Economist – FOOTBALL’S World Cup in 2022, to be hosted by Qatar, was always billed as a regional event. Other countries in the Gulf offered hotel rooms and training facilities. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) said it would even host matches. But last June the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, angry about its support for Islamists and its ties to their nemesis, Iran.
On the sidelines a substitute is warming up: Iran. It is in early talks with Qatar to take on some of the hosting duties. Iran is already helping to feed Qatar amid a Saudi-led blockade. Its islands of Kish and Qeshm have hotels aplenty that could accommodate fans. Hooligans may be disappointed: Iran enforces sharia at its resorts, including a ban on alcohol.
Questions still abound over how Qatar, with no football culture and a stifling climate, won the rights. Including Iran would invite even more scrutiny. But Qatar may have little choice. Though it promised to build 100,000 hotel rooms by 2022, it will struggle to reach 45,000. Germany had 2m foreign spectators for its World Cup in 2006, and Russia hopes for more than 1m later this year.
Qatar may come up short on stadiums, too. It says eight will be ready by 2022, not the 12 it promised. Iran is unlikely to host matches, but the mere possibility has turned its ban on women in stadiums into a political football at home.
Qatar plans to commission cruise liners and even to use migrant labour camps (upgraded, of course) to hold fans. Kuwait, Oman and Jordan, which have maintained ties with Qatar, could yet play a role. But some Gulf states show no sign of wanting to make up. On New Year’s Eve the UAE projected every Gulf country’s flag onto the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, except Qatar’s. Saudi Arabia refused to display it at a recent chess tournament in the kingdom.
Iran’s involvement could present other complications if America and Israel, both of which failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, improve their form. Hassan al-Thawadi, who oversees Qatar’s World Cup planning, insists that all will be welcome. “If North and South Korea can come together for the winter Olympics,” he says, “so can the Middle East at the World Cup.”