The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today we turn the floodlights on in the stadium that is Qatar, illuminating the first Arab country to host the football World Cup. With so many challenges at stake, the extraordinary world event has already put this economic, political and diplomatic player in the Gulf to the test, even before a ball has been kicked.
From November 20, Qatar will be ready to kick-off the FIFA men’s football World Cup 2022, thus becoming the first Middle Eastern country to host this prestigious tournament. The event represents the coronation of Qatar’s longstanding football strategy. In the past two decades, Doha has invested considerably in international sports, which have become a soft power tool per se at the country’s disposal, and more generally, also as a source of national pride for the wealthy states of the Gulf. But for Qatar, becoming a prime venue for such mega-events is not limited to attracting foreign investments and achieving global visibility in the sporting realm: rather it fits neatly into the country’s broader foreign outlook. As Qatar resurfaces from diplomatic isolation and leaves the 2017-21 embargo behind itself, the World Cup will greatly benefit regional relations in particular. For instance, Qatar’s neighbours are preparing to welcome a significant influx of spectators, as the small country will only be able to host circa 1.5 million visitors. At the same time, global attention upon Doha has highlighted unresolved issues. Among these, unfavourable payments of foreign workers has been under the spotlight. Although some reforms have been adopted, concerns persist about their adequacy and implementation. Regional competition will also attract attention.
Experts from the ISPI MED network focus on Qatar, the host nation of the FIFA World Cup 2022
Qatar: A good example of how to use economic hard power
“Qatar’s sporting endeavours provide us with a notable case study upon the ways in which hard power can be strategically used for soft power gains. Indeed, while Qatar has limited military capabilities of its own, thanks to the sale of its oil and natural gas rich resources, the state occupies a level of wealth that most (small) states could not imagine. In several ways, this places Qatar in a far more favourable position than many other countries when it comes to soft power deployment – Qatar can obviously dedicate far greater sums of wealth and investments to its soft power push, and can also, in certain instances where permitted, out-bid others for key soft power assets. By doing so, within the realm of global sport, Qatar’s niche soft power strategy rests upon three key pillars: the hosting of sports events; overseas sports investments; and leveraging domestic excellence.”
Danyel Reiche, Visiting Research Fellow, Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS); and Visiting Associate Professor; Georgetown University Qatar
Investing in global sporting events: a strong soft power tool
“States are willing to pay enormous sums for hosting mega-events. This is mainly because hosting such events commands worldwide attention and, through soft power, prestigious mega-events can be used to broadcast or reframe national images. However, soft power is not solely a tool of international relations; states have also used mega-events to introduce new concepts of the nation and national identity to their domestic populations. In this way, soft power targets multiple audiences and functions at multiple levels, but it is neither quantifiable nor stable. Instead, it is subjective and mutates over time. Thus, the goals of a mega-event soft power project can change between initial bidding and the opening ceremonies. In the end, there are no guarantees that actual outcomes in targeted populations will match the desires of authorities. And there is no reason to believe that these fundamental aspects of soft power in mega-events will be any different for Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022.”
Sven Daniel Wolfe, Junior Lecturer, University of Lausanne
“A small country with big ambition can still pull off what many said was impossible”
“For Qatar, hosting the World Cup is a triumph of sorts after its isolation by the other GCC states during the embargo of 2017 and 2021. It is also a clear projection of its soft power with the substantial clout of its position as one of the world’s top three exporters of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). The recent spike in gas prices to record levels has boosted Qatar’s revenues to their highest level since 2013. Between January and September, the emirate earned more than $100 billion from gas sales, a level it has not achieved since 2014, and that is likely to go even higher by the end of the year. It is not only Qatar that stands to benefit from hosting the event. With the embargo behind them, the other Gulf Arab states are preparing for an influx of soccer fans, with hotels in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf Arab capitals starting to fill up. The Dubai-Doha route will see 48 flights a day, to and from the two capitals, while Saudi Arabia plans to use five airports to transport fans to the Qatari capital. It’s worth remembering that Qatar and the UAE have invested heavily in sports, particularly football. Qatar acquired the football club Paris St Germain in 2011, and Abu Dhabi took over Manchester City, while Saudi Arabia recently purchased Newcastle United, so football seems to be in the blood in this part of the world. If Qatar pulls off the event without a hitch, it will have proved to the world that a small country with big ambition can still pull off what many said was impossible.”
Kate Dourian, Contributing Editor, MEES; Non-Resident Fellow, AGSIW; and Fellow, Energy Institute
Qatar under the spotlight: an opportunity for Doha to advance reforms on foreign labour?
“In the twelve years since Qatar successfully won its bid to host the FIFA World Cup 2022, the small Gulf country has faced a growing backlash over their poor treatment of foreign labourers, who account for over 95 per cent of its private sector labour force. The criticism eventually compelled Qatar to coordinate with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and implement measures to counter the negative consequences of its sponsorship (kafala) system. The measures have yet to see any meaningful improvement in the lives of migrants; arduous working conditions, delayed or incomplete compensation and restrictions on freedom of movement are still commonplace. Scrutiny from the international community urged Qatari authorities to acknowledge the problem exists – and will hopefully apply similar pressures to its Gulf neighbours – yet poor implementation of legislation means entrenched power dynamics prevail that reward large employers and deny basic human rights to migrant workers. This is an opportunity for Qatar to show it can reform the kafala system; otherwise, it will likely leave a lasting stain on its reputation and create a divisive atmosphere around a global spectacle aimed at bringing people together.”
Brooke Sherman, Program Coordinator, Middle East Program, Wilson Center
Clouds keep looming on the other side of the Gulf
“The Iranian-Qatari relations have been of particular significance for both sides, mainly due to shared natural resource reserves, and have been deepened since the outbreak of the GCC crisis. The crisis has formed a win-win relation between Tehran and Doha. Export of Iranian goods (particularly food items) to Qatar rose significantly from 2017 to 2018, and Qatar Airways was allowed to use Iran´s airspace to avoid interruption of its operations. In return, the cash deprived Tehran, received millions of dollars at the peak of Trump’s maximum pressure. At the same time, Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military presence within the region (al-Ubaid airbase), which can be considered a major threat for Iran. This puts Iran-Qatar relations in a peculiar position as it can indeed be crucial in the event of military confrontation between Iran and the United States, the likelihood of which remains extremely low at this stage. Some GCC member states have historically taken a softer stand towards Iran´s regional and nuclear aspirations (i.e. Qatar, Kuwait and Oman) and frequently played a mediating role to help resolving the issues derived by such aspiration. However, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have remained consistent in pursuing their agenda against the Iranian regime´s regional and nuclear policies. Therefore, with the complete collapse of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, which seems to be the likeliest scenario now, Doha´s relation with Tehran and its disagreement with other GCC members over Iran will be of high importance for all interested parties in the near future.”
Sara Bazoobandi, Associate Research Fellow, ISPI; Marie Curie Fellow, GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies