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Like most monarchies, Qatar’s Al Thani regime too wants to project a progressive face to the world. It may be a tiny – smaller than Connecticut or Puerto Rico – but the country has ambitions of being an influential global voice. Qatar's Al Jazeera television network was perhaps an attempt to do just that, with some measure of success. The soccer World Cup too was intended to showcase Qatar's prowess, helping it become a magnet for skilled talent and diversify beyond oil and natural gas. It has not quite gone to plan so far. In fact, the World Cup has put the spotlight on the country’s human rights records, and on Fifa’s chequered past as well. Qatar now needs Messi, Ronaldo, Mbappe, et al. to play sublime football to make this world cup only about soccer.

1. How Qatar got the wrong kind of publicity

Immigrants make up 85% of the population of about three million of Qatar, a rich and tiny Arab country blessed with oil and natural gas. However, they do not enjoy the same rights and social welfare benefits of native Qataris. Migrants remain tied to their employers, and leaving employment without permission is prohibited. There have also been concerns about the conditions of workers who built the massive infrastructure for the world cup. The country has made attempts towards reform, granting in 2021 greater rights to immigrants, from minimum daily wage to restricting outdoor work during summers and reducing employers' control over workers. There was perhaps no better way to showcase its liberal agenda than hosting the soccer world cup, the world's biggest sporting spectacle. However, global media has also used the opportunity to reveal Qatar's human rights practices to the world. The political reforms have been too recent – coming just before the world cup – to convince sceptics that Qatar indeed is dismantling discriminatory practices.

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2. Fifa's track record was not spared either

Fifa, the apex global soccer body, itself has faced charges of non-transparency and corruption. Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s recent outburst against European critics for lecturing Qatar on human rights abuses didn't help either. It also turned the spotlight on Qatar's chequered past, and on Fifa's controversial track record as well. There have been swirling allegations of irregularities in Fifa's procedure for finding world cup hosts. In recent years, Fifa has been investigated in the US and Switzerland over allegations of corruption and money-laundering. While some people associated with Fifa were found guilty, many were acquitted as well.

3. Will the World Cup trigger reforms in Qatar and Fifa?

Qatar has barely begun reforming its system, and the World Cup may set in motion events that can stand the test of time. Its sincerity will only be known after years, once it’s no longer under unrelenting media glare. Fifa too needs to show greater sense of purpose in reforming itself. There have been efforts to make Fifa, a non-profit body, accountable and more transparent. It has committees on ethics, audit and compliance, but so far, these reforms are seen to be merely on paper. A stock market inspired model of governance, with periodic disclosures of its agenda and money raised and spent may serve it well, and the game of soccer as well.

4. What explains Qatar's growing ambitions

Energy has fuelled Qatar's riches, but the country also wants to diversify and seek a greater global footprint. It's testing new frontiers, from tourism to technology and financial services. For that, it needs skilled immigrants, and the World Cup will help market itself as a liberal, progressive nation offering high standards of living. There is a global battle for talent from countries rich in skilled human resources, such as India. Indeed, both the developed and the developing world are looking to become self-sufficient in the wake of the pandemic. Smaller, rich countries like Qatar too would not want to be left behind, hoping to become diversified economies, perhaps becoming the next Hong Kong or Singapore. Indians are already the largest immigrant group in Qatar.

5. Why Qatar needs Messi and Ronaldo to fire

To deflect attention from the various controversies around the World Cup, Qatar needs the game's biggest superstars – Ronaldo, Messi, Mbappe, et al. – to keep their audiences glued over the coming days, even as new stars emerge. It will send television ratings soaring and put Qatar on the global map for some time to come in a soccer-crazy world. That's what Qatar wanted all along, and so do soccer fans.

FOOTWORK

* Most expensive World Cup ever: Qatar has spent $200 billion on infrastructure

* Small number of venues: Only eight stadiums will host World Cup matches

* Avalanche of visitors: There will be 1,300 incoming flights to Qatar daily for a month

* No alcohol at World Cup: Fifa has banned the sale of alcohol at World Cup stadiums

* Air-conditioned stadiums: All stadiums are centrally air-conditioned to beat the heat

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