The Dark Side of Doing Business in Qatar
We meet in Frankfurt, and the man is clearly afraid. Amar Rasheed has lost everything -- his company, his money and his trust. At times, he even loses his temper. His voice cracks and his eyes become deep voids. He has a letter in front of him from a lawyer who works for the Embassy of Qatar. Essentially, the letter states, in extremely dry German legalese, that Rasheed should go to hell.
The World Men's Handball Championship is currently underway, with teams competing to win the trophy, a golden hand holding a golden ball. Tournament champions have been raising the trophy since the World Championship in Qatar in 2015. Rasheed made a trophy just like it right before that championship. It was a rush job and everything had to be done very quickly. He had a company in Qatar and he wanted to protect the emir from "great shame." The sheikh, a man of honor who, according to Rasheed, suddenly found himself without a trophy shortly before the tournament because the real one apparently hadn't been delivered on time.
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How embarrassing it would have been for Qatar, a country that wants to be a leader in the world of international sports, had it been unable to present a trophy befitting its status. And of course, the emir counts among the world's richest people. As such, there was no doubt in Rasheed's mind that he would be handsomely rewarded for the job.
But he's still waiting for the money today. Instead, he got that letter in August, written on behalf of Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. Today, he's the Qatari ambassador to Germany in Berlin, but in 2015, he was one of the most important sports officials in Qatar. He's the man who brought the World Handball Championship to his country. Shortly before the start of the championship, he also posed in front of the larger-than-life World Championship mascot, which had also been made by Rasheed for the organizing committee. According to Rasheed's version of events, he didn't get total payment for that either.
The letter from the lawyer stated that Rasheed should never call again. It also said that if he tried to assert yet another "baseless" claim or threatened to go public with those claims, legal action would be taken for "extortion and/or coercion."
Rasheed says all he wanted was assistance from the ambassador in resolving the problem in a decent manner.
The drama of Amar Rasheed, who today lives somewhere in the German state of Hesse after his hasty departure from Qatar, is the story of a simple misunderstanding -- namely that Qatar, a country of major sports tournaments like the 2015 Handball World Championship and the football World Cup in 2022, is always going to be generous to the point of downright wastefulness. Particularly when it comes to sports, it often feels like Qatar is willing to issue a blank check.
As it turns out, the emirate can be as stingy, degrading and arbitrary as it can be generous -- at least when it comes to laborers working in slave-like conditions at World Cup construction sites or toward business people like Rasheed, who grew up in the United States and holds a Dutch passport.
A Land of Unlimited Possibilities?
Rasheed first arrived in the emirate in 2010. He thought of Qatar as being a kind of America of the Orient, a land of unlimited possibilities where talent, diligence and a business idea can be turned into money and prestige like no other place in the world. His ideas were decorative constructions both for sporting events and other occasions.
In a sheikdom that is mad about sports, such an idea might seem like a good one. As easy as it is for Qatar to earn billions through its oil and gas, it can be just as quick to spend that money on sports. Sheikh Saoud, the ambassador in Berlin, seemed like the perfect embodiment of the Qatari principle that just about anything can be bought, including success. He announced, for example, that Paris Saint-Germain, bought by the Qataris in 2011, would seek to recruit Cristiano Ronaldo. In the end, the team settled for Neymar and Mbappé for a cool 400 million euros.
As head of the National Olympic Committee, Saoud was also the man behind the bid for the 2015 World Handball Championship. Qatar reportedly spent 220 million euros on the tournament, 10 times more than Germany did for the 2007 Handball World Cup. The emirate seems to buy everything. The national handball team, for example, includes players with names like Zarko Markovic, Danijel Saric, Goran Stojanovic and Bertrand Roiné. And Qatar even paid for the flights, hotels and tickets for 60 Spaniards to cheer Qatar on from the stands.
The World Handball Championship was also supposed to be a major event for Amar Rasheed's young company. The World Cup organizers had ordered a large format version of the official mascot from the company -- a 5-meter (16-foot) tall edition for 189,000 riyal, or about 45,000 euros. The company was also to produce a sculpture of a handball measuring 2.5 meters in diameter for 52,000 riyal, or about 12,400 euros.
The giant mascot had hardly been installed in front of the new Lusail Arena when a delegation dropped by. There's a photo that shows the current ambassador posing in front of the statue in which he appears to be in a pleasant mood. In a recent letter to the ambassador, Rasheed wrote, "You placed your hand on my shoulder and said: 'Thank you for doing a terrific job. If you ever need anything in Qatar, you can always contact me or the National Olympic Committee of Qatar.'"
An Emir in a Bind
At the time, Rasheed really thought he had made it -- that he would be part of the elite in Qatar, that he would make money and find happiness. It had been an even greater honor to him to be able to assist an emir who had been in a bit of a bind -- at least that's how Rasheed recalled things in his letter to the ambassador.
