Oil-rich Qatar isn’t cutting corners when it comes to preparations for the 2022 World Cup, and that means U.S. companies could see big contracts coming their way.
That’s especially true of firms that can export the intellectual capital needed to design stadiums, new urban developments, roads and other infrastructure.
“Qatar prefers quality over price, so they’re not doing it on the cheap, and Qatar recognizes that the U.S. is the world leader in a lot of these technologies, processes and goods and services,” said Adam Ereli, a Middle East expert and former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain.
Mr. Ereli visited Atlanta along with a Qatari government delegation seeking expertise from companies in a variety of sectors including construction and architecture. He escaped Atlanta on one of the last flights to Washington before many were canceled due to the snowstorm that paralyzed much of the region.
Qatar is hoping to surprise many Westerners by showing that the Middle East can pull off such a major event in a modern, customer-friendly way, he said.
“Qatar is therefore sparing no expense to make sure (visitors) have a good experience and everything looks good,” said Mr. Ereli, vice chairman of Mercury Public Affairs.
Not that the oil-rich country has been resting on its laurels. It has been among the most ambitious of Middle Eastern countries in parlaying wealth and stability into recruitment tools. Qatar Airways has launched an ambitious expansion around the world. The World Cup is a catalyst for accelerating all this activity.
“It’s kind of like an action-forcing event for Qatar,” Mr. Ereli said. “It serves as a period at the end of the sentence, and the sentence is, ‘We have a plan to develop our country.’”
Mr. Ereli, who negotiated a Status of Forces agreement in Qatar smoothing the way for troop deployment in Iraq in 2003, said U.S. firms shouldn’t face many hurdles in Qatar, but they should be ready to adapt to Arab business culture as they negotiate.
In the country of nearly 2 million with about 250,000 citizens, most companies are family-owned, and “there’s a lot of personality involved,” so executives should massage disputes with some cultural savvy before running to their lawyers. They should also take solace in the fact that many successes in the region outweigh the challenges some firms have faced in dealing with local partners.
He said allegations that Qatari construction firms are mistreating migrant workers from Nepal and elsewhere are being taken very seriously by the organizing committee. Part of the problem is that “they’re building the skeleton and the body at the same time,” so timelines for infrastructure projects are extremely ambitious.
“The committee is the first to recognize that this is an important issue and they need to address it convincingly in order to basically give the world cup the kind of image that they want to give it,” Mr. Ereli said.
Americans are also held to the standards of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which forbids bribing foreign officials to win contracts. That shouldn’t be a problem, but it would behoove companies to work with business associations and the U.S. Commerce Department to match up with vetted partners.
“When Americans win contracts, they win them on their merit. They don’t win them because they paid somebody off. That enhances the image of our country,” Mr. Ereli said.
With all the upheaval in the Middle East – the civil war in Syria, instability in Egypt, new governments in Tunisia and Libya and more – Mr. Ereli wouldn’t generalize about where the region was headed as it fleshes out the tensions between democracy, local politics and religious fundamentalism.
If he were betting in the region, though, he’d put his money on the Gulf Cooperation Council countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
He noted that the United States should continue educating students from the region, not only for $24 billion they spend across the country, but for the cross-cultural understanding that opens doors for business.
“When the United States had a problem with a foreign country, if the person I had to sit across the table from to solve that problem had an American education, I can promise you it was easier to resolve that problem by a factor of multiples,” Mr. Ereli said.
Saudi Arabia is now No. 4 among countries sending students to the United States, with 45,000-plus last year.
“Dollars and cents follow hearts and minds. If you can win people’s hearts and minds, you get the dollars and cents,” he said.
To learn more about Mr. Ereli, click here.