Qatar’s £200,000,000,000 gamble to buy a place on the world stage

Nov 2022 9:00 amShare

– metro.co.uk

Qatar knows that the spectacle will be watched beyond the borders of Western democracies, places where the moral and political divide is less stark.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino, left, and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani leave the stage before the 2022 soccer World Cup draw
For better or worse, Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani will be in the spotlight throughout the World Cup (Picture: AP)

What does ‘£200,000,000,000 well spent’ look like for Qatar?

It has an economy roughly the same size as Greece but its population of less than three million is more like Wales.

In reality, the money doesn’t even have to go that far – its riches are divided between full citizens, an exclusive category which makes up about one sixth of its inhabitants and excludes the migrant workers which swell its numbers.

It has poured eye-watering amounts of its wealth into hosting the World Cup, with the final bill for a decade of preparation and construction exceeding the country’s entire gross domestic product.

By pumping vast reserves of cash generated by its energy industry into the tournament, Qatar has bought itself a place in the centre of the world stage, not one it is used to occupying.

The tiny nation will step out of the shadow of its neighbour Saudi Arabia, the regional power which dwarfs it geopolitically as well as physically (Qatar is roughly the same size as Yorkshire, jutting out into the Persian Gulf on a lonely peninsula). 

For three weeks, it will be the only place that matters for millions of fans tuning in to watch the World Cup, one of the only events on the planet which can claim to be truly global.

No matter how much oil is under its ground, writing a cheque worth the value of its entire economy represents a staggering investment – so what’s in it for Qatar?

Doctor Steffen Hertog is an expert in the region from the London School of Economics and has been wrestling with how Gulf nations try to maximise power for years.

A boy playing football with the Doha skyline behind him
Football is popular across the Middle East but Fifa has face criticism for taking the showpiece tournament away from the sport’s global heartlands (Picture: Goal Click/Getty)

‘I think the main motivation is reputational’, he told Metro.co.uk, ‘and, more broadly, Gulf rulers’ desire for their country to be seen as a serious place with something to offer culturally, not an oil sheikhdom’. 

The downsides are obvious. ‘Sportwashing’ has become a buzzword in British football parlance since the Saudi-backed takeover of Newcastle United.

While ‘some leaders might genuinely believe’ it’s possible to ‘clean’ their reputations by investing in PR-friendly endeavours, Dr Hertog said, the concept has clear drawbacks. 

For many, Qatar’s time in the spotlight has seen it become synonymous with autocracy, woeful LGBQT rights and the horrifying treatment of workers which has seen thousands die building lavish stadiums.

Some teams are expected to mount modest protests at the tournament, many fans are staying away and involvement in promoting the tournament for financial gain by figures like David Beckham has become PR poison.

On the pitch, football is a sport which is dominated by countries with governments deemed, to varying degrees, democratic – of the top 20 in Fifa’s rankings, only Iran bucks the trend.

The teams which stand a realistic chance of lifting the trophy represent countries where a majority of their populations take freedoms and liberties absent from life in Qatar for granted.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani speaking to Russia's Vladimir Putin
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani with the last head of state to oversee a World Cup, Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Picture: AP)

There is, Dr Hertog explains, a general miscalculation across the region that prompts its leaders to ‘underestimate the risks of drawing attention to their country and overestimate their states’ attractiveness in the international public eye’.

He continued: ‘Gulf rulers tend to underestimate the value of “flying below the radar” and the level of scrutiny and criticism that the Western public sphere can mobilize.

‘With the partial exception of Kuwait, they have no such sphere at home and much of their interaction with the West is through more elite-led and relatively less visible security and commercial links.’

But Qatar isn’t the first non-democratic country to weigh the risk of drawing the free world’s gaze to within its borders and conclude the upsides are still worth the money.

China did the same with the Olympics in 2008 and Russia followed suit when it held the World Cup in 2018.

Qatar knows that the spectacle will be watched beyond the borders of Western democracies, places where the moral and political divide is less stark.

Dr Hertog said: ‘The impact of a major sport event on a country’s image in the Global South tends to be different, including in emerging market democracies outside of the liberal parts of the OECD. 

