Complaints of human rights abuses have clouded the run-up, but there is a good chance they will die down once host nation Qatar kicks off the World Cup on Sunday. By hosting the billion-dollar tournament, the wealthy emirate completes a three-year geopolitical plan. “This is about Qatar’s survival in the minefield of the Persian Gulf.”
The number is staggering: with an investment of $220 billion – twenty times what previous host Russia spent – the World Cup in Qatar is by far the most expensive World Cup ever. The Gulf state has spent those piles of money on seven futuristic stadiums, a brand new metro line, roads and accommodation to host an estimated 1.5 million fans over the next four weeks.
As a result, Qatar’s population of about 3 million, of which barely 15 percent are native Qataris and almost a quarter are Indian immigrants, has halved. To make room, “unnecessary workers” have been sent back to their home countries, schools are closed for a month and a work-from-home regime applies. International police forces have been rigged and thousands of cameras are in place to nip fan incidents in the bud. The immediate question is how Qatar – which adheres to an extreme interpretation of Islam with Wahhabism – will react if, say, a rainbow flag appears in or around the stadium.
The World Cup in Qatar kicks off on Sunday amid a storm of criticism. International media and NGOs are reporting human rights abuses and possibly thousands of deaths during the construction of the World Cup venue, while Qatar’s reputation for women’s and gay rights is also being called into question.
What is Qatar’s strategy?
The World Cup is a way for Qatar to show itself on the international stage. Since the 1990s, it has bought billions in oil and gas revenues from many Western companies, making many countries dependent on Qatar. Little Qatar, for example, is located in the Persian Gulf, a geopolitically explosive area.
Major international sports tournaments are increasingly being held in non-democratic countries where human rights are being violated. The West must navigate the chessboard between moral indignation and its own economic interests.
This organizational puzzle comes on top of the headaches that have plagued the country and world football association FIFA for some time. Since the prize was awarded in 2010, a haze of bribery and corruption has hung over the World Cup in Qatar. Proposals to buy FIFA votes were always rejected, although the US FBI concluded after an investigation that bribes had indeed been paid. Former FIFA chief Sepp Blatter called last week’s World Cup in Qatar a “mistake”.
But the most outrage is over the use of cheap labor to build accommodation for the World Cup. Human rights organizations speak out in reports of modern slavery that may have killed thousands of people. Qatar officially counts three fatalities and emphasizes that working conditions have greatly improved. Criticism has been fueled by reports of a lack of respect for women’s and LGBTQ rights and the climate impact of the energy-intensive tournament.
Seen through Western glasses, the World Cup appears from the beginning as an artificial scandal that hardly inspires enthusiasm among sponsors and the public. But according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitics at France’s Skema Business School, that’s not all. Chadwick has been researching Qatar and the World Cup for years. “This tournament basically revolves around Qatar’s survival in the Gulf region. It has been navigating that geopolitical minefield quite successfully for decades between superpowers like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Generating goodwill through sport, a form of soft power, is part of Qatar’s broader strategy to secure its own future.”
Qatar’s master plan dates back to the turn of the last century, more than 20 years after the world’s largest gas deposit was discovered in a country three times the size of Belgium. “Until then, Qatar was a British protectorate of poor desert peoples who lived off pearl fishing, although that had evolved somewhat with the development of oil,” says Chadwick. “But only since independence in 1971 and especially since the revolution in the 1990s have the Qataris been able to grow into one of the richest nations in the world.”
Essential to this story is the summer of 1990, when 100,000 Iraqi troops invaded neighboring Kuwait at the behest of dictator Saddam Hussein. Kuwait, like Qatar, is a mini-state rich in natural resources. The brutal Iraqi invasion, which was quickly quelled by a coalition including the US and Saudi Arabia, sent shockwaves through Qatar. “Since then, he’s been almost obsessed with the survival of his state,” says Chadwick. “The specter of Kuwait 2.0 was essential. After that, the plan of present-day Qatar was created.’
It is also significant that the man who subsequently oversaw Qatar’s transformation into a tycoon, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, rose to prominence in the same Gulf War. Under his leadership, Qatari tank divisions helped push back the Iraqis, making him a recognized war hero who succeeded his father as emir after a nonviolent coup in 1995. Only in 2013 would Emir Hamad be succeeded by his son and current head of state Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Emir Hamad started the engine of Qatar’s enormous wealth: the exploitation of vast gas reserves. This makes the country, along with the US, the most important exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which has further exploded the state’s finances since the war in Ukraine and the closing of the Russian gas tap. Gas and oil account for roughly 65 percent of Qatar’s gross domestic product, the highest per capita in the world along with Luxembourg.
