The Qatari World Cup: Soccer for Soft Power
Former Qatari emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the father of the Gulf state’s current ruler, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, learned a lesson from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
Al Thani recognized that, like Kuwait, his country with a citizenry of 300,000, sandwiched between two regional behemoths, Iran and Saudi Arabia, would never be able to fend off a conventional military attack on its territory, no matter how much and how sophisticated the weaponry they possessed.
To ensure that Qatar was relevant to the international community, Al Thani concluded that Qatar’s defense strategy would have to focus on soft rather than hard power.
In more than 30 years since, Qatar, one of the world’s top gas producers, has developed a highly sophisticated, multi-pronged soft power policy.
It involves ensuring a diversified customer base for its gas; a fast-paced, mediation-driven foreign policy; and the Al Jazeera television network that competes with the likes of the BBC and CNN.
Qatar’s creation of an air transport hub with an award-winning airline and airport, the opening of world-class museums, and high-profile investments in real estate in world capitals and blue-chip companies were also part of the strategy.
But none of these building blocks attracted more attention and more controversy than the sports leg of the Qatari strategy — with this month’s World Cup at the top of the list.
Qatar intends to generate good publicity by being lenient towards violators of Qatari law, including activists wanting to make a point during the World Cup. Last week, in an indication of what that could mean, Qatari police stopped British activist Peter Tatchell from protesting the country’s anti-LGBT laws but did not detain him.
The handling of Tatchell contrasts starkly with the treatment of LGBT Qatari, as described in a Human Rights Watch report, which has been denied by Qatari officials.
From a Qatari and Kuwaiti perspective, the stark reality is that little has changed in their hard power defense capabilities in the more than 30 years since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
“Unfortunately, as Gulf countries, we do not have options. Our capabilities do not deter Iran, do not deter other powers. … We do not have other practical solutions,” Kuwaiti international relations scholar Abdullah al-Shaji told a recent conference in Doha.
This is where Qatar’s image among soccer fans takes on national security and geopolitical significance.
In a world of rising nationalism and populism, in which Americans are war-weary after two decades of fighting in the greater Middle East, fan attitudes could make or break public support if Qatar ever needs serious help from the international community.
If public opinion surveys are anything to go by, Qatar is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of fans in the United States and Europe, despite having enacted far-reaching reforms of its erstwhile labor system that put workers at the mercy of their employers, and seeking to assure fans and activists that all people — irrespective of sexual orientation or marital status — will be welcome for the games.
In addition, a YouGov poll commissioned by Amnesty International found that 67 percent of the 17,477 participants in the survey in Europe, Central and Latin America, the United States, and Kenya wanted their national soccer associations to speak out publicly about human rights issues associated with the Qatar World Cup.
To counter negative perceptions, Qatar has invested heavily in making its World Cup an unforgettable experience.
However, New York Times soccer correspondent Rory Smith cautioned that the Qatari investment might miss the plank.
“It is not the soccer that makes the World Cup, not really. … The World Cup, at heart, is a feeling. … What made Russia 2018 … was Nikolskaya, the street in central Moscow that became a hub for fans from all over the world, full of flags and bunting and song. It was the sight of thousands upon thousands of Peruvians on the streets of Saransk, a red sash across their hearts. It was the sense that, even in a vast land of steppe and mountain and forest, you were never more than six feet from a Colombian,” Smith said.
Ultimately, to fully benefit from the tournament’s reputational value, Qatar, after the World Cup, will have to push forward with social, economic, and political reform, even if activist attention moves on and focuses on countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt that are likely to bid for forthcoming sports mega-events such as the 2027 Asian Cup and the 2030 World Cup.
Qatar’s ability and willingness to move ahead with reforms may make the difference in how the tournament is remembered, particularly in the United States and Europe, which are likely to be crucial to the Gulf state’s military defense when the chips are down.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. An earlier version of this story appeared as a RSIS Commentary