The battles are over: The World Cup is over, the German team – wrongly portrayed as the top Qatari basher in the Arab states – flew home after the preliminary round, Morocco as an Arab country made it to the semi-finals and became a figure of identification, Lionel Messi, held the trophy in his hands at the end.
Many of the stadiums that were built under inhumane working conditions are now doomed to collapse in the desert state. Perhaps the Gulf state would have been satisfied with the football PR campaign in the long term, with the active support of FIFA and its President Gianni Infantino. The West would probably also have liked to forget the circumstances of this sporting event, would have gone over to a “daily order”, the public does not seem to want to deal with such topics in the long term anyway. Greetings from ancient Rome: Panem et circenses!
On the political level, the corruption scandal in the European Parliament, in which Qatar was significantly involved, has unfortunately caused an uncomfortable epilogue for the emirate. Qatar’s attempt to buy European politics for its own interests seems to have failed prematurely, at least in Brussels – thanks to a committed public prosecutor’s office that has made it its task to pursue bribery and corruption relentlessly. The only question now is whether the decision-makers in the European states are finally rethinking and praising the desert state for being a haven of openness, tolerance and multiculturalism.
By last summer at the latest, media criticism of the hosting of the World Cup in Qatar was becoming increasingly clear, especially in Western European newspapers. This was also observed with great concern by the rulers in Doha, which is why they decided to go on the offensive: the main organizer in charge of the games, Hassan Al Thawadi, was sent to Europe to convincingly sweep these rumors under the carpet. One of his main goals was Germany: in Berlin, but also in Munich – Qatar is the main sponsor of FC Bayern Munich – he should convince those responsible that the allegations against the emirate are just stupid talk.
Germany has been one of the main targets of the rulers in Qatar over the past ten years, and large-scale purchases have been made there: around 25 billion euros have been invested. Al Thawadi’s visit was an opportunity to try to silence the critics and use some of the most prominent faces in the media as supporters. Al Thawadi sat in a box overlooking FC Bayern Munich’s home field and spoke to members of the club about the “power of football” to bring about positive change.
Although Qatar has also invested in the UK and France to a similar extent, the focus of its German involvement has been less on conspicuous trophy buying and more on exposure to fundamental infrastructure investments.
In the UK, Qatar has bought up luxury hotspots like the Ritz Hotel and the world-famous department store Harrods and built the country’s tallest building, the Shard. In France, the company acquired the Paris Saint-Germain football club. But in Germany, the Gulf state’s flagship purchases include stakes in shipping giant Hapag-Lloyd and energy utility RWE.
At his side during the visit in Germany were Sigmar Gabriel, former German Vice Chancellor, Economics and Foreign Minister, together with Christoph Heusgen, long-standing national security advisor to former Chancellor Angela Merkel, German Ambassador to the United Nations for four years until his retirement in 2021 and since last year head of the world-renowned Munich Security Conference.
Discussions were also held with trade unionists and human rights activists to show how open Qatar is. The only surprising thing was the friendly words of the social democrat and former minister. But even the ex-German diplomat did not hide his respect for Qatar. “Qatar is one of the few stable places in an extremely fragile world we live in, where talks can still take place,” Gabriel once explained, calling the emirate “an amazingly stable country in an unstable region.” No words from the Social Democrat about the dead workers, the situation of women in the country, minorities. Nor did he mention that Qatar was a major sponsor of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, the ruling qlique has questionable ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Retired diplomat Heusgen echoed Gabriel in calling Qatar “a model” for other countries. “Although I know a thing or two about the world, I really learned something about Qatar today,” he said at the end of a meeting with a smile, stressing that football has been a “catalyst” for change in the emirate.
Siegmar Gabriel, former chairman of the German Social Democracy, maintained relations with Qatar as Economics Minister from 2013 to 2017 and visited the emirate in 2015 with a large number of German entrepreneurs. In 2020, two years after leaving public office, Gabriel moved to the Supervisory Board of Deutsche Bank at Qatar’s request. “German arrogance towards Qatar makes me sick,” he tweeted in October amid a drum roll of negative comments from voices about the emirate’s treatment of gays and lesbians, noting that “homosexuality was illegal in Germany until 1994.”
And what about the ex-diplomat Heusgen? One of the most important instruments of Qatar’s influence on Germany was and is the state-sponsored Munich Security Conference (MSC), which is held annually in the Bavarian capital and represents a global rendezvous of heads of government, foreign and defense ministers. The business elite also have a great interest in being included in the illustrious list of participants.
After the criticism of the football World Cup grew stronger, the German friends of Qatar made defensive speeches: MSC boss Heusgen, who happened to be on a “private” trip to Qatar to attend a World Cup game at the end of November, met there with Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. “The government in Qatar is disappointed in us,” Heusgen then confided to the German magazine DER SPIEGEL. The magazine described how Al Thani had complained to Heusgen about Germany’s “self-righteousness,” “hypocrisy,” and “unwillingness to accept another culture.”
Qatar has hosted two MSC meetings in Doha in recent years and provided funding and organizational support. In 2018, former MSC chief Wolfgang Ischinger granted Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani the rare privilege of speaking at the opening session of the MSC while heads of the United Nations and NATO had to listen. A former Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani, also sits on the MSC Board of Trustees, its most exclusive body reserved for the conference’s biggest donors.
Qatar was also a client of Ischinger’s consulting firm Agora Strategy Group, which the emirate hired in 2017 to train its then ambassador to Germany, a member of the ruling family, in the intricacies of diplomacy. The engagement was a smart strategic move: the ambassador at the time, Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, is now the Emir’s chief of staff.
Over the past decade, the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund, along with members of the ruling family, have built significant positions in some of Germany’s best-known corporate names, including an 11 percent stake in VW, the country’s largest car construction, and 6 percent in Deutsche Bank. Last fall, the Qatari acquired a 5 percent stake in Porsche, making the emirate one of the largest shareholders in the long-established luxury sports car manufacturer. The emirate also became a major customer of the German armaments industry without the German government vetoing arms exports. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Qatar has also become an important energy supplier.
Qatar, it seems, has Germany exactly where it wants it.
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