‘A soft power play through sports events is more likely to work there, and football is a global game, not a Western one. 

The Doha skyline
The small peninsula has been transformed by wealth generated by the energy industry (Picture: Getty)

‘This motivation and effect tend to be underestimated in the West, which can be quite parochial and thinks its own perceptions are globally shared.’

There are also clearly people within Fifa who see the upsides to working with a government less confined by regulations and the public scrutiny that spending billions on a sporting event inevitably attracts.

Jerome Valcke, the organisation’s former head, once memorably said: ‘I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup’.

Speaking in 2013, two years before being kicked out of Fifa amid a corruption scandal he denied any involvement in, he praised Vladimir Putin as a ‘very strong head of state’ who can make it ‘easier for us organisers’.

Despite lacking the military might of other powers in the Middle East, Qatar has learned to punch well above its weight in world affairs.

It is a founding members of the Gulf Cooperation Council and has successfully resisted becoming a vassal state to Saudi Arabia.

In 2017, Qatar was blockaded by a Saudi-led bloc which severed ties with their neighbour in retaliation for what it said was support for Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Doha’s friendly ties with groups like the Taliban and Hamas are well-documented but there was a lot more to the row than met the eye.

Qatar's emir walking with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman
Qatar’s relations with neighbouring Saudi Arabia under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman are strained but have stabilised since 2021 (Picture: AP)

Qatar maintains relatively good relations with Iran, the country Saudi Arabia is engaged in a proxy war with, and this angered Riyadh under the newly assertive leadership of its impulsive young de facto dictator, crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman.  

Taken together with their close ties with Turkey, another regional rival, plus the perceived favourable coverage given to Arab Spring protests by the Qatari-funded news outlet Al Jazeera, the tiny kingdom found itself on the wrong side of its bigger neighbour.

And yet Qatar emerged stronger – or, as Doctor Sanam Vakli of Chatham House put it in 2021, throughout the crisis, ‘Doha neither buckled nor bent’. 

It has a unique status in the region, positioned between rival powers and the four-year crisis generated ‘a groundswell of national support’ for the Emir, ‘solidifying a stronger sense of Qatari identity’.

Its role as an intermediary has an important function for the UK too: since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, Britain’s diplomatic mission has been based in Qatar. 

To avoid clashing with its latest hosts, Fifa has strayed into ‘leave politics out of football’ territory but publicly the organisation at least nominally hopes the World Cup can be a positive, liberalising force.

Migrant workers in Qatar
The tournament would not have been possible without an influx of migrant labour (Picture: AP)

This hopeful aim was on full display when an agreement for direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha was agreed which, in Fifa’s words, meant ‘Israelis and Palestinians will be able to fly together and enjoy football together’.

In comments which may prove in hindsight to have been over-ambitious, its president Gianni Infantino said: ‘The World Cup is the ultimate symbol of football’s unifying power, and today’s historic announcement provides a platform to improve relations across the Middle East.’

In the West there has been much focus on what is perceived to be wrong about Qatari culture but, in Dr Hertog’s assessment, the tournament has had some positive inward influence.

He said: ‘There has been substantial progress on workers’ rights through a deep International Labour Organisation engagement, reform of the labour sponsorship system and outreach to international unions. 

‘The process is far from complete, but little of it would not have happened without the glaring international spotlight after Qatar got the award for the 2022 tournament.’

But from gay rights to the treatment of workers, a view of life in Qatar has formed for many watching from the West that will not be easily shifted by three weeks of football on television.

Qatar is ‘smaller and more vulnerable’ than other authoritarian states in the sports business and is ‘much keener on a good image in the West’, Dr Hertog said.

‘Russia and China don’t care much if at all about their image in the West – international events rather serve to show they don’t need Western approval and have a large non-Western audience.’

This is Qatar’s £200,000,000,000 gamble in a nutshell – will it be able to sell itself around the world in markets with completely different demands when, for many, their minds are already made up?

The emir and his inner circle will only really know ten years down the line whether the outlay was worth it and if they have achieved their ambition of being seen as a ‘serious country that contributes more than hydrocarbons exports’. 

Will it work? Dr Hertog said: ‘I think they’ll get some of this – but not as much as they hoped.’

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.