Watch | Naval officers released by Qatar | What are the diplomatic lessons?

This week brought good news- 7 of 8 released Indians, former naval personnel returned to their families, as the Amir of Qatar decided to free the men. The outcome, that followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal intervention in December with his counterpart Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, was a big relief for the families and a big success for Indian diplomacy, and PM Modi, who was visiting the UAE this week made a previously unannounced visit to Qatar, to express his gratitude:

 “Prime Minister thanked His Highness, the Amir, for his support for the welfare of the Indian community and, in this regard, expressed his deep appreciation to His Highness, the Amir, for the release of eight Indian nationals of Al-Dahra company. We are extremely gratified to see them back in India.” Vinay Kwatra, Foreign Secretary

 The chronology of the case:

  • August 30, 2022: The 8 Indian nationals, including 7 former Naval Commanders and Captains and one former Naval sailor were arrested by Qatari authorities, all worked for Dahra Global Technologies
  • March 2023: Trial begins in the case  
  • May 2023: Dahra Global company shuts down  
  • October 26: Court hands down guilty verdict in the case of espionage, pronounces death sentence 
  •  December 1: PM Modi meets Qatari Amir in Dubai
  • December 28: Court of Appeal commutes death sentences to prison terms
  • February 7: India and Qatar sign a 20-year $78 billion LNG deal that will start in 2028 for gas supplies- the announcement seemed to herald a deal on the Indian prisoners was imminent
  • February 11: 7 men including Captain Gill, Commander Nagpal, Captain Vashisht, Captain Verma, Commander Pakala, Commander Gupta, and Sailor Ragesh returned to India

Commander Purnendu Tiwari, who was the Managing Director at Dahra Global Technologies has been released but remains in Doha- while reports suggested it was due to his health , his sister Dr. Meetu Bhargava has said he is still under a travel ban.

Earlier I spoke to one of those that returned to his family this week- Retd Naval Commander Amit Nagpal.

How did you hear about your release- give us a sense of the moment you knew you would be free?

I came to know when I was going to be free only when I walked out of that facility (Prison in Doha). And I saw [Indian Ambassador Vipul] standing in front of me. I asked him, “Are we out, are we going home?”. He said, “Yes, you’re going home and that’s the moment I realised…” Before that we had no clue at all about what’s going to happen. The suddenness with which we went in…with the same suddenness we came out. Even my wife who had been in Qatar throughout this ordeal had no clue this was going to happen. So it was a very, very pleasant surprise.

Were you in touch with your family throughout?

Well I remember the first time I spoke to my wife Munga- I was put on speaker, and she just said, “Amit I’m not leaving [Doha] without you.” That gave me the strength I needed. This kind of situation is not a punishment for an individual as much as it is for the family. And for an individual, if the family is okay, anybody can go through this kind of ordeal.

Why did you originally decide to move to Qatar?

Well there was this opportunity to train the Qatari navy. I’ve been a career naval officer since 1990, I joined NDA in 1987. So this is my core competence, and they gave me an opportunity to train another country, which I was happy to do. India has been training in this region for a long time, we were the first to go in there, after which there was a gap.

So it was great to get connected to a company which was training in the middle east and we did immensely well, we made a lot of inroads. Unfortunately, it had to end this way.

Tell us about the arrest…

 The minute I was arrested, I knew things were very serious, but I always believed that as I had done nothing wrong, if not today, certainly tomorrow I would be out of this mess. And I had full faith that the authorities would understand that we had done nothing wrong at all. So I didn’t I didn’t really think about the charges because I knew I was innocent

Even so, many innocents don’t get released- how were you helped by the Indian Embassy in Qatar during the trial?

We saw two ambassadors, while we were [in prison] and we also received consular access in the last five-six months. The Ambassador gave us a lot of confidence, and most importantly they opened their doors for the families and said come and speak to us anytime, chat on the phone, send messages. I know the government would have said please help them but what an individual does is important. In particular Ambassador Vipul, and before him Ambassador Mittal (Previous ambassador to Qatar) and their team’s attitude was amazing.  

 And then in October 2023, the court pronounced the death sentence…

Those were the most difficult days. I had by then made a routine for myself, but I could not even follow my routine. We didn’t actually know about the sentence in court- I heard it on the news and then my wife actually told me. I couldn’t believe it, because the sentence was not even proportionate to whatever they thought we did. When I spoke next to my wife, she said that the government is now going to take the charges more seriously. They were going to meet External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, and that gave me a lot of confidence.

It was after that sentence that we saw the the intervention at the highest level by Prime Minister Modi on December 1. Do you wish it had come earlier and who do you credit with your freedom?

We I can’t go into whatever has happened, but I guess so, if [the intervention] could have happened now, it could have happened earlier as well.

Many reports suggested geopolitical factors were behind your arrest- some connected it to India’s position on the Israel-Hamas conflict, others pointed to a Pakistani connection. How did these reports affect you?

Why were we arrested and why did we go through this- I have no clue why it happened. I hope in the future sometime I do come to know why did we actually go through this [ordeal]. Were we really to blame, because we did nothing wrong. All these media reports. about Israel -these are all utter nonsense. We had done nothing at all, we had not spoken to anybody at all. We are not enemies of Qatar. These spying cases only take place between enemies. It’s just unimaginable what happened to us. And as we were sitting inside [prison] and watching these reports on television, our mind would just wonder whether all these events would affect our case. But we had no clue what was happening.

This was a particularly difficult case for the MEA for a number of reasons:

  1. The charges against the Indians were the most serious- espionage, reportedly for Israel – few countries would free those convicted of these charges, especially after the death sentence was pronounced
  2. The Qatari legal system is more opaque than most, and it was difficult to get clear details of the charges, evidence and process ahead
  3. The fact that all 8 were former servicemen- added to the public concerns and pressure in India for their safe return- and criticism of Qatar in India only made the diplomats job more difficult
  4. Geopolitical factors: Qatar and Israel have faced off over the current conflict, Qatar is home to much of the Hamas leadership, and the accusation that the men were spying for Israel was particularly worrying for the government and their families.
  5. India’s balancing act on the Israel Gaza conflict- New Delhi’s vote at the UN in October that abstained from criticism of Israel, its decision not to ban Hamas, negotiating the IMEC with Saudi Arabia and UAE, the INSTC with Iran, any of its actions could have been seen to tip the balance against the naval personnel.
  6. In addition, the fallout of any decline in Qatar ties would have been felt by 800,000 Indians who live and work there

WV Take: Given the high stakes, the government’s skillful diplomatic handling of the Qatar case shows how even the toughest negotiations can be done- 1) avoiding public grandstanding as the government chose with Pakistan over the Jadhav case or Canada over the Nijjar case, 2) pursuing the case legally, showing respect for the Qatari legal system, and 3)having the Prime Minister intervene at the highest levels in a country where power rests with the Amirs, are all parts of the strategy that worked, and can be learnt from.

