Is David Beckham little more than an Arabian figurehead?

As David Beckham strides on to the Paris stage a hero, is he actually part of a perilous game being played by the rulers of Qatar to position their country at the heart of world affairs?

John Lichfield
Sunday 17 February 2013 01:00

Waiting for David in the concrete bowels of the Parc des Princes is a sweaty affair. More than 400 journalists have packed into a press room which can comfortably take 200 and usually attracts 20.

The boy David – at 37, there is something still irresistibly boyish about Beckham – has been undergoing a medical at the hospital where Diana, Princess of Wales, died in August 1997. He is late because his limousine has been stuck in the evening traffic on the Boulevard Périphérique.

As I look around the press room, a thought occurs to me. Beckham has become a global star, a celeb, or in French journalese, "un people". Yet, of all the journalists impatiently waiting, the person who first heard the name Beckham is almost certainly me.

As a fan of Manchester United, I have followed the career of the Boy David since he really was a boy, playing in the Old Trafford youth teams. And here he is, two decades later, an international icon, about to sign a fat contract to play for Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the richest club in the world.

Of course, Beckham, when he finally arrives, takes us all by surprise. He is signing a contract with PSG but will claim no salary. His wages will instead be given to a children's charity in the Paris area.

Before Beckham speaks – confidently, charmingly, amusingly – he is introduced by Nasser al-Khelaifi, the president of PSG. Khelaifi says that Beckham will "add great value" to PSG and will be a "valuable asset". He does not even bother to suggest that he means an "asset" on the field.

Once a professional tennis player, ranked 995th in the world, Khelaifi has many roles. One is president of PSG's proprietor, Qatar Sports Investments, an arm of the Qatari government.

This is what makes the Beckham-to-PSG saga so intriguing – and potentially so hazardous for the Boy David. Beckham may appear in the red and blue of PSG for the first time this weekend, but he will not only be playing for PSG. He will be playing, too, for Qatar.

Chelsea FC have become the willing plaything of a super-rich Russian oligarch. Manchester City FC are the plaything of a super-rich Gulf family. Since 2011, PSG, the only professional football club in Paris, have been the tool – not the plaything – of a hyper-rich micro-state with tentacular ambitions. And the boy from the Manchester United youth teams, is, whether he knows it or not, part of a pharaonic project to turn a tiny country into an unchallengable global centre for sports and entertainment, culture and diplomacy. But especially of sport. And especially of football.

In the not-so-distant future, football fans could be cheering or cursing players discovered in third-world slums by Qatar, employed by a Qatari-owned club, wearing kit made by a Qatari sportswear company, playing on a Qatari-owned sports channel.

And British fans could be permanently watching British professional football in June and July – ending a winter tradition going back more than a century – because of the knock-on effects of world-football governing body Fifa's dubious decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (average summer temperature: 40C).

Though sport is only part of it. Qatar is now also the single largest global customer for modern art. Last year it broke the art- auction record and paid $250m for one of the four canvasses in Paul Cézanne's "Card Players" series.

Qatar is also trying to buy into the world luxury-goods industry. And it has invested, massively, in real estate in both Paris and London, including taking ownership of the Shard building.

Qatar recently hosted the global conference on global warming, even though its carbon emissions are among the highest in the world and its extraordinary wealth is based entirely on oil and gas.

Qatar has played a pivotal – and increasingly disputed – role in the changes sweeping the Arab world: the Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera TV station began lambasting the corrupt, secular autocracies in Tunisia and Egypt long before the Arab Spring in 2011. Qatar also funded the Libyan rebels against Muammar Gaddafi. It even took part in the Franco-British airstrikes in Libya. And it is now sponsoring the rebels in Syria, despite having previously cosied up to Bashar al-Assad and Syria's chief ally, Iran.

