World Championships 2019: Risks, benefits for boycott-hit Qatar

Since 2017 Saudi Arabia, the UAE and its allies have enforced an economic boycott of Qatar, accusing it of supporting Iran and Islamist movements.

The IAAF World Athletics Championship will take place at Doha's Khalifa International Stadium from September 27.   -  Getty Images

Qatar fires the starting gun for the World Athletics Championships on Friday with an opportunity to showcase both its preparations for the 2022 football World Cup and how it is coping with a boycott by its neighbours, experts say.

But Doha also risks being “judged harshly” for missteps during the athletics showcase which could be held up by detractors as proof of its shortcomings.

Since 2017 Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and their allies have enforced an economic boycott of Qatar, accusing it of supporting Iran and Islamist movements -- charges it denies.

They cut direct air, land and shipping routes, closed airspace to Qatari aircraft and restricted citizens from visiting.

Nonetheless Saudi will send three athletes, Egypt five, the UAE one, and Bahrain 21 to the event being held for the first time in the Middle East.

Tobias Borck, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, said the Championships would give Qatar an opportunity to transcend the blockade, but might also highlight its isolation.

“It'll show Qatar's good relations with the world, and its difficult relations in the region and especially with its neighbours,” he said.

“Ticket sales seem to have been slow... but I'm not sure it's directly related to the Gulf crisis.”

A western diplomat based in Doha described the Championships as “an opportunity for them to show the world they are not at all isolated”.

“Rather, (they're) quite eager and capable of playing host to the world. It will be a test of their preparedness for the World Cup,” she said.

But the source warned Qatar would be “judged harshly for any missteps”.

“So the pressure is on them to deliver this event in an efficient way for athletes and coaches -- and an entertaining and hassle-free way for spectators,” she said. “They will be closely watched!”

Britain's Guardian newspaper reported this week that free tickets would be distributed to labourers and children, bolstering crowds and offsetting the absence of regional spectators -- claims the local organisers have denied.

 

- 'Open for all' -

International Association of Athletics Federations chief Sebastian Coe said last year he “fully expected a full contingent of federations” to attend.

However, he did not comment on whether fans from boycotting countries would be in the stands.

“It's very important that international sport consistently and continually makes the point that we have primacy over politics,” he said.

But past events have highlighted the tensions and rivalries that plague the region.

The football Gulf Cup, meant to be hosted by Qatar beginning in December 2017, saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain withdraw, before rejoining after it was switched to Kuwait.

Analyst James Dorsey said the biggest fallout may be for fans based in boycotting countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who would face barriers to travelling to the marquee event.

“Should the boycott be maintained until the 2022 World Cup, it's going to be a serious problem for those countries,” said Dorsey, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the Middle East Institute in Singapore.

The boycotting countries' decision to send a handful of competitors “absolutely does not” represent a thawing of the diplomatic freeze, he told AFP.

“Any country that boycotts an international tournament for which its athletes have qualified risks being suspended,” he said.

He pointed to the Asian Cup in the UAE earlier this year when Qatar was permitted to play.

But because of the ban on Qataris entering, the away side played with minimal support. The team nevertheless won the tournament.

Chief organiser and IAAF vice-president Dahlan al-Hamad told AFP that Qatar's “arms are open for all”.

“We apply the rules of the IAAF. We hope for the participation of all because the absence of a single competitor affects the competition,” he said.

Fans are unlikely to face hardship because of the embargo. Flights to Qatar do however take more circuitous routes to avoid boycotting countries' airspace -- adding journey time.