WV Reading Recommendations:

  1. West Asia At War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games by Talmiz Ahmed
  2. India and the Gulf: Theoretical Perspectives and Policy Shifts by Harsh V. Pant and Hasan Alhasan
  3. India and the Gulf Region: Geopolitics, Security,Energy, Diaspora and Maritime Relations by AK Pasha
  4. A Life in the Shadows: A Memoir by A.S. Dulat
  5. In the Shadows: True Stories of High-Stakes Negotiations to Free Americans Captured Abroad by Mickey Bergman and Ellis Henican

Script and Presentation: Suhasini Haidar

Production: Gayatri Menon and Shibu Narayan

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Socceroos draw 1-1 with Uzbekistan to top Asian Cup group

The Socceroos have sealed top spot in their Asian Cup group but will head into the knockout stage with a dent in their confidence after a flat 1-1 draw with Uzbekistan.

Australia were already guaranteed to reach the round of 16 but needed a win or draw at Doha’s Al Janoub Stadium to finish top of Group B.

Martin Boyle’s spot-kick in the opening minute of first-half injury time, after a dubious hand-ball call on defender Odiljon Hamrobekov following a VAR review, gave Australia a much-needed lead after an uninspiring opening half.

A handful of personnel changes were made after Australia’s 1-0 win over Syria on Thursday, with Riley McGree in particular offering a point of creative difference in an otherwise stale Socceroos attack that was spear-headed by the inexperienced Kusini Yengi, who had replaced the injured Mitch Duke up front.

However, Uzbekistan grew into the match and, come the second half, took almost total control of possession and chance creation. Their effort and energy paid off when substitute Azizbek Turgunboev leapt over Aziz Behich and headed home the equaliser in the 78th minute.

It was Uzbekistan’s first goal against Australia in five meetings, also ending a run of six consecutive clean sheets for the Socceroos.

Uzbekistan finished second on five points, while Syria beat India 1-0 to finish third on four points, sealing progression as one of the best third-placed finishers while knocking out both India and China, who came third in Group A but cannot now progress.

The Socceroos will play the best third-placed team from either group C or D, and will likely be on the opposite side of the draw to tournament favourites Japan.

But there is plenty for Arnold to address, with Australia’s struggles to break down a defence, lack of creativity and a second-half fade-out among the concerns.

Harry Souttar had hearts in mouths in the ninth minute when he turned the ball over to Oston Urunov, only to recover to make the crucial tackle at the last moment.

Australia had the ball in the back of the net in the 11th minute through Kusini Yengi, but it was chalked off for an offside in the build-up.

Yengi’s best moment of the game came at the end of the first half as the striker went on a wonderful weaving run through Uzbekistan’s defence and cut the ball back for McGree, who inexplicably shot wide.

But luck was in Australia’s favour. During Yengi’s run, he attempted to get past Hamrobekov and the ball flicked off the defender’s arm, which he was using to brace his fall, then back into the striker’s path.

After a lengthy VAR review, Hamrobekov was penalised and booked and Boyle drilled the penalty into the bottom corner.

Uzbekistan’s Umar Eshmurodov headed home in the 60th minute but was offside.

It proved a warning shot.

Eighteen minutes later, Turgunboev brilliantly buried a wonderful dipping cross from Jaloliddin Masharipov to ensure Uzbekistan’s progression.

Check out how the game unfolded in our live blog below.

Key events

Final thoughts

They’d already qualified for the round of 16, but this draw against Uzbekistan means Australia have topped Group B and will play the best third-placed team from somewhere else in the tournament.

Like their first two group games, this was an awkward and rusty performance from the Socceroos. A handful of personnel changes perhaps contributed to that, though Australia’s best players was probably Riley McGree, who earned his first start of the Asian Cup.

But there’s still a question of where more goals can come from. There was a lack of creativity tonight, as there has been over the past two games, and too much sideways possession with not enough activity or improvisation through the central channels.

Graham Arnold will have to solve these problems now. There are no second-chances in knock-out football, and while Australia have done themselves a favour by topping the group and therefore facing a theoretically weaker opponent in the round of 16, they haven’t got long to figure this stuff out before they face a serious title contender.

In any case, there’s one more game on the horizon in five days’ time. And you bet I’ll be here to take you through all the action once again.

Until then, enjoy the rest of your week!


Full-time: Australia 1 – 1 Uzbekistan

96′ Chance Australia!

A long ball from Souttar is controlled nicely by Kusini Yengi, who eases it out to Marco Tilio on the left.

The winger shimmies past two defenders and clips a cross into the six-yard box, but an Uzbekistan player beats Yengi to the header near the back post.


Someone needs to do something! …. Sam! … HELP THEM!…

– Mike



93′ Long throw

Lewis Miller’s first touch is launching a gigantic long throw into the box, which is chaotically headed out towards the D.

I’m not sure who that is running in – Tilio, maybe? – trying to use their momentum to deflect the ball off their chest and back towards the pack of players, but an Uzbekistan defender gets in the way. The ball is cleared.

92′ Australia substitutions

Jordan Bos and Nathaniel Atkinson are off.

Marco Tilio and Lewis Miller are on – the latter for his Asian Cup debut.

90′ Masharipov pulling strings

The substitute has been excellent since coming on, involved in all of Uzbekistan’s best attacks.

He’s at the heart of one again, connecting beautifully with two team-mates in a tight space as they make their way collectively towards the top left corner of Australia’s box.

His pass almost slices two Socceroos apart, but Kye Rowles flies in to the rescue and hoofs the ball upfield.

90′ Seven minutes of added time

Thanks for reading, Phil!

Thanks for this coverage!

– Phil J

88′ Atkinson is down

The right-back tried a long cross-field switch but totally shanked it and it rolled out for a throw-in near the half-way line.

The defender falls into the grass with his legs stretched out in front of him. It looks like cramp. Yep – an Uzbek player comes along and stretches out his calf for him. He’s up a minute later. He’ll have to keep pushing.

86′ Behich gets forward

Jordan Bos and Aziz Behich have been more involved towards the back-end of this half, with the two trying to muscle and race their way down the left wing.

Behich’s endurance has been particularly impressive given his age and the fact he’s the only defender aside from Harry Souttar to have played every minute of this tournament so far.

He gets in behind Uzbekistan’s three defenders here thanks to a cheeky backwards pass by Bos, but his cross is a tired one and sails all the way across the field for a throw-in.

82′ Uzbekistan substitution

The substitute has to be substituted as Igor Sergeev is carried off the field with that calf problem.

He’s replaced by Jamshid Iskanderov.

82′ Australia double change

The brilliant Riley McGree is replaced by Bruno Fornaroli.

Keanu Baccus is off, too, in place of Aiden O’Neill.

