Qatar’s Soft Power and the Geopolitical Economy of Sports

Soft power is a concept coined by a Harvard academic, Joseph Nye. It refers to the ability of an actor or state in international politics to influence and persuade others. Whereas hard power—the ability to coerce—grows out of a nation’s military or economic power, the elements of soft power are to be found in a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies and how it employs these subtler and softer elements of national power to advance its national interests.

On 2nd of December 2010, FIFA- the international federation of the most influential sport in the world awarded Qatar the right to host the 2022 Football World Cup. A decision that for Qatar one of the richest countries in the world meant launching one of the largest investment plans in history. This amounted to a staggering $200 billion dollars. Obviously, not the entire sum of money is directly related to the world cup. Rather the event is a blessing in disguise for the Qatari government to push ahead with a huge modernization and economic development plan. So we are not just talking about modern football stadiums in which the Qatari government is going to spend some six billion dollars. Instead this is also about a plethora of new highways, railway lines, and a new 186 mile or 300 kilometer metro network the expansion of Hamad International Airport into one of the most modern, largest and luxurious airports in the world at a cost of almost 40 billion dollars.

From the Qatari government’s perspective, the 2022 world cup is a harbinger of a new era of modernity and prosperity, the perfect icing on the cake for an economy that has grown almost tenfold making this small emirate one of the richest countries in the world.
What is known as ‘sports diplomacy’ has become a pillar of the political strategy for each of the Gulf countries in particular Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and most recently the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for three fundamental reasons. Firstly because sport allows these countries to project a completely different image. An image characterized by modernity, competition, success and all the positive attributes in what is known as ‘sport washing’. Secondly, because of sports these countries can achieve much more international prominence and have more influence regionally and internationally. Think for example how Qatar, a country that has been living in fear and insecurities driven by the Gulf crisis is now in a position to overcome this fear and improve its image. Obviously the better known a country is the better its international image and the more influence it achieves the more difficult it will be for another country to take it by force. This is something similar to what many Russian oligarchs did for many years to protect themselves from the fury of the Kremlin. The better known they were, the harder it would be to put them in the crosshairs.

Certainly, because the Gulf countries are heavily dependent on the exploitation of oil or natural gas, they have been exploring options to diversify their economies for years. Indeed, sports play an important role in the promotion of tourism and spurring other economic activities. Take for example the cases of beIN Sports or Abu Dhabi Sports, the two large television production and broadcasting platforms that are developing a whole new industry of sports journalists, analysts, programmers and advertising experts. As for the beIN Sports, it owns a whole lot of television rates of many of the biggest competitions in the world. Thirdly, because these countries can afford to invest such a huge amount of money to be the main player in the biggest events. For all these reasons the Gulf countries have been betting heavily on sports in recent years. They are creating national sports leagues, training centers and thus attracting athletes and sports professionals from all corners of the world. They are also organizing major international sporting events and even buying some of the world’s best known teams.

“Sports Diplomacy has become a pillar of the political strategy for each of the Gulