How a UAE-funded London consultancy is trying to turn Brits against Qatar's World Cup

How a UAE-funded London consultancy is trying to turn Brits against Qatar's World Cup
Comment: Loaded and leading questions failed to convince a majority of respondents to slam Qatar's World Cup hosting, but still managed to generate the intended misleading headlines, writes Anthony Harwood.
5 min read
15 Mar, 2019
The UAE is targeting the World Cup as part of its blockade of Qatar [AFP]
Consumer surveys are notoriously unreliable. The only way to judge them is to examine how they were conducted, how the findings were interpreted and, perhaps most important of all, who commissioned them in the first place.

For all of these, you need a fair bit of information that usually isn't easily available. And when opinion polls are used purely as a vehicle to gain publicity, and when conducted by an organisation with a vested interest in the outcome, their credibility is usually about as low as you can possibly get.

The conclusions of a poll on attitudes to Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup sadly don't bear much scrutiny.

Around 2,141 adults in the UK took part in the survey. According to newspaper reports, one third believe the allocation of the football World Cup to Qatar was the wrong decision. Qatar, of course, has always been a controversial choice, but on the surface, it would appear that the level of ill-will towards Qatar has increased.

But then you get into the detail. In examining the report, the reality is that more than half of those who took part in the survey (59 percent) simply had no feelings either way. That's probably bad for football, and it says much about the state of public apathy toward current affairs, but it's not in itself a negative assessment of Qatar. Put another way: If one third of us think Qatar was a bad choice, that means two thirds either don't mind, or don't care.

And, when you also examine the way the questions were stacked, it's almost surprising that the figures were so low.
The seeds of doubt over Qatar being planted in respondents' minds run through most of the leading questions.
Here's a sample:
   "The men's football FIFA World Cup in Qatar in 2022 has been moved from June-July 2022 to between 21st November to 18th December 2022 for health and safety reasons. Holding the Qatar World Cup in November to December 2022 will mean English Premier League fixtures would need to be re-scheduled to take a break during these months. To what extent, do you think holding the World Cup 2022 in Qatar, was the right or wrong decision or do you have no feelings either way?"
   "Some people have called for an independent investigation into the way that the Qatar 2022 World Cup bid team ran its campaign to win the right for the men's football FIFA World Cup. To what extent are you in favour of or opposed to an independent investigation into the way the Qatar World Cup bid team ran its campaign, or do you have no feelings either way?"

It's a bit like asking someone if they want a piece of cake, but first telling them the factory production line breached health and safety conditions, and the baker might be a criminal. Suddenly, the cake doesn't seem so appetizing.

The other questions in the survey focus on the idea of the English FA putting England forward as replacement hosts of the 2022 World Cup "should Qatar no longer be in a position to host". See what just happened? By nicely conflating the chance for England fans to have a World Cup on their doorstep with Qatar's "health and safety" record, the survey results are perhaps inevitable.

But that's not the real kicker. While the poll was conducted by a reputable research specialist, Ipsos MORI, and I have no doubt that it was properly run, the organisation that commissioned the poll does have a clear interest in making sure that Qatar comes out of it badly.

Most people are unfamiliar with Cornerstone Global because it has no obvious links with professional football. They're a "boutique" management consultancy, based in London's upscale Mayfair district. So why would they be interested in promoting the idea that Qatar should be stripped of the World Cup?

As its website shows, Cornerstone makes some, if not most, of its money working for the UAE, one of the Gulf nations that imposed a trade blockade against Qatar nearly two years ago.

One of its current projects is to help Abu Dhabi increase revenue, and Cornerstone owner Ghanem Nuseibeh is a vocal opponent of Qatar. Cornerstone Global Associates had originally pitched to represent Qatar to bid for the World Cup, but their offer was declined. 

Cornerstone later wrote a report warning of increasing political risk of the event being held in Qatar - a report which was picked up and run uncritically by the BBC

One impact of the decline of the newspaper industry is that journalists now have less time to examine the origin of opinion polls that come their way. Several UK newspapers, and many UAE-backed media in the Middle East, have published the most recent Qatar 2022 survey under less-than-flattering headlines for FIFA and Qatar - which was, precisely, I imagine, the point of the exercise in the first place. As a piece of propaganda, it was magnificent.

Unfortunately, it also demonstrated that decisions over what stories are published are based on "news value" - that is, clicks and advertising revenue, rather than on the veracity of the claims.

As the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump proved, greater transparency and diligence is required so that unreliable information is weeded out long before it enters the news stream and becomes "fact".

Public scrutiny of FIFA, and Qatar, is important. But as an independent barometer of public opinion on the next World Cup, the Cornerstone survey is about as useful as a snooker table on a sailboat.

Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Monday 18 March to correct a statistic reported from the poll. An earlier published version had stated that 49 percent of respondents had neither positive nor negative feelings about the World Cup being held in Qatar. The correct stat is 59 percent.