81′ Play paused

Some cheeky footwork by Jordan Bos to nip around Uzbekistan’s substitute Igor Sergeev sees the blue-shirted defender reach down to his calf as he tumbled into the grass.

The Socceroos could have kept charging forward there, but the referee whistles play dead as the physios run onto the field. The stretcher is out, too. It looks like the sub may have popped a calf. Unlucky.


Just as I say that – Uzbekistan have equalised!

Australia’s record run of clean sheets and minutes without conceding comes to an end as the substitute Azizbek Turgunboev rises above Aziz Behich to head home a gorgeous dropping cross from Masharipov on the left wing.



Syria have taken a 1-0 lead over India, which takes them just below Uzbekistan on goal difference in Group B.

If Syria score twice more, and the current score in our game stays at 1-0 (or Australia score another), Syria could leap-frog Uzbekistan into second.

How good is tournament football!

73′ Uzbekistan keep trying

A very neat series of zig-zag passes by Uzbekistan down the left side sees them slice smoothly through the swarming Socceroos, with Masharipov on the ball near the top corner of the box.

His final pass undoes all that good build-up play, though, as he sends the ball through two yellow shirts where he thought a team-mate would be ghosting in behind but finds green grass instead.

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The Hindu Morning Digest: January 5, 2024

Families of victims of the explosions gather at the courtyard of a hospital in the city of Kerman, about 510 miles (820 kilometres) southeast of the capital Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 3, 2024.
| Photo Credit: AP

Eight Indian Navy veterans get 60 days to contest Qatar jail terms

Qatar has commuted death sentence for eight Indian Navy veterans and turned that into “varying quantum” of jail terms, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on Thursday, putting out the official confirmation about the high-profile case regarding the men who were arrested by the Gulf country in August 2022. Addressing the weekly press briefing, MEA spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said the legal team had been given 60 days to appeal against the jail terms.

Health Ministry seeks data on single women taking the Assisted Reproductive Technology route

The Union Health Ministry has sought data from all States and Union Territories on the total number of single women (divorcees/widows) and unmarried women who have successfully used Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) in order to assess the functioning of the ART Act, 2021. Fertility experts have welcomed the move, along with the inclusion of single women/unmarried women as a category.

INDIA bloc seat-sharing talks delayed as Congress panel presents State units’ wishlist to Kharge

With their INDIA bloc allies breathing down their neck to come up with a seat-sharing formula at the earliest, the Congress’ five-member National Alliance Committee on Thursday briefed Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge on the consultations they held with the party’s State units, 12 days after their first meeting on December 23. 

Aadhaar enabled payment comprised 11% of financial frauds: I4C analysis

Aadhar Enabled Payment System (AePS) frauds were 11% of the cyber financial scams that had its origin in India in 2023, an analysis by the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) has said. Most of these were committed in Bihar and Jharkhand. Last year, the central government’s portal ( and 1930 helpline received 13,10,329 complaints regarding cyber enabled financial frauds. The AePS frauds included cloning of biometrics.

Trinamool needs the support of Congress more than the Congress needs them: Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury

West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury on Friday said that the Congress party was not going to beg for seats from the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the forthcoming General Election. The remarks come at a time when Congress MP from Malda Dakshin Abu Hashem Khan Chowdhury has said that a deal had been struck with the Trinamool on giving two seats to the Congress in the State. The Congress MP was referring to the Malda Dakshin and Behrampore Lok Sabha seats.

Congress holds first meeting of manifesto committee 

The first meeting of the Congress Manifesto Committee was held here on Thursday. It was presided over by Chairman P. Chidambaram and attended by other members of the committee, including Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramiah, Jairam Ramesh, T.S. Singh Deo, Anand Sharma, Shashi Tharoor and others. 

Election Commission tweaks rules for allocation of symbols to unrecognised political parties

The Election Commission of India on Thursday brought in new rules for allocation of symbols to Registered Unrecognised Political Parties (RUPPs), making it mandatory for them to furnish audited accounts of last three financial years, expenditure statements of last two elections, and the signature of the authorised office-bearer of the party along with the application form for symbols.

Iowa school shooting | One dead, five wounded at high school in Perry; suspect dead

A 17-year-old opened fire at a small-town Iowa high school on the first day of school after the winter break, killing a sixth-grader and wounding five others as students barricaded in offices and fled in panic. The suspect, a student at the school in Perry, died of what investigators believe is a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and at least one of the victims is a school administrator, a law enforcement official told The Associated Press.

Islamic State claims responsibility for Iran attack

Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and first Vice-President Mohammad Mokhber vowed revenge on Thursday for explosions that killed at least 84 at a ceremony to commemorate top commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone in Iraq in 2020. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack. Earlier, a senior official in U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said the blasts appeared to represent “a terrorist attack” of the type carried out in the past by Islamic State militants.

Myanmar’s military government pardons nearly 10,000 prisoners to mark Independence Day

Myanmar’s military government on Thursday pardoned nearly 10,000 prisoners to mark the 76th anniversary of gaining independence from Britain, but they apparently included just a small proportion of the thousands of political detainees jailed for opposing army rule.

Centre keen to expand ECGC cover to individual jewellery exporters

Union minister for Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal on Thursday said that the Centre was keen to expand the ECGC (Export Credit Guarantee Corporation) cover, now provided to banks towards the credit limits for exporters, to even individual exporters of gems and jewellery. He was speaking at the India International Jewellery Trade Show (IIJS) organised by the Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council at Jio Centre in Mumbai.

India’s heavy digital footprint makes it more attractive to cybercrooks: experts

With a population of over 1.4 billion and a rapidly expanding economy, India’s digital footprint has made it an alluring target for cybercriminals seeking to exploit vulnerabilities, warned a group of cyber-security providers. Data breaches would skyrocket in 2024, there would be continued acceleration in ransomware activities in addition to a surge in identity-based attacks resulting from increasing cloud adoption, and deepfakes would also pose a looming threat to the country’s cybersecurity this year, they cautioned.

IND vs SA second Test | Fiery Bumrah helps Team India break a Cape Town hoodoo

The final frontier will remain the final frontier for some more time, but India’s cricketers will head back home, their heads held high. They expectedly wrapped up the second Test with plenty of time to spare on Thursday to square the two-Test series 1-1. Aiden Markram scored a stunning hundred (106, 103b, 17×4, 2×6) on an incredibly challenging track where nobody else touched 50, but that could only delay the inevitable. India’s seven-wicket victory came in the second session on the second day. It was the team’s first-ever Test victory at the Newlands Cricket Ground.

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The EU’s reply to Qatargate: Nips, tucks and paperwork

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STRASBOURG — The European Parliament’s response to Qatargate: Fight corruption with paperwork.