Yet, closer to home, Qatar takes a dimmer view of revolution or even democracy. An absolute monarchy, with no elected parliament, it discouraged the Arab Spring from spreading to neighbouring Bahrain. A Qatari poet who complained of enlightenment abroad and oppression at home was jailed last year.

None – or not much of this – is a secret or a surprise. It forms part of a 20-year plan published in 2008, called Qatar National Vision 2030. The document outlines a strategy for converting the emirate's vast but ephemeral oil and gas wealth into a permanent and safe place among the most influential nations of the world.

And how does a 37-year-old footballer from Leytonstone, via Manchester, Madrid, Milan and Los Angeles, come to be a key piece of this masterplan? Qatar, before it discovered oil and the largest gas reserves on the planet, made its living from pearl-fishing in the Gulf. And it still fishes for pearls after its own fashion.

The roll call of great footballers, past and present, who are now on Qatar's payroll in some way would make up a powerful squad. They include Zinedine Zidane, Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Batistuta and Roger Milla (hired as ambassadors for Qatar's World Cup bid), Raul (playing in the Qatari league) and Zlatan Ibrahamovic and now David Beckham playing for PSG.

And why should PSG, who aspire to supplant Barcelona as the most successful team in the world, want a 37-year-old who has not played football at the highest professional level for three years? "He was the dream player for PSG and the Qataris because he links up so many things, from football to fashion," says Nabil Ennasri, a French expert on Qatar, who will publish a book on the emirate next month (L'Enigme du Qatar). "PSG is Qatar's sporting shop window. It is part of Qatar's drive to acquire credibility as a football nation before the World Cup in 2022. Beckham takes the PSG project to a new level of notoriety and credibility, especially in Asia.

"And you have to remember that sport, and especially football, is the single most important lever in Qatar's drive to reinvent itself as a global centre of 'soft power'. Sport reaches millions of people and represents positive values. In Qatari terms, it is a relatively cheap way for a small, vulnerable country to put itself on the map."

Positive values? Maybe. But just as Qatar's political activism is beginning to create a backlash in the Arab world, so its relentless sports activism is starting to generate a negative reaction in the sports world and beyond.

Two days before Beckham had signed for PSG, the magazine France Football published an 18-page dossier headlined "Qatargate". It detailed the many ways in which Qatar's money legally – and, allegedly, illegally – influenced Fifa's decision to award the 2022 World Cup to a country of 200,000 people (plus 1.7 million immigrant workers), which ranks 106th in the world of football.

The impossibly high summer temperatures in the Gulf mean that there is now a campaign – led by, among others, Michel Platini, president of the European football-association Uefa – for the 2022 World Cup to be shifted to November or December, which would mess up the traditional August-to-May pattern of the professional football season in Europe. "So what?" some influential voices (including Platini) are saying. Qatar 2022 provides the perfect opportunity to create a permanent, fine-weather season for European club football, starting in February and ending in October or November.

The idea is popular in Germany, where there is no dominant summer sport, such as cricket. Yet it would be greeted with nothing less than outrage in Britain.

There is some evidence that the PSG-Beckham deal, which initially fell through 12 months ago, was revived rapidly when Qatar got wind of the coming France Football investigation. Qatar needed an "equaliser" in a hurry, to promote the positive values it wishes to be associated with through sport.

The Beckham-plays-for-charity idea was dreamt up by the Qataris, according to someone familiar with the inner workings of PSG. A year ago, there was an outcry in France at Beckham's putative €800,000-a-month wages. But while "buying" Beckham for a vast salary might have been counter-productive, Beckham playing for a kids' charity – whatever the unrevealed small print – would offer a double helping of worldwide publicity and "positive values".

