The diplomatic crisis sweeping the Gulf could invigorate a campaign by critics of Qatar to strip Doha of the 2022 World Cup, experts said Monday.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen were among those to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar on the grounds that Doha supported extremist groups “that aim to destabilise the region”.

One of the areas that could feel the impact is Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, football’s biggest tournament, in seven years’ time.

“This is a massive escalation in pressure on Qatar,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf analyst with the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston. “I think it will really have an impact if it lasts any time.”

Since being controversially chosen by FIFA in 2010 as the host, Qatar has maintained that it is a politically secure nation despite its location in a volatile region. 

Doha has also emphasised that the tournament serves the entire Gulf, and not just the tiny gas-rich emirate. 

But current events may challenge those notions, Ulrichsen said.

“One of its pitches (to secure the World Cup) was that Qatar is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East,” he told AFP.

– ‘Looking over their shoulder’ –

With that potentially called into question — and the fact that there are other countries which could host the event at little notice — organisers may be getting anxious, Ulrichsen said.

“Qatar will know that there are alternatives, so they will be looking over their shoulder,” he said.

Suggestions have been made previously that the United States, one of the countries that lost the race for the 2022 competition to Qatar, could take over hosting duties if necessary.

The crisis that erupted on Monday came only a few weeks after US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia to cement ties with Riyadh and called for Muslim countries to unite against extremism.

In a brief statement sent to AFP, football’s governing body FIFA said it was “in regular contact” with Qatar 2022 organisers and had “no further comments for the time being”.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Britain’s Salford University, said the diplomatic crisis “raises an important issue of risk assessment and contingency planning” for the World Cup.

“The closer we get to 2022, the more Qatar becomes exposed. In terms of reputation and embarrassment, this is a big issue for Qatar,” he said.

“As a country, Qatar likes to hedge, in regional terms it hedges and I think it’s being forced by countries and organisations to stop that. I think there’s an awful lot to be resolved in five years.”

– Sponsorship deal cancelled –

Already the first sporting victim of the crisis has been claimed.

Saudi football club Al-Ahli said just hours after the cut in diplomatic ties that it would end its financial association with Qatar Airways, taking to Twitter to announce “the termination of the sponsorship contract between the club and Qatar Airways”. 

A three-year sponsorship deal, worth an estimated $16 million a season (14 million euros) with the Doha-based carrier was originally signed in October 2014 and renewed in May this year.

As part of the deal, Al-Ahli played FC Barcelona, previously sponsored by the airline, in a high-profile friendly in December last year.

Another potential early victim could be this year’s Gulf Cup of Nations, scheduled to take place in December in Doha.

Qatar had stepped in as host when Kuwait was stopped from hosting following its ban from FIFA.

Among the nations set to take part include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, who all cut diplomatic ties on Monday. 

Saudi Arabia and the UAE also announced they were suspending flights to Qatar and banned their citizens from travelling to Doha. 

Winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup was a major coup for Qatar, which has used its natural gas riches to promote its international profile. The country has said it is spending almost $500 million every week on major infrastructure projects related to the tournament. – Agence France-Presse

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