When Belgian police made sweeping arrests and recovered €1.5 million from Parliament members in a cash-for-influence probe last December, it sparked mass clamoring for a deep clean of the institution, which has long languished with lax ethics and transparency rules, and even weaker enforcement.

Seven months later, the Parliament and its president, Roberta Metsola, can certainly claim to have tightened some rules — but the results are not much to shout about. With accused MEPs Eva Kaili and Marc Tarabella back in the Parliament and even voting on ethics changes themselves, the reforms lack the political punch to take the sting out of a scandal that Euroskeptic forces have leaped on ahead of the EU election next year.

“Judge us on what we’ve done rather [than] on what we didn’t,” Metsola told journalists earlier this month, arguing that Parliament has acted swiftly where it could. 

While the Parliament can claim some limited improvements, calls for a more profound overhaul in the EU’s only directly elected institution — including more serious enforcement of existing rules — have been met with finger-pointing, blame-shifting and bureaucratic slow-walking. 

The Parliament dodged some headline-worthy proposals in the process. It declined to launch its own inquiry into what really happened, it decided not to force MEPs to declare their assets and it won’t be stripping any convicted MEPs of their gold-plated pensions.

Instead, the institution favored more minimal nips and tucks. The rule changes amount to much more bureaucracy and more potential alarm bells to spot malfeasance sooner — but little in the way of stronger enforcement of ethics rules for MEPs.

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, who investigates complaints about EU administration lamented that the initial sense of urgency to adopt strict reforms had “dissipated.” After handing the EU a reputational blow, she argued, the scandal’s aftermath offered a pre-election chance, “to show that lessons have been learned and safeguards have been put in place.”

Former MEP Richard Corbett, who co-wrote the Socialists & Democrats group’s own inquiry into Qatargate and favors more aggressive reforms, admitted he isn’t sure whether Parliament will get there.  

“The Parliament is getting to grips with this gradually, muddling its way through the complex field, but it’s too early to say whether it will do what it should,” he said. 

Bags of cash

The sense of resignation that criminals will be criminals was only one of the starting points that shaped the Parliament’s response. 

“We will never be able to prevent people taking bags of cash. This is human nature. What we have to do is create a protection network,” said Raphaël Glucksmann, a French MEP who sketched out some longer-term recommendations he hopes the Parliament will take up. 


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Another is that the Belgian authorities’ painstaking judicial investigation is still ongoing, with three MEPs charged and a fourth facing imminent questioning. Much is unknown about how the alleged bribery ring really operated, or what the countries Qatar, Morocco and Mauritania really got for their bribes.

On top of that, Parliament was occasionally looking outward rather than inward for people to blame. 

Metsola’s message in the wake of the scandal was that EU democracy was “under attack” by foreign forces. The emphasis on “malign actors, linked to autocratic third countries” set the stage for the Parliament’s response to Qatargate: blame foreign interference, not an integrity deficit. 

Instead of creating a new panel to investigate how corruption might have steered Parliament’s work, Parliament repurposed an existing committee on foreign interference and misinformation to probe the matter. The result was a set of medium- and long-term recommendations that focus as much on blocking IT contractors from Russia and China as they do on holding MEPs accountable — and they remain merely recommendations. 

Metsola did also turn inward, presenting a 14-point plan in January she labeled as “first steps” of a promised ethics overhaul. The measures are a finely tailored lattice-work of technical measures that could make it harder for Qatargate to happen again, primarily by making it harder to lobby the Parliament undetected.

The central figure in Qatargate, an Italian ex-MEP called Pier Antonio Panzeri, enjoyed unfettered access to the Parliament, using it to give prominence to his human rights NGO Fight Impunity, which held events and even struck a collaboration deal with the institution. 

This 14-point package, which Metsola declared is now “done,” includes a new entry register, a six-month cooling-off period banning ex-MEPs from lobbying their colleagues, tighter rules for events, stricter scrutiny of human rights work — all tailored to ensure a future Panzeri hits a tripwire and can be spotted sooner.

Notably, however, an initial idea to ban former MEPs from lobbying for two years after leaving office — which would mirror the European Commission’s rules — instead turned into just a six-month “cooling off” period.

Internal divisions

Behind the scenes, the house remains sharply divided over just how much change is needed. Many MEPs resisted bigger changes to how they conduct their work, despite Metsola’s promise in December that there would be “no business as usual,” which she repeated in July.  

The limited ambition reflects an argument — pushed by a powerful subset of MEPs, primarily in Metsola’s large, center-right European People’s Party group — that changing that “business as usual” will only tie the hands of innocent politicians while doing little to stop the few with criminal intent. They’re bolstered by the fact that the Socialists & Democrats remain the only group touched by the scandal.

“There were voices in this house who said, ‘Do nothing, these things will always happen, things are fine as they are,’” Metsola said. Some of the changes, she said, had been “resisted for decades” before Qatargate momentum pushed them through. 

The Parliament already has some of the Continent’s highest standards for legislative bodies, said Rainer Wieland, a long-serving EPP member from Germany who sits on the several key rule-making committees: “I don’t think anyone can hold a candle to us.”

MEP Rainer Wieland holds lots of sway over the reforms | Patrick Seeger/EFE via EPA

Those who are still complaining, he added in a debate last week, “are living in wonderland.”

Wieland holds lots of sway over the reforms. He chairs an internal working group on the Parliament’s rules that feeds into the Parliament’s powerful Committee on Constitutional Affairs, where Metsola’s 14-point plan will be translated into cold, hard rules. 

Those rule changes are expected to be adopted by the full Parliament in September. 

The measures will boost existing transparency rules significantly. The lead MEP on a legislative file will soon have to declare (and deal with) potential conflicts of interest, including those coming from their “emotional life.” And more MEPs will have to publish their meetings related to parliamentary business, including those with representatives from outside the EU. 

Members will also have to disclose outside income over €5,000 — with additional details about the sector if they work in something like law or consulting. 

Negotiators also agreed to double potential penalties for breaches: MEPs can lose their daily allowance and be barred from most parliamentary work for up to 60 days. 

Yet the Parliament’s track record punishing MEPs who break the rules is virtually nonexistent.

As it stands, an internal advisory committee can recommend a punishment, but it’s up to the president to impose it. Of 26 breaches of transparency rules identified over the years, not one MEP has been punished. (Metsola has imposed penalties for things like harassment and hate speech.) 

And hopes for an outside integrity cop to help with enforcement were dashed when a long-delayed Commission proposal for an EU-wide independent ethics body was scaled back. 

Stymied by legal constraints and left-right divides within the Parliament, the Commission opted for suggesting a standards-setting panel that, at best, would pressure institutions into better policing their own rules.

“I really hate listening to some, especially members of the European Parliament, who say that ‘Without having the ethics body, we cannot behave ethical[ly],’” Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová lamented in June.

