*Was a recent 'sports integrity' event that questioned 2022 World Cup decision funded by Qatar rivals?
After Russia's wildly successful World Cup, the eyes of the sporting world have turned to the next host, Qatar — and a recent event in London gave an indication of the scrutiny that lies ahead for the controversial organisers, and of the Middle Eastern diplomatic battle that will shadow the tournament.Last updated: July 17 2018 12:19 AM
Journalists who attended the launch of the Foundation For Sports Integrity at the plush Four Seasons hotel were ushered through security to watch a series of panels featuring high-profile guests.
The former Manchester United footballer Louis Saha appeared in a discussion alongside the former FA chairman Greg Dyke.
Other guests included Damian Collins MP and the former US women's goalkeeper Hope Solo.
But as well as the guest list and the glamorous surroundings, there was another striking feature of the event: questions over the funding of the previously unknown organisation, which was unveiling itself at short notice with a lavish conference and a public commitment to stamping out corruption in world sport.
Several guests received fees in the thousands of pounds and stayed in expensive hotels.
Substantial sums appeared to have been spent staging the event and producing professional videos of the discussions, which regularly questioned the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
"We believe that sport belongs to the people and should not be exploited by those in positions of authority, be they individuals, officials, corporations or nation states," the foundation announced in its mission statement.
It pledged to fund "research into sports corruption and related matters" and to support whistleblowers.
That was in May.
Today, questions remain over who funded the Sports, Politics and Integrity conference given its own commitment to transparency — and whether it was actually linked to the ongoing feud between Qatar and regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in an attempt to turn the media against the 2022 hosts.
There is no suggestion that it is illegal to refuse to disclose funding sources.
But even Steve Rabinowitz, a Washington DC publicist who helped book guests and promote the event, admitted: "It is ironic that they're all about transparency in sport and yet they've not been so transparent in their finances."
"A couple of speakers spoke pro bono but most got paid," he told the Guardian."If they got flown in, they got flown business class.
"Fancy hotels. First-rate production. Not a bazillion pounds, but you know, they did it right, they did it nice. It cost money."
The event was hosted by Jaimie Fuller, an Australian businessman who campaigns for FIFA reform.
Fuller has repeatedly declined to identify the main source of funding to the Guardian and there is no detail on the trustees of his organisation.
Despite the lack of transparency, the coverage of the event was substantial.
News outlets and social media supporters from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates gave substantial coverage.
Other coverage appeared on the BBC, CNN and dozens of sites including the Guardian, which published an agency report.
Although the foundation has a remit across all sport, discussion at the conference focused on Doha's activities.
Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher on labour rights in the Gulf, said he was offered a fee by Fuller to appear on a panel.
"I was approached to speak at it, but I asked for assurances it wasn't Gulf money — it was clear there was a lot of money behind it," he said.
McGeehan also told the organisers he would critique other Gulf nations, not just Qatar.
"Those assurances were given and then two days later I was uninvited. They couldn't give a reason as to why I wasn't appearing.
"It just yells Saudi and UAE money."
Paperwork obtained by journalists at the Play the Game Foundation and the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, and shared with the Guardian, shows certain conference bookings were made in the name of a British company called Akta Group.
The business is run by the wife of Khalid al-Hail, a London-based Qatari who previously organised the Qatar Global Security and Stability conference, but has denied receiving funding from either Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
Last year, Akta paid the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and the BBC journalist John Simpson to attend another conference in a London hotel on the future of Qatar, which was highly critical of the government.
That event was supported by the pro-Saudi Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski, who received £15,000 from Akta for helping to prepare the conference, and the British Monarchist Society's Thomas J Mace-Archer-Mills — a regular royal pundit who was recently exposed as an American from upstate New York.
Fuller did not directly comment on whether Al-Hail or Akta helped organise his conference but said a major share of the money came "from an individual funder who has made it a condition of funding support that their identity not be disclosed".
"They have significant private wealth derived personally and there is no funding from any state or government, and I have not been presented with any evidence to the contrary," Fuller added.
He said he had been invited to help with the conference late in the day as a "means of launching" his foundation, by which time "many logistical arrangements were already in place". Both the conference and last year's Global Security and Stability event received PR support from Rabinowitz, whose Bluelight Strategies firm lists Al-Hail as a client on its website.
Rabinowitz, who said he no longer represents the Qatari, admitted the sports conference funding remained unclear: "I don't know what the full source of the money is, I just don't know, besides Jaimie putting seed money in.
"For me it was important that it was not Saudi or Emirati government money," he said. "I would have to register with my justice ministry as a foreign agent, even if that government paid Jaimie Fuller and he paid me...
"I looked at it pretty damn hard and I'm persuaded there was no Saudi or Emirati money."
When contacted for comment, al-Hail suggested the Guardian was taking part in an "orchestrated attempt to fabricate a story against me".
When a detailed set of points were put to his lawyer, including suggestions al-Hail was involved in organising the conference and questions about whether he had ever received financial assistance from either the Saudi or UAE governments, he declined to comment.
Some individuals involved in the event speculated that Fuller was "duped" into hosting it.
Rabinowitz described him as "a totally righteous guy in everything he's done in sport" while the investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, who appeared at the conference, vouched for his "good friend" and said "he's straight".
"I was asked if I'd go and put the boot into the Qataris," said Jennings.
"I have no concern that the UAE or Saudi Arabia governments influenced the conference, as I set the programme and the speakers."
The Gulf crisis has increasingly been fought through attempts to influence the media.
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly called for Qatar to shut down its Al Jazeera news network, while Qatar has accused Saudi Arabia of pirating its multi-billion-dollar live sports TV network, in part to show matches from this year's World Cup.
Last year, the Intercept obtained documents which suggested the UAE planned to wage a financial war on Qatar and campaign to force it to share the 2022 World Cup with its neighbours.
A spokesperson for Collins said the MP appeared on the panel as a favour: "Damian received no payment for speaking at the event, was not involved in its organisation and was invited by Jamie Fuller who Damian has worked with for many years on the New FIFA Now campaign."
The Qatari authorities have raised concerns about the event's funding with some of the speakers.
Rabinowitz, however, said it was part of the inevitable geopolitical battle that followed Qatar's successful bid to host the biggest event in football.
- Guardian News and Media