This was a great coup for Qatar but not necessarily in the long term for Beckham. At the press conference in the Parc des Princes, Beckham made it clear that he planned to remain on the PSG-Qatari payroll beyond the end of this season. He may become the figurehead, it is reported, for a Qatari move to buy a professional sports club in the United States. He will almost certainly become a Qatari ambassador for the 2022 World Cup. But will this include annoying British fans by speaking out in favour of summer club soccer? Is the Boy David in danger of straying offside? Should we all be scared of Qatar?

atar is a flat thumb 100 miles long and 50 miles wide jutting northwards into the Persian Gulf between the island of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Until 1971 it was a British protectorate. Its annual GDP is estimated at $180bn. If that were divided equally between the 200,000 Qataris (which of course it isn't), they would have an average income of $900,000 a year for every man, woman and child. However, the actual population of Qatar, as alluded to earlier, is 1,900,000, about 90 per cent of whom are immigrants – mostly lowly paid construction and domestic workers from the Indian subcontinent and east Asia.

In other words, Qatar is a small, absurdly rich country in the middle of the most unstable, explosive region of the world. For the Qatari royal family, long-term security has become an obsession: the preservation of Qatari independence; the preservation of Qatar's moderate- conservative tradition of society and Islam; and, of course, the preservation of the Qatari royal family.

Two dates and two events are crucial in understanding Qatar, according to Nabil Ennasri. In August 1990, Kuwait was invaded by a "brother" nation, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, provoking the first Gulf War. And in 1995, the present Qatari Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, deposed his father in a bloodless coup.

"Kuwait was the Qatar of the 1970s and 1980s," Ennasri explains. "It invested hugely in Europe and the United States. But that didn't stop Kuwait from being invaded by Iraq. Then, when the Emir deposed his father in 1995, the Saudis and some people in the Emirates tried to reverse the coup. Both these lessons were learnt by the Emir. He decided that, to survive, Qatar must use its wealth not simply to invest abroad, but to reinvent itself, through soft power, as a leading player in the world, one whose interests would become intertwined with the interests of those countries – the US, Britain, France – which have traditional economic and military and cultural strength.

"So, if I am asked, 'Should we be scared of Qatar?,' I say no. They are like any other country. They are trying to defend and protect their own interests, through soft power – sporting, cultural, diplomatic – not through hard power."

To this should be added intense competition for regional and global influence – bordering on hatred – between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. There is also a nouveaux riche competition between Qatar and the leading Emirates – Dubai, Abu Dhabi – amounting to a parable of the talents: who can best employ the fantastic, but finite, wealth in the ground of the Arabian peninsula to ensure not just long-term prosperity and survival but lasting power?

One has to admire – even marvel at – the sweep and complexity of the vision of the Emir of Qatar (and it is said to be largely his own vision). His country, which has no sporting tradition, is to become the nerve centre of world sport. It will have art collections to rival those of European capitals. It will promote education, literacy and action against climate change.

Importantly, Qatar will also become a junction box of a global "knowledge economy". It already has an Education City and a Science and Technology Park, while Al-Jazeera television, now planning to create a US-based news channel, gives Qatar a stake and a voice in the new global media village.

Al-Jazeera offers a Qatari take on world and regional events, which is radically different in its English and Arabic language versions: moderate and reformist in English; Islamist-conservative and anti-Israeli in Arabic.

The role of sport – and especially football – is to give Qatar visibility and credibility from the suburbs of Manchester to the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Qatar has already hosted the Asian Games. It has been given the 2022 World Cup. It bid unsuccessfully for the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. It is bidding again for 2024. The Tour of Qatar cycle race attracted k some of the biggest names in the sport, including the British rider Mark Cavendish, earlier this month.

Al-Jazeera, meanwhile, is also moving into sport, launching a subsidiary in France that has bought the rights to all French and some Champions League games.

Qatar further hopes to build up its Burrda sports brand to rival Nike. It owns PSG. It sponsors Barcelona FC through the nonprofit Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. And since 2005, the Aspire sports academy in Doha, with its 14 well-equipped subsidiaries around the world, has "detected" 500,000 sports stars of the future.