Metsola, for her part, has pledged to adhere to the advisory committee’s recommendations going forward. But MEPs from across the political spectrum flagged the president’s complete discretion to mete out punishments as unsustainable.

“The problem was not (and never really was) [so] much the details of the rules!!! But the enforcement,” French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield — who sits in the working group — wrote to POLITICO.

Wieland, the German EPP member on the rule-making committees, presented the situation more matter-of-factly: Parliament had done what it said it would do.

“We fully delivered” on Metsola’s plan, Wieland told POLITICO in an interview. “Not more than that.”

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Eva Kaili is back with a new story: There’s a conspiracy

ATHENS — Eva Kaili is spinning up a new, eyebrow-raising narrative: Authorities might have targeted her because she knew too much about government spying.

After months of silence during her detention and house arrest, the most high-profile suspect in the cash-for-influence Qatargate scandal was suddenly everywhere over the weekend. 

Across a trio of interviews in the European media, the Greek European Parliament member was keen to proclaim her innocence, saying she never took any of the alleged bribes that authorities say countries such as Qatar and Morocco used to sway the Brussels machinery. 

But she also had a story to tell even darker than Qatargate, one involving insinuations of nefarious government spying and suggestions that maybe, just maybe, her jailing was politically motivated. Her work investigating the illegal use of Pegasus spyware in Europe, she argued, put her in the crosshairs of Europe’s own governments. 

“From the court file, my lawyers have discovered that the Belgian secret services have allegedly been monitoring the activities of members of the Pegasus special committee,” she told the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera.

“The fact that elected members of Parliament are being spied on by the secret services should raise more concerns about the health of our European democracy,” she added. “I think this is the ‘real scandal.’”

As Kaili reemerges and starts pointing the finger back at the government, the Belgian prosecutor’s office has decided to remain mum. A spokesperson on Monday said the prosecutor’s office was “not going to respond” to Kaili’s allegations. 

“This would violate the confidentiality of the investigation and the presumption of innocence,” the spokesperson added. “The evidence will be presented in court in due course.”

But her PR blitz is nonetheless a likely preview of Qatargate’s next chapter: The battle to win the public narrative.

A European media tour

In addition to her interview with the Italian press, Kaili also appeared in the Spanish and French press, where she expanded on her spying theory. 

In a video interview with the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, Kaili said her legal team has evidence the entire PEGA committee was being watched illegally, arguing she does not know how the police intercepted certain conversations between her and other politicians. 

“I was not spied on with Pegasus, but for Pegasus,” she said. “We believe Morocco, Spain, France and Belgium spied on the European Parliament’s committee,” she told El Mundo.

Kaili’s assertions have not been backed up by public evidence. But she didn’t equivocate as she pointed the finger.

“The fact that security services surveilled elected members of Parliament should raise enormous concerns over the state of European democracy,” Kaili said. “This goes beyond the personal: We have to defend the European Parliament and the work of its members.”

Kaili was jailed in December as part of a deep corruption probe Belgian authorities were conducting into whether foreign countries were illegally influencing the European Parliament’s work. Her arrest came after the Belgian police recovered €150,000 in cash from her apartment — where she lived with her partner, Francesco Giorgi, who was also arrested — and a money-stuffed bag her father had.

The Greek politician flatly dismissed the charges across her interviews.

“No country has ever offered me money and I have never been bribed. Not even Russia, as has been alleged,” she told El Mundo. “My lawyers and I believe this was a police operation based on false evidence.”

According to her arrest warrant, Kaili was suspected of being “the primary organizer or co-organizer” of public corruption and money laundering.

“Eva Kaili told the journalist of ‘El Mundo’ not to publish her interview, until she gave them the final OK; unfortunately, the agreement was not honored,” her lawyer Michalis Dimitrakopoulos said on Monday.

Flying in on a Pegasus (committee)

The allegations — Kaili’s first major push to spin her arrest — prompted plenty of incredulity, including from those who worked with her on the Pegasus, or PEGA, committee. It especially befuddled those who recalled that Kaili had faced accusations of undermining the committee’s work. 

“I have absolutely no reason to believe the Belgian intelligence services spied on PEGA,” said Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld, who helped prepare the committee’s final report. “Everything we do is public anyway. And we have our phones checked regularly, it makes absolutely no sense.”

Kaili’s decision to invoke her PEGA Committee work is intriguing as it taps into a controversial period of her career. 

While the panel was deep into its work in 2022, Greece was weathering its own persistent espionage scandal, which erupted after the government acknowledged it had wiretapped the leader of Kaili’s own party, Pasok. 

Yet Kaili perplexed many when she started publicly arguing in response that surveillance was common and happens across Europe, echoing the talking points of the ruling conservative government instead of her own socialist party. She also encouraged the PEGA panel not to visit Greece as part of its investigation.

The arrest warrant for MEP Andrea Cozzolino also mentions the alleged influence ringleader, former Parliament member Pier Antonio Panzeri, discussed getting Kaili on the PEGA Committee to help advance Moroccan interests (Morocco has been accused of illegally using the spyware).

A war of words?

Kaili’s media tour raises questions about how the Qatargate probe will unfold in the coming months. 

Eventually, Kaili and the other suspects will likely face trial, where authorities will have a chance to present their evidence. But until then, the suspects will have a chance to shape and push their preferred narrative — depending on what limits the court places on their public statements.

In recent weeks, Kaili has moved from jail to house arrest to an increasingly unrestricted life, allowing her more chances to opine on the case. Her lawyers also claim she will soon be back at work at the Parliament, although she is banned from leaving Belgium for Parliament’s sessions in Strasbourg.

Pieter Haeck, Eddy Wax, Antoaneta Roussi and Barbara Moens contributed reporting.

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Messi scandal spotlights Saudi ambitions to turn desert kingdom into tourist Mecca

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Lionel Messi’s promotional trip to Saudi Arabia has kicked up a storm at his Qatari-owned football club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), while also casting a spotlight on Riyadh’s efforts to showcase its heritage and lure foreign visitors. FRANCE 24 spoke to Gulf analyst Karim Sader about Saudi ambitions to turn the desert kingdom into a tourism hotspot. 

Messi, who recently lifted the World Cup trophy in Qatar, was suspended by the Parisian club this week after failing to show up for a training session just days after the French league leaders slumped to their latest, humiliating home defeat. 

Instead of trading passes with the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, the Argentinian football hero was in Saudi Arabia, a falcon perched on his arm, watching a palm-weaving demonstration and touring the Arabian Horse Museum as part of a lucrative commercial deal to promote tourism in the oil-rich nation. 

The ensuing row, which looks set to precipitate the end of Messi’s unhappy two-year spell at PSG, has exposed the competition between Gulf states eager to become major players in the money-making world of football. It has also brought to the fore Riyadh’s ambitions to become a magnet for foreign visitors. 

