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FIFA World Cup | Qatar’s real goal in hosting the beautiful game

Qatar had bargained for the World Cup, but the World Cup had given Qatar its biggest bargaining chip yet

November 25, 2022 / 03:00 PM IST
FIFA World Cup 2022: Qatar is the first World Cup host in the Middle East.

FIFA World Cup 2022: Qatar is the first World Cup host in the Middle East.

It was December 2010, and I was a sports producer with ESPN STAR Sports in Singapore. Sportscenter was the flagship brand, and all eyes were on Switzerland as FIFA, the world governing body of football, gathered to announce the hosts of the 2018, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The results were announced, and our dismay turned into a coping mechanism — levity in brevity, sports shows allowed for it.

We introduced the top story, with this jingle: “it’s large and it’s small, it’s hot and it’s cold, it’s yes and it’s no, not a Katy Perry song, but Russia and Qatar”, who to the dismay of the entire footballing world, perhaps even themselves, were awarded the 2018 and the 2022 World Cups respectively. Russia, in its erstwhile USSR avatar still had significant footballing pedigree, and infrastructure. But why would the tiny nation of Qatar — of two million people, with barely any large commercial centres outside the capital of Doha, a nation that had never qualified for the world cup, one with extreme summers — show such alacrity and financial profligacy to host the football extravaganza?

To understand Qatar’s motives, one needs to look beyond this tournament that’s underway, where the ‘beautiful game’ takes place under ugly settings as protests of human rights violations, LGBTQI discrimination, lack of freedom of speech, and democratic norms have raised the ire of the global community.

Qatar has some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, and enormous wealth, all controlled by the country’s emir; and they used all the financial clout they had to secure the 2022 bid. The tiny Gulf state allegedly spent $300 billion on infrastructure and building 12 brand new, air-conditioned stadia, 11 more than the existing one that they had prior to 2010. That’s a lot of stadia for a place that’s tinier than Connecticut, in the United States, built on the backs of migrant workers in South Asia — some estimates suggest that around 7,000 of these workers arrived back in body bags to their home country from Qatar. Qatar may have paid for the new infrastructure, but the voiceless and now faceless migrant workers have paid for it with their lives.

The World Cup captures global imagination, it also captures the country’s coffers. Brazil, which hosted the 2014 World Cup paid approximately $15 billion in infrastructure modernisation, but faced the chagrin of the populace where people took to the street to protest the high cost of the stadiums and corruption, at the expense of investing in public infrastructure. This is Brazil, the epitome of FIFA success with five World Cups, a country more passionate than any other about football, and one that epitomises the beautiful game in ‘Joga Bonito’.

So, Qatar, the oil-rich, single-family-ruled country has no quandary with dollars or its diaspora, yet what does Qatar seek to gain from hosting the global carnival? What Qatar lacks in size; it wants to make up in stature.

For one, the World Cup gives it respect, and brings the tournament to the region for the first time, and with that rapid infrastructure modernisation with stadia, hospitals, metro, hotels, highways, airports, and airline clout for its national carrier.

There is a reason why the idiom ‘strike oil’ is used in regular parlance. That’s Qatar’s story, the diminutive nation’s economy long before the oil boom was dependent on ‘pearl diving’. The oil boom of the 1950s freed many pearl divers from the shackles (quite literally) as Qatar, soon found itself one of the wealthiest nations in a geopolitical hotbed of West Asia. However, Doha has long lived under the commercial glitzy shadow of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, which had started its modernisation earlier, and wooed international investors as West Asia’s Monte Carlo.

But despite its natural wealth of oil and natural gas reserves, Qatar wants to be more; much more. What Doha lacks in soft power, it makes up for in its public relations outreach. Unlimited wealth, and a limited population mean frugality is fiction and profligacy is the norm.

One of the world’s most recognised broadcasters is Doha-based Al Jazeera. While editorially phenomenal, courtesy some of the best broadcasters and producers, it was Doha’s plan to showcase the spotlight on the region and show Qatar as a beacon of openness. It was the BBC of the region, and easily quashed aspersions of being a mouthpiece for Arab royalty. This is a 101 in economic diversification, and Qatar is only getting started. The Qatari Sports Investment Authority owns Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), making it one of the richest football clubs with riches in players such as Neymar, Messi, and Mbappe.

Qatar is also a country that’s lived in the shadow of the Emiratis and the Saudis that have long held sway over the GCC region. Doha has taken positions contrary to what Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the most powerful, de facto talking heads of the GCC region, would have wanted. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt blockaded Qatar, bringing to the fore underground tensions with Doha, particularly its support for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and close ties with Tehran.

Qatar then strengthened its ties with Turkey, and continues to, whom it relied upon for new trade routes during the blockade, increasing self-sufficiency, and maintaining its natural gas reserves which it shares so close to Iran’s maritime border. The Saudis and the Emiratis realised soon enough that the World Cup meant connectivity for the region, and hence the blockade would be shooting themselves in the foot. Qatar had bargained for the World Cup, but the World Cup had given Qatar its biggest bargaining chip yet. Qatar now has unprecedented clout in the region, it made its biggest geopolitical bet on this tournament, akin to a franchise buying a star MVP for its team, hoping the bang is worth the buck.

Qatar will use this World Cup to showcase its National Vision for 2030, hoping to become a leader in sustainable urban development, technology, and innovation. The Qatar Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund has aggressively invested heavily in financial centres in New York, London, and Singapore. The World Cup gives it more gravitas to expand its portfolio (at nearly $450 billion). London, long been the playground for oligarchs, now witnesses the most property sold to the Qataris.

I first saw Doha’s deft diplomacy at work in Washington D.C., in 2018. The Washington Capitals were in the Stanley Cup Finals (NHL). The Mayor of DC had announced that Qatar through one of its business subsidiaries would be able to finance the Washington metro running extra hours during the Capitals’ games. The Qatari Ambassador said “the agreement was a gesture of friendship and goodwill toward the local community.” But what would a desert country care about ice hockey? Qatar knows where the lobbyists are, and the blockade was hurting Qatar, and a public outreach campaign was what was needed.

Qatar may be boxed-in geographically, but it certainly thinks out of the box.

Akshobh Giridharadas is a Washington DC-based former journalist. Views are personal.
first published: Nov 25, 2022 03:00 pm