With this money, Qatar could strengthen its strategy of soft power and economic development through foreign investment. Key to this strategy was the establishment of the sovereign wealth fund Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) in 2005. It manages assets worth $461 billion across a range of industries and sectors, with sub-vehicles such as Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) and Qatar Museum participating Authority (QMA) ) are put to work.
Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Qatar has been obsessed with its own survival. The World Cup is part of this security strategy.
“It’s about creating a dependency for as many countries as possible in as many areas as possible,” says Chadwick. “Take the example of France, where there is a lot of protest against the World Cup. Qatar has invested $25 billion in the country in recent decades. This meant that France could no longer ignore Qatar in international relations.”
It is in this “interdependence”, as Chadwick describes it, that Qatar has proven to be a master. Western energy dependence is the most prominent expression of this. It is no coincidence that Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib (MR) justified her criticized state visit by pointing to the importance of Qatar as a gas partner. Figures from the sector federation Febeg show that Belgium obtained 11.8 percent of its natural gas from Qatar in 2020.
Qatar has also maneuvered militarily and diplomatically into the role of everyone’s friend. Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US established its regional air base there, a $1 billion investment that provided the country with a military umbrella. But ties with Turkey and Iran are equally warm, and Qatar is home to controversial organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and the Taliban.
The World Cup in France is much criticized, but Qatar is investing 25 billion dollars there. It thus creates the interdependence of many countries.
Through state broadcaster Al Jazeera, another major weapon, critics say, sparked protests during the Arab Spring, Qatar. In 2017, this led to a boycott by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, from which Qatar emerged virtually unscathed after it was lifted in 2020.
And then there are QIA’s myriad business interests. These range from ExxonMobil, Boeing, Siemens, Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank to real estate investments in New York and Paris and ownership of London luxury department store Harrods. When Elon Musk took Twitter private for $44 billion, QIA took home a discreet $375 million.
Sport is also a popular investment item. Qatar Airways has adorned the FC Barcelona jersey for years. Through the state-owned BeIn Media Group – the umbrella organization for dozens of television channels – Qatar has many exclusive sports rights in the Middle East, including the rights to the English Premier League. And the country has grown into a hub that has hosted around 30 major sporting events since 2004, from the World Cycling Championships, athletics and gymnastics to tennis tournaments, Formula 1 races and the Asian Games.
The pinnacle of fame was the takeover of the top French club Paris Saint-Germain, which fell into the hands of Qatar Sports Investments half a year after the World Cup was awarded. “It’s hard to find a better example of soft power,” says Chadwick, who works and lives in Paris. “When I see guys walking down the street in theirs tracksuits from PSG identify with the class of the club and its players Lionel Messi or Neymar. Then they won’t think of violating human rights when building the stadium.”
The big question is whether the World Cup will have the same effect. Could continued criticism and possible organizational chaos in front of the world lead to Qatar seeing its strategy explode in its face? “Ten years from now we’ll be able to say what’s going to be clean about the balance of soft power,” says Chadwick. “Collective memory sometimes makes strange leaps. In the run-up to the Rio Olympics, doomsday reports of the Zika virus dominated the British media, while six years later pride remains mainly in Britain’s many medals.’
There is loud protest against the World Cup in Western Europe and the US, but at the same time large parts of Asia and the Arab world are proud that the World Cup is coming to this corner of the planet.
Whether Qatar will be able to use the World Cup as a springboard to diversify its economy to reduce its dependence on gas and oil remains uncertain. “Tourism is doing well and the airport is a strategically important transit point, but I don’t see any other economic sectors emerging at the moment,” says Chadwick. “This entrepreneurial spirit is not really present even in the Qataris, who pay almost no taxes and for whom gas and electricity are practically free. Gas dollars and foreign investment will play a major role for a long time to come.”
According to Chadwick, it is certain that the World Cup in Qatar is an echo of a world order where different rules apply. “Our survey shows that calls for a boycott of the tournament are particularly loud in North-West Europe and the US. But there is also pride in large parts of Asia and the Arab world that the World Cup is coming to this corner of the planet. At the same time, few democratic countries such as China, Qatar and Russia are increasingly hosting major international tournaments. The animosity between the Gulf states also continues to play a role in this race, with Saudi Arabia eyeing the 2030 World Cup or Qatar aiming for the 2036 Olympics. You notice that the West has yet to find its footing on that new board.”