Tourism is indeed a pillar of “Vision 2030”, an ambitious plan to modernise and diversify the Saudi economy and reduce its dependence on oil, which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – known as MBS – unveiled in 2016. The aim is to turn this oil kingdom with a dubious human rights record into a high-end tourist destination.  

Home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, as well as six UNESCO World Heritage sites, Saudi Arabia has primarily attracted Muslim pilgrims so far. In MBS’s vision, the objective is to welcome some 30 million international visitors by 2030 and generate up to a million jobs in tourism. 

FRANCE 24 spoke to political analyst Karim Sader, a specialist in the Gulf region, about the crown prince’s plans to turn Saudi Arabia into a Mecca for foreign visitors, and the limits to his ambitions.  

FRANCE 24: The controversy over Messi has cast a spotlight on Riyadh’s ambitions for tourism. Just how important is the industry to MBS’s “Vision 2030”?  

It is clear that Saudi Arabia is sparing no efforts to build an attractive tourism industry. It’s part of the transformation of Saudi society and the desire for international recognition that MBS is pursuing through his Vision 2030 project. The aim is to develop a number of ‘soft power’ instruments, including tourism. Riyadh is trying to follow in the footsteps of its Gulf neighbours, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, which understood early on that securing international recognition meant investing in sectors with a strong media impact, such as sport, tourism and the media itself.  

Of course, the kingdom has a rich historical heritage that has long been overshadowed by the influence of Wahhabism [editor’s note: a hardline form of Sunni Islam practised in Saudi Arabia], including the magnificent site of Hegra, which bears witness to the Nabataean civilisation. But it still has a lot of work to do to build the image of a tourist destination, logistically and socially speaking. 

That is why MBS is spending lavishly to attract both industry specialists and global stars like Lionel Messi who can serve as a luxury showcase for the country. The same strategy has been deployed in sports with the spectacular signing of another football superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo [who joined Saudi club Al Nassr last December]. It proved to be a resounding PR coup for the Saudi league, which hardly anyone in the West was familiar with.  



In late March, Saudi authorities invited several French musicians, including former first lady Carla Bruni, to give a concert near the remains of the ancient desert city of Al-Ula – a revolutionary step in itself, since we’re talking about a pre-Islamic site. Promoting this type of landmark would have been unthinkable at the height of Wahhabi influence in Saudi Arabia. It’s quite a paradox that the crown prince should be leading this revolution. 

Saudi Arabia has set itself a target of creating 200 museums and organising 400 annual events to attract 30 million foreign visitors by 2030. Is this ambitious goal reachable? 

As always, the crown prince wants to move fast and hit hard – it’s both his strength and his flaw. MBS is in the process of revolutionising Saudi society and giving this sclerotic conservative kingdom a dynamism that would be the envy of the UAE, a country whose development model has long fascinated him. It’s not just a matter of spending lavishly. In his mind, it is also necessary to ensure investments are profitable by designing a technology-based tourism, betting on the construction of ‘smart’ cities that will attract investors.  

The Saudi public will need to be prepared to welcome foreign visitors and manage tourist sites. Some planned sites involve displacing local communities that have been there for many generations, which could lead to protests and security issues. One example is Neom, the futuristic city MBS plans to build in the middle of the desert. So far, the mega-project is a failure and is causing tensions, despite having cost a lot of money and allowed designers, architects and consultants to make a small fortune. In my view, Neom shows the limits of MBS’s ambitions, which could turn against him.  

To attract tourists, Saudi Arabia needs to foster a peaceful climate in the wider region. Could this be a factor behind Riyadh’s current proactive stance on the diplomatic stage? 

The development of tourism is part of MBS’s “Saudi First” strategy, which aims to guarantee the stability of the kingdom in a pacified regional context, both in terms of security and the economy – and whatever the cost in terms of alliances. Riyadh has freed itself from its traditional alliances and now leads an extremely supple diplomacy. This allows it to engage in a rapprochement with [arch-rival] Iran and China while also preserving its partnership with the United States. Diplomatically, as well as economically, the Saudis are now investing in a pragmatic way. The days of careless spending are over; the cliché no longer holds. 

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Not just Qatargate: Eva Kaili also faces probe into EU kickbacks scheme

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Voiced by artificial intelligence.

Qatargate aside, Eva Kaili is facing a world of pain for a different reason altogether. 

Documents seen by POLITICO reveal fresh details about a separate criminal investigation that the Greek EU lawmaker is facing regarding allegedly fraudulent payments involving four former assistants in the European Parliament from 2014 to 2020. 

The probe is looking at Kaili for three potential fraudulent activities: whether she misled Parliament about her assistants’ location and work activities; took a cut of their reimbursements for “fake” work trips she orchestrated; and also took kickbacks from part of their salaries, according to a letter from the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) to Parliament President Roberta Metsola, seen by POLITICO. 

Another Greek EU lawmaker, Maria Spyraki, has also been part of the same probe. Investigators accuse her of misleading the institution about her assistants’ activities and of telling them to file expenses for fake work trips. However, the documents do not allege that Spyraki took kickbacks from salaries or false reimbursements.

In total, investigators say Kaili owes the European Parliament “around €100,000,” according to a person familiar with the case.

The details offer the first real insight into the inquiry since it became public in December, only days after Kaili was put in jail under suspicion that she was involved in an even bigger scandal, Qatargate — the alleged bribery ring that prosecutors say involved countries such as Qatar and Morocco paying off European Parliament members.

And with all Qatargate suspects now out of detention, and no new arrests since February, attention is now shifting to the fraud case. MEPs in the Parliament’s legal affairs committee will discuss Kaili’s case behind closed doors for the first time on Tuesday. 

Kaili, who was moved to house arrest earlier this month, is currently fighting the prosecutor’s request to strip her immunity — a privilege afforded to EU lawmakers. But the EU prosecutor’s office, which investigates criminal fraud linked to EU funds, has argued its probe is on solid ground.

“The current investigation pertains to strong suspicions of repeated fraud and/or other serious irregularities,” European Chief Prosecutor Laura Kövesi said in the letter seen by POLITICO, which was sent to Parliament in December and requested both Kaili and Spyraki be stripped of their immunity. 

EPPO declined to comment on the case for this article. Kaili, through an attorney, said she has promised to pay back any money owed and to comply with any recommendations. Spyraki told POLITICO that her case has nothing to do with Kaili, and she confirmed she has never been accused of taking kickbacks.

“I have no dispute on the budget based on my responsibility as supervisor,” she said. “I have already paid the relevant amount and I have already asked the services to reassess my case financially.”


The European prosecutor went public about the fraud inquiry on December 15, just days after Kaili had been arrested in Brussels in connection with Qatargate. 

The notice named both Kaili, who belonged to the center-left Socialists and Democrats grouping, and Spyraki, a former journalist and former spokesperson for the center-right Greek party New Democracy, which is affiliated with the large European People’s Party group in Brussels.

