From maverick player to crisis manager: What Qatar wants from its World Cup

Hosting the World Cup is the ultimate ‘soft power coup’. But Qatar could find the investment may not be worth the return

With the city skyline in the background, migrant workers rest at the Doha port, in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022. Final preparations are being made for the soccer World Cup which starts on Nov. 20 when Qatar face Ecuador. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
With the city skyline in the background, migrant workers rest at the Doha port, in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022.
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Hassan Ammar

Mere months after the extended crisis between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbours came to an end – a period that cost it billions to survive – the small Gulf state is now about to spend four weeks in the international limelight as host of the World Cup. Its leaders are hoping to enhance their country’s reputation and become a diplomatic hub for network-building. But this outcome is by no means certain.

Qatar is certainly paying for the privilege of hosting. This year’s World Cup will be the most expensive FIFA tournament in history, costing $220 billion – almost 20 times what Russia spent in 2018, and far higher than the previous highest budget of $15 billion for the 2014 contest in Brazil. Germany spent only $4.3 billion when holding it in 2006. Qatar had little suitable infrastructure to host a World Cup when it bid. It has built stadiums from scratch as well as all of the hospitality, transport, and logistics infrastructure – especially renewing the airport and building new subway lines – needed to host a global mega-event. Even with the new construction, some of the anticipated 1.5 million visitors are struggling to find affordable accommodation. The average prices for tourist accommodation have skyrocketed and, in some cases, authorities have evicted temporary residents to make room for fans. These are only some of the challenges that come with holding an event of this size in an 11,000 square kilometre country with 3 million inhabitants.

And yet, all of these costs and potential disruptions are worth it in the eyes of the Qatari government. Indeed, hosting the World Cup is not really about the football in a country that has little tradition of the beautiful game. Instead, this is the apex of a years-long strategy to accrue soft power and international prestige – two extremely valuable currencies for a small country in such a volatile and unstable region. Since the early 2000s, Qatar has hosted more than 600 regional and international athletics competitions, alongside international business exhibitions and cultural events. It has used these as part of a much larger international branding campaign that included the establishment of a global air carrier, Qatar Airways, and flagship investments around the world, from The Shard in London to French football team Paris Saint-Germain, and beyond. Qatar has done all this to present itself as a powerful, financially solid, and internationally recognised actor. But hosting the World Cup is the most important ‘soft power coup’ of them all.

For Qatar, the World Cup is the apex of a years-long strategy to accrue soft power and international prestige – two extremely valuable currencies for a small country in such a volatile and unstable region.

Indeed, to prepare for the World Cup, Qatar has also shifted gears on its reputational campaign. If between the early 2000s and the Arab uprisings, Qatar had focused on strengthening and deploying its soft power to mediate regional crises, the decade after 2011 was characterised by maverick regional policies and support for unpalatable and anti-Western non-state actors. But with the World Cup approaching, Qatar’s policy outlook changed substantially and realigned with its substantially less controversial behaviour of the early 2000s. This is evident in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: Doha has been unambiguous in its condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has provided high-level platforms to Ukrainian voices, including by inviting President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak at the 2022 Doha Forum. This year, Qatar has also engaged in negotiations with several European countries – especially Germany and Italy – to respond to their energy security needs, albeit with mixed results. Doha is now free of major concerns related to regional threats to its security, especially after the end of the intra-Gulf crisis in 2021, the three-year period in which its neighbours extended a partial economic embargo and a full political boycott against it. Qatar has instead tried to play a constructive role on some enduring issues in its region. For example, it gave logistical, political, and financial support to the US and European actors in their chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Again, trying to be a useful partner, Doha has emerged as a mediator between the United States and Iran. (In this sense it is almost poetic that the US and Iran will play each other on 29 November, in one of the first games of the competition.) US and European decision-makers have acknowledged Qatar for these choices, and it has been rewarded for its efforts: in January, the US designated Qatar a “major non-NATO ally” – the only country in the Middle East and North Africa region to receive such a status.

Yet, Qatar has still not managed to resolve its reputational problem in Western public opinion and civil society; and, if anything, its role as host has only raised its profile in a negative sense. NGOs have initiated boycott campaigns and prominent football personalities such as Harry Kane and Gary Lineker have spoken out against Qatar hosting the World Cup. Criticism has especially focused on the working conditions of labour migrants on construction sites in the country, which are characterised by poor hygiene and living standards, legal insecurity, and exploitation. To cushion itself against these accusations, Qatar has tried to address concerns on workers’ rights. Doha created a fund in 2018 to settle outstanding salaries, it set a minimum wage for migrant workers in March 2021, and it established arbitration boards for salary disputes. In 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) was allowed to open an office in Qatar to monitor progress on labour reforms. Workers can now change jobs, resign, or leave the country without the permission of their ‘guarantor’ (kafil). And yet, as both the ILO and Amnesty International have said, challenges remain. For example, there have been 37 deaths directly linked to the construction of World Cup stadiums.

Qatari voices – including Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani – complain of an “unprecedented disinformation campaign” that targets them unfairly. The country’s leaders may note that it has received greater scrutiny than Russia did before its World Cup in 2018, China before it held the Winter Olympics this year, and the United Arab Emirates when it hosted EXPO 2020. Qatar’s bet was always that having the World Cup was worth the backlash, as it would transform Doha into a diplomatic hub – but it did not expect the reaction to be so fierce that it could tarnish the prestige of the Cup itself. Decision-makers in Doha were hoping the tournament would help present their country as a modern, wealthy society and dispel the orientalist tropes that often colour conversations about their small Gulf Arab state in the West. Instead, media attention – at least in the US and some European countries – has been on divergences in judgments, ideas, and priorities. In the end, Qatari decision-makers would be well advised not to measure the World Cup’s success in terms of branding.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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