According to Rasheed's version of events, a very nervous employee with an Australian event agency visited him shortly before the World Handball Championship. There were worries the opening ceremony would turn into a debacle. He said the new trophy, which the emir wanted to present at the start of the championship on Jan. 15, wouldn't make it to Qatar in time. It was being manufactured in Italy by GDE Bertoni, the same company that makes the trophy used for the football World Cup.
The employee said he didn't even want to think about how the emir might react if he were to find out about it. Rasheed says he was asked if he could produce a quick replica that would look similar enough that nobody would notice anything. He says he was told the trophy would be swapped out once the original arrived. Rasheed asked how much time he had. He says he was told just a few days because the security staff would have to inspect the trophy before the emir could touch it. Rasheed asked for $50,000 and the man agreed. Rasheed obtained drawings and delivered on time, at least according to his version of the story.
But is it true? When contacted by DER SPIEGEL, the Italian company Bertoni at first said quite bluntly on the phone that the order had been very last-minute, that there had been problems with the lapis lazuli gemstones and change requests from the customer that resulted in a very tight schedule. Later, the magazine received a written reply. It notes that the trophy was sent during "the very first days of 2015," which would have been sufficient to get there on time. When pressed for a clearer answer, Bertoni staff became a bit frostier, saying information about their products was confidential.
The agency responsible for the opening ceremony also said it was obliged to confidentiality and referred all questions to the World Championship organizers in Qatar. But neither they nor the ambassador in Berlin have answered questions.
There are photos that would appear to back up Rasheed's version. They show how a replica of the World Championship trophy was created in his workshop using synthetic resin, with gold and blue colors. The copy doesn't contain any real gold or lapis lazuli like the trophy produced by Bertoni. At first glance, though, it is hard to distinguish any difference. They also show how, when presenting the trophy during the opening ceremony, the emir easily holds it with one hand as if it were plastic. The original trophy weighed nearly 20 kilograms (44 pounds), meaning the emir would never have been able to lift it as nonchalantly.
Rasheed doesn't have a written contract and claims that his client demanded that everything be kept an absolute secret. But Rasheed is able to produce a delivery note indicating a "Trophy Replica," "identical to the original Trophy 'as per request,'" was "delivered with plastic and polystyrene container." It also shows that it has obviously been countersigned by the Australian event agency at Lusail Stadium, on Jan. 8, 2015, at 1:20 p.m.
Rasheed claims he received a few thousand riyals in cash and that he was promised the rest would be paid later. But he says he never received the remainder. He also claims he was never paid sufficiently for the giant mascot or the large handball. "Neither for my time nor for my great efforts was I remunerated as agreed," he wrote in his letter to the ambassador. Rasheed says he helped everyone involved to save face -- especially that of the emir. But Rasheed suspects the emir doesn't even know anything about it.
He says other clients also paid as they pleased. And then came the day that they tried to take his company away. Foreigners in Qatar can generally only register a company as a joint venture together with a local, with the Qatari holding a controlling interest of at least 51 percent. Rasheed says he was asked in September 2016 to sign over his 49 percent and that he was told he could still stay on as an employee.
That's the day Rasheed claims he gave up. Does he feel his case would have any chance in a Qatari court? He says he didn't really think so. In the end, he left the mansion in Doha behind and parked his cars all over the city -- the Mercedes in front of the house, the Lexus at the Carrefour supermarket, the Mini Cooper in an industrial area and the Jeep Cherokee under a highway bridge -- just in case he were to return at some point. He took the next flight to London and then a connecting one to Montreal. He has never been back to Qatar.
Fearing His Own Worst Nightmares
Rasheed now lives in a small town. His eyes well up with tears when he says that he soon won't have enough money to keep food on the table for his children. And after the killing of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis, Rasheed has feared that his own worst nightmares could come true.
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He flooded the embassy in Berlin with e-mails. But the same ambassador he says once offered him help anytime he needed it in front of the giant mascot won't even reply to him now, delegating the task to his lawyer. The letter stated that they didn't "understand why you contacted our client." After all, it went on, there is not the slightest evidence that "our client" had "ever had a legal or other relationship" with Rasheed or his firm.
In terms of Rasheed's claims against other Qatari citizens, the lawyer wrote, he could take them to court at any time. The letter instructed him not to contact the embassy again. "We're currently reviewing the prospects for success of an injunction," it said.
Rasheed wrote a script based on the experiences he claims to have had. It's called the "Horror of Qatar." He's hoping for a new beginning in Europe. He has, after all, shown everyone what he's capable of. "Giving up", he says, "is for losers." At the moment, though, it's hard to describe him as being in any other position than a losing one.