The announcement came the same day Kövesi sent her immunity-lifting request to Metsola. The documents also named four former staffers of Kaili and two former assistants to Spyraki as potentially participating in the different schemes. 

But officials publicly offered few specifics about the inquiry, only noting that it was unrelated to the Qatargate affair, which had also ensnared Kaili’s life partner Francesco Giorgi, as well as several other current and former EU lawmakers. 

Now the details are starting to emerge. 

According to the letter seen by POLITICO, the EPPO probe is examining both Kaili and Spyraki over irregularities regarding their assistants’ “physical presence at the place of employment” and “related European Parliament decisions on working time.”  

According to the same letter, another line of inquiry is “fake missions, submission of false supporting documents and undue reimbursement claims for missions expenses by the APAs on the request of Ms Kaili and Ms Spyraki.” APA is an acronym for accredited parliamentary assistant.

Eva Kaili poses for the “MEPs for #millennialvoices”campaign in 2016 | European Parliament

Kaili specifically is also under investigation for receiving “payback” from her assistants’ salaries and the falsified expenses.

The public prosecutor’s probe follows an investigation by the EU’s anti-fraud office, known as OLAF, which was completed on November 23 of last year. OLAF then transferred its case to EPPO, it said in a December statement.

OLAF said it would leave any follow-up to the public prosecutor’s office, declining to comment beyond its statement four months ago. 

Immunity fight

The EPPO case is also becoming entangled in the fight over whether to lift Kaili’s immunity.

Immunity is a special privilege MEPs enjoy that is intended to protect them from being arbitrarily prosecuted for what they say or do as EU lawmakers. It can be waived following a recommendation by the legal affairs committee and a vote by all MEPs.

Parliament is now starting that process for Kaili, having already kicked it off for Spyraki. MEPs will discuss Kaili’s immunity at the legal affairs committee gathering on Tuesday.

Investigators say Kaili owes the European Parliament “around €100,000” | European Parliament

Spyros Pappas, Kaili’s lawyer, argued that typically, such fraud cases are closed after OLAF finishes its probe — as it did with Kaili — with the lawmaker paying back whatever the office says is owed. He also questioned how officials could justify lifting immunity for actions that stretch back to 2014. 

“One cannot but question both the legality and the opportunity of the initiative taken by EPPO,” he said. “The answer can only be given by the General Court of Justice of the EU.”

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AHRC underwhelmed by FIFA’s response to report into Australia’s human rights record ahead of Women’s World Cup

Significant human rights risks identified as part of an analysis ahead of this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup have been ignored by the sport’s international governing body, raising concerns for the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC).

Commissioned by FIFA, the AHRC analysis identified 57 risks associated with Australia’s co-hosting of the event to be staged in numerous cities around the country from July.

Risks raised include the rights of athletes, workers, First Nations people and children, with 21 of them earning a “tier 1” ranking, the most serious of three tiers.

“In and of itself, that’s not surprising,” AHRC commissioner Lorraine Finlay told The Ticket.

“When you do an in-depth risk analysis like that you will identify a wide variety of human rights issues to think about.

“What’s important is what comes next — what do you do when you identify those risks? How do you address them? How do you actually put things into action to make sure that those risks aren’t borne out? That’s the critical thing.

“And that’s where I do have concerns coming into the Women’s World Cup.”

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I asked ChatGPT to help me plan a vacation. Here’s what happened next

Some people love travel planning.

But I am not one of those people.

So the idea that artificial intelligence chatbots, such as ChatGPT and Bing, can research travel destinations and create itineraries is intriguing.

But I’m skeptical too.

Do recommendations just scratch the surface — for example, suggesting that I see the Eiffel Tower in Paris? Or can they recommend lesser-known restaurants and handle specific hotel requests too?

The answer is: yes and no — at least for ChatGPT.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t test Bing. When I tried to access it, I was put on a waiting list. The website said I could “get ahead in the line” if I set Microsoft defaults on my computer and scanned a QR code to install the Bing app. I did both. I’m still waiting.

ChatGPT was easier. I went to the developer’s website, clicked on the word “ChatGPT,” registered for an account — and started chatting.

‘Can you help me plan a beach trip?’

“Of course!” replied ChatGPT. But first, I needed to tell it about my interests, budget and how long I planned to be away.

I’m looking for a week-long beach trip in mid-March to spend time with my family, with no set budget, I typed.

“Sounds like a wonderful idea!” it replied, before recommending Hawaii, the Caribbean — specifically the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic — Florida and Costa Rica, along with details about the weather and popular attractions for each.

Nice. But I live in Singapore, I said.

“I see!” it exclaimed. (ChatGPT loves exclamation points.) In that case, Bali, Indonesia; Langkawi, Malaysia; and Phuket and Krabi in Thailand were better choices.

ChatGPT is nothing if not apologetic.

Cost estimates for each hotel were more accurate. But ChatGPT couldn’t show photographs of the hotels or help book them — although it did provide ample instructions on how to do both.

By road or by rail?


ChatGPT can name airlines that connect cities, but it can’t give current flight information or help book flights.  

It wasn’t able to tell me the cheapest fare — or any fare — from London to New York this spring because it doesn’t “have access to real-time pricing information,” it said.

In fact, ChatGPT data ends at September 2021; it doesn’t “know” anything that’s happened since.

However, the bot could answer which month the London-to-New York route is usually the cheapest, which it said is “January and February, or during the shoulder season months of March and November.”

As for the best airline in the world, it said: “As an AI language model, I cannot have personal preferences or opinions.” But it went on to name the top five airlines named to Skytrax’s “World’s Top 100 Airlines” in 2021.

The list wasn’t correct.

The list provided by ChatGPT appears to be Skytrax’s airline ranking from 2019 instead.  

“Where should I eat?”

Specific questions

I had many more questions for ChatGPT, such as:

“How should I spend five days in South Africa?”
“Which chateaux accept visitors in Bordeaux?”
“If I only have one day in London, what should I do?”
“Which rides have the longest lines at Disney World?”

But before I could, my screen said “Access denied” alongside an “error code 1020” message.

This error may be caused by overloaded servers or by exceeding the daily limit, according to the tech website Stealth Optional. Either way, all of my previous chats were inaccessible, a huge negative for travelers in the middle of the planning process.

A new window didn’t fix the problem, but opening one in “incognito mode” did. Once in, I clicked on “Upgrade to Plus,” which showed that the free plan is available when demand is low, but for $20 per month, the “Plus plan” gives access to ChatGPT all the time, faster responses and priority to use new features.

With access again, I quickly asked about wait times on Disney World rides, a subject which I had spoken to luxury travel advisor Jonathan Alder of Jonathan’s Travels about last week. Alder lives close to the park and has lost count of how many times he’s visited, he said. Yet, only one of their answers — Epcot’s “Frozen Ever After” — overlapped.