The best boys (though very few girls) are brought from third-world slums to Qatar, where they train alongside members of the professional clubs that hire the extraordinary Aspire facilities at cheap rates. Recent visitors have included Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Qatar has been accused of trying to persuade some of these "stars of the future" to become Qataris to give the emirate a respectable squad for the 2022 World Cup. Though Fifa has clamped down on that dodge, other sports are said to be more flexible.

More than €150bn is being spent on new stadia and other facilities before 2022, and immense armies of low-paid immigrant labourers have been imported to carry out the work. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is desperately worried by the working conditions, and understandably so: there were 73 deaths last year alone, according to the Nepali government, and Sharan Burrow, the ITUC leader, has warned that more people may die building the stadia than will play in them in 2022.

All of this may be relentless , even obsessive – but it is not illegal. Qatar's Achilles' heel, however – the point where "positive" values from sport may become negative – is the very jewel of the 2022 World Cup. The France Football investigation last month claimed that new evidence had been discovered by Fifa's ethics committee regarding the means used by tiny Qatar in December 2010 to beat the United States, among others, to the 2022 prize. One example: Qatar paid for the African football federation's annual conference and insisted that delegates from other bidding countries should be kept away.

Some say that Qatar merely employed on a larger scale the doubtful methods countries have always used to "win" World Cups. However, Mark Pieth, the Swiss lawyer who presides over the Fifa ethics commission, told France Football: "There has existed for some time a real bundle of evidence [of illegal inducements] by Qatar [before the 2022 vote]." For its part, Qatar insists it has broken no rules and no laws.

"The problem with Qatar is that it has no brakes," one former diplomat in the region tells me. "Its leaders are very intelligent and probably well-intentioned for the most part, but they suffer from the dual handicap of being inconceivably rich and largely unaccountable. They don't seem to know when to stop or to grasp that their incessant activity is beginning to damage, rather than advance their own cause."

There is already a backlash in the Middle East against Qatar's political hyper-activism and especially against the role of Al-Jazeera. Qatar has tried to be on both sides of all arguments (hosting the huge US Central Command military base but also a Taliban office). It made friends with Iran (to the fury of Riyadh). It had good relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon and gave the Syrian president Bashir Assad a presidential jet. Then, having supported the rebellions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, it dumped Assad and became the pay-master of the rebels in Syria. All to what end?

"At the core there is a kind of pragmatism," believes one Qatar-watcher in the United States. "Qatar believes that it can become a kind of balancing point, the indispensable broker for a relatively moderate, reformist but also conservative Middle East. It wants to pick the winners and be on the right side of an emerging new order. But it's in danger of overreaching. Its role and ambitions are increasingly distrusted, especially by the liberal-minded. You see Qatari flags being burnt by the pro-liberal demonstrators in Egypt."

Is the same kind of backlash about to happen in the world of sport? "It can't be ruled out," says Nabil Ennasri. "If it emerges that they went beyond the normal processes of Fifa lobbying, that could be very embarrassing, very difficult for Qatar. On the other hand, can you really imagine a decision to take the 2022 World Cup away from them if that means that €150bn in building contracts for European firms go up in smoke? Their fundamental goal has been to create a world in which Qatar's interests are inextricably entwined with international interests. We may already be there."

All the same, a stinking row about the 2022 World Cup now seems inevitable. The pressure to switch the competition to the cooler temperatures of a Gulf winter is being used by Michel Platini and others to push for a permanent redrawing of traditional football season boundaries.

The president of Bayern Munich, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who also acts as president of the association of European clubs, is in favour. "The best part of the year is the summer and that's exactly the time when we don't play," he told France Football. "I believe we're moving rapidly in [that] direction."

But it is a push that will be far from universally admired, and Qatar's bid for global influence and popularity will scarcely be helped by association with an unpopular earthquake in sports timetabling. Nor would it help the popularity of David Beckham as a Qatari sports ambassador.

The Boy David's alliance with the tiny Goliath of the Gulf may yet prove to be not quite the win-win that it appears.

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