 World Cup, according to the British daily Sunday Times.

The Sunday Times says it has seen millions of e-mails and other secret documents that it claims back up its allegation that fired Qatari soccer official Mohamed Bin Hammam made the payments to win the vote within FIFA. The emirate’s candidacy had faced strong opposition, among other things because of the country’s high temperatures.

On May 27, U.S. attorney General Loretta Lynch and Swiss prosecutors announced an investigation into corruption within FIFA, which led to more than a dozen indictments and arrests of high-ranking FIFA officials.

U.S. officials have said they are looking among other things into allegations that FIFA officials received bribes in exchange for awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia, and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The Qatari government has denied any wrongdoing.

On the human rights front, The Wall Street Journal and the British daily, The Guardian, have published separate reports saying that migrants working in Qatar’s construction industry are treated as slaves. Human Rights Watch, the advocacy group, said in its 2014 World Report that foreign workers in Qatar “continue to experience serious rights violations, including forced labor and arbitrary restrictions on the right to leave Qatar.”

OAS chief Almagro said recently that the OAS’ new agency to help clean up corruption in sports - to be known as the Center for Excellency and Sustainable Development for Major Sports Events - will be an OAS partnership with the International Center for Sport Security (ICSS).

When I asked Almagro in an interview who will fund the OAS new agency, he said that it will have “international financing” from sources such as United Nations agencies. Asked specifically whether Qatar will be a major donor, he responded, “Probably yes.”

Other well-placed sources tell me that Qatar will be its biggest donor, through the ICSS. According the ICSS website, the ICSS is a non-profit group headquartered in Doha, Qatar, and works with governments and institutions responsible for sport security, safety and integrity. It is presided over by Mohammed Hanzab, a former Lt. Colonel in the Qatar armed forces.

ICSS spokesman Stuart Hodge was quoted on June 23 by the Reuters news agency as saying that 70 percent of ICSS’s budget comes from the Qatar government.

Isn’t it ironic that the OAS will fund its new agency to fight corruption in soccer with money from Qatar, which reportedly is under investigation in connection with possible bribes to host the 2022 World Cup, I asked Almagro.

Almagro didn’t dispute the question, suggesting that if prosecutors find evidence of any wrongdoing by Qatar in the 2022 World Cup bidding, the OAS would reconsider its acceptance of Qatari funds.

“Anyone who wants to help us and cooperate in this fight against corruption is welcome. If we later find out that we have to continue the rest of the way alone, we will continue alone,” he said.

My opinion: Almagro is partly right in implying that countries — like people — should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and that for the time being Qatar should be as welcome as anybody else to help fund efforts to eradicate shady deals in soccer. But it is also true that, when it comes to corruption in soccer, Qatar has a serious perception problem.

This would be a golden opportunity for the U.S. government to replace Qatari funds with its own financing for the new OAS agency, and win a new round of applause from friends and foes after leading the first serious international investigation into FIFA’s corruption.

Even Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, a pathological U.S.-basher ever since the U.S. government stupidly refused to grant him a visa for drug rehabilitation in the 1990s, has celebrated the U.S. probe into top FIFA officials.

Supporting the new OAS anti-corruption agency, the U.S. would look good even among its fiercest critics, and the OAS’ new anti-corruption agency would be much more credible.