ChatGPT mentioned that FastPass and Genie+ can reduce wait times at Disney World, which is partly right. The company phased out its “skip the line” virtual queue FastPass program when it introduced Genie+ in the fall of 2021.

The takeaway

ChatGPT is fast, chatty and feels like you’re interacting with a human. I found myself responding with unnecessary pleasantries — “Ok, sure” and “Thank you” — out of habit.

I could see how it could save travelers’ time, especially if they are looking for an overview or are at the early stages of planning.

But information will need to be current, of course — and bugs and error messages, which I faced several times in addition to the “1020” message mentioned above — will need to be fixed.

OpenAI states that the current ChatGPT version “is a free research preview.” It also says the system may “occasionally generate incorrect or misleading information” and that it’s “not intended to give advice.”

When I asked it about its travel planning abilities, it said it “can assist with many aspects of travel planning” but that it may not be able to “provide personalized advice based on your unique circumstances.”

My verdict: Travel agents’ jobs are secure for the time being.

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Did A-League Men attendances benefit from the Socceroos’ Qatar World Cup bump?

Late last year, in scenes reminiscent of the most exciting football crowds in Europe and South America, tens of thousands of people packed into city squares, stadiums, and public parks around Australia to cheer on the Socceroos’ historic World Cup campaign in Qatar.

For many of the country’s footballing faithful, the huge crowds that flocked to these places confirmed something they already knew: the round-ball game is one of Australia’s biggest and most popular sports, with a vibrant and passionate fanbase unlike that of most other domestic codes.

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Celebrations in Federation Square as Australia qualify for World Cup knockouts

But you wouldn’t know it from watching the A-League Men (ALM), Australia’s top-tier domestic league, every week.

In contrast to the images from Federation Square in November, pictures of fans scattered around half-empty stadiums have become the norm in the ALM over the past few years.

Following the World Cup, players and coaches alike expressed hope that the Socceroos’ strongest-ever performance might re-ignite the spark that saw the ALM bouncing a decade ago.

“We hope that what we’ve achieved here can help grow the game back home because the A-League is better than it’s perceived,” Adelaide United winger and Qatar goal-scorer Craig Goodwin said.

“The message to [the public] is ‘get out and see the Socceroos players that are playing in the A-League.’ Support your local teams and embrace Australian football; help it grow. It’s about building on what we’ve done here, not just as a playing group, but as a nation as well.”

So has it worked? Has the Socceroos’ World Cup ‘bump’ seen waves of new fans flock to the ALM?

According to an ABC News analysis of data collated by and, no.

In fact, in the seven rounds of the ALM held since Australia were knocked out in Qatar by eventual winners Argentina, the league has recorded some of its worst average match attendances so far this season — and some of the lowest overall in its history.

Round 7, the first weekend of games held after the Socceroos’ exit from Qatar, attracted an average attendance of just under 6,000 people: lower than all the rounds held before the World Cup.

Figures haven’t improved much from there, with the seven rounds since the tournament containing six of the least-attended weekends this season.

The highest attendance point so far in the 2022/23 ALM season was in Round 6, the last round before the World Cup break.

However, the higher-than-average figures were boosted by two key derby games: the Sydney Derby between Sydney FC and Western Sydney (34,232 people) and the “Original Rivalry” derby between Adelaide United and Melbourne Victory (13,504 people).

Without these, the current ALM season was trending towards its lowest average attendances ever, only just topping the two pandemic-hit seasons that saw several games played behind closed doors.

This mid-season slump has only been made worse by the Melbourne derby pitch invasion of Round 8, whose punishments have included restrictions on ticket sales and negative headlines that have potentially driven away new and casual football fans.

Until then, Melbourne Victory had attracted the highest average attendances to all their games across the season. But following the sanctions, those numbers have plunged.

Victory aren’t the only club to experience a drop in numbers following the World Cup, though.

In fact, the biggest overall decline has been the Western Sydney Wanderers, whose average attendance across all games featuring them has fallen by more than 60 per cent, while Brisbane Roar, Sydney FC and the Newcastle Jets have seen overall decreases of at least 30 per cent.

But not all is doom and gloom. Some teams — mostly those that have the highest number of Socceroos within their ranks — have seen increases to their home attendance figures, or at least minimised the falls experienced elsewhere.

Looking just at home crowds, Melbourne City, where Mathew Leckie, Jamie Maclaren and Marco Tilio play, has seen a 43 per cent boost to home match attendances since Qatar, while the Central Coast Mariners, where Jason Cummings, Danny Vukovic, and recently departed Garang Kuol were the headline acts, went up by 36 per cent on pre-tournament levels.

Indeed, when taking just home game attendance averages into account, Western Sydney and Western United have both seen slight boosts, too.

Melbourne Victory, with its sanctions, have seen the biggest average fall in home crowds. And while Sydney FC continues to draw the biggest home crowds in the league, average attendance has fallen by nearly half since the World Cup.

Perth Glory’s overall and home attendance figures have been excluded from this comparison because they did not play a single home game before the World Cup, while their post-tournament games (which have mostly been at home) have been temporarily moved to the smaller 4,500-capacity Macedonia Park, which they have regularly filled and created vibrant atmospheres in the process, arguably showing the potential benefits of smaller stadiums for the ALM going forward.

Stuck in the pandemic blues

While leagues like the AFL and NRL saw crowd numbers return to near-historic levels in the 2022 season, the A-League Men seems to be trapped in the pandemic doldrums.

The latest men’s AFL season saw attendances across the first 22 rounds average around 31,000 people — only about four per cent lower than the historic average.

Meanwhile, although the current ALM season is an improvement on the previous COVID-ravaged seasons, crowds are still more than 25 per cent below historic norms, with the past four seasons the worst in the 18-year history of the competition.

So, if the Socceroos’ best-ever run at a World Cup can’t even boost interest in the ALM, what can?

This has been one of Australian football’s “golden questions” for several years, and one that is increasingly shaping decision-making by the Australian Professional Leagues (the club-run governing body in charge of the A-Leagues), from negotiating new broadcast deals to controversially selling the grand final hosting rights to Sydney for the next three seasons.

But the dilemma of how to translate football’s booming participation base (almost two million people take part in football in some way in Australia), as well as the enthusiasm shown for the Socceroos and Matildas during major tournaments, into regular fans of the struggling local competitions is not as simple as that.

The A-Leagues currently sit in the centre of a bigger Venn diagram of forces including competing with rival summer codes, a lack of mainstream media coverage and marketing cut-through, television and streaming bungles, increasingly uncomfortable summer temperatures, few “big-name” star players, a perceived lack of quality, and unrest from dedicated active fan groups: issues that have existed for far longer, but which the World Cup slump has brought into sharper focus.

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