World Cup host Qatar is discovering the reputational risk involved in hosting high-profile mega sporting events. Qatar Airways' sponsorship of FC Barcelona is producing exactly the kind of publicity that is a corporate sponsor's worst nightmare while a Swiss investigation of the Qatari World Cup bid threatens to expose questionable financial dealings that will fuel demands for withdrawing the tournament from the Gulf state.
An online petition calling on FC Barcelona to ditch Qatar Airways as its shirt sponsor unless it 'treats its workers fairly' has collected within days more than 50,000 signatures.
The petition was launched in the wake of an International Labour Organization (ILO) report based on a year-long enquiry that accused the airline of gender discrimination with the backing of the government by retaining the contractual right to fire cabin crew that become pregnant and forbidding female employs to be dropped off at or picked up from company premises by a man other than their father, brother or husband.
To be fair Qatar Airways has addressed some but not all of the ILO's concerns in changes to its employment contracts. The vast majority of the airlines' cabin crews are women while migrant workers account for 90 percent of its work force.
"The women who work for Qatar Airways face an extremely grim reality: cabin crew are being exploited, imprisoned without charge, forcibly confined on company premises and automatically sacked if they become pregnant. These abuses are an everyday event not only in Qatar Airlines but in the Qatari national employment system," the petition said.
"Barcelona's millions of fans see the team as 'more than a club', revered not only for the quality of its players - like Neymar, Andrés Iniesta and of course, Lionel Messi - but for its allegiance to ethics, fairness and social justice. That's why we're asking the world's most respected football club to cut ties with the airline until workers conditions improve," it said.
Barcelona signed a €150m deal with Qatar Foundation for the 2011/12 season, which has since been replaced by Qatar Airways as the club's shirt sponsor.
Beyond being a sponsor's worst nightmare, the petition constitutes the first indication of a groundswell of fan opposition to Qatar's hosting of the World Cup. Intermittent smaller protests in Britain focussed on the overall plight of migrant workers who constitute a majority of the Gulf state's population and allegations that Qatar had bought the votes it need to win its hosting rights.
Allegations of wrongdoing in its bid have been fuelled as a result of the worst corruption scandal in the history of world soccer body FIFA that has sparked separate investigations in Switzerland and the United States where 14 people, including senior FIFA executives, have been indicted. Qatar has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Switzerland's attorney general disclosed this week that his investigation had flagged a total of 81 instances of possible money-laundering linked to the Qatari bid and that of Russia for the 2018 World Cup. The attorney general said that he was "very pleased with analysis work done by the Money Laundering Reporting Office Switzerland as it is of great support to the (Swiss) criminal proceedings."
The groundswell of fan hostility towards Qatar coupled with the investigations undermines the very purpose of the Gulf state's massive investment in the World Cup that was designed to brand it as a cutting-edge 21st century state and embed it in the international community in ways that other countries would come to its aid in an emergency.
Qatar's model is the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991 by a US-led international coalition. The groundswell of fan hostility towards Qatar suggests that public opinion would be less sympathetic to Qatar, a tiny state incapable of mustering the hard power to defend itself on its own, than it was towards Kuwait.
Not to mention that sponsorship of Barcelona was intended to enhance Qatar Airways image as a five-star airline that connects continents via its hub in Doha. Beyond making good business sense, the airline is like sports a key pillar of Qatar's soft power strategy that increasingly is struggling to achieve its goals.
To be sure, criticism of Qatar, including Qatar Airways, is fuelled as much by facts that the Gulf state has promised to address even if it largely has yet to match words with deeds as it is by prejudice, arrogance and ulterior motives.
The Barcelona petition comes as the Qatari airline alongside two other Gulf airlines, Emirates and Ettihad, both based in the UAE, is locked into battles with American carriers who allege that they have distorted competition by benefiting from tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies. The Gulf airlines have denied the allegation.
The complaint of the US airlines, who are unable to match the level of service of their Gulf competitors, in part because they face no competition in their lucrative domestic market, ignores the fact that they have repeatedly been bailed out of bankruptcy by US government support. The Financial Times recently calculated that over the years US airlines had benefitted from almost four times the $42 billion that they allege Gulf governments have invested in their airlines.
Nonetheless, recent responses to criticism from Qatar, angry at what it sees as a biased Islamo- and Arab-phobic campaign against it, have done little to further the Gulf state's soft power goals.
"I don't give a damn about the ILO - I am there to run a successful airline. This is evidence of a vendetta they have against Qatar Airways and my country," Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said last month in response to the ILO report.
A different response together with engagement with Barcelona fans may not have prevented the launching of the petition, but could have cast the debate in a different light - a move that would have made both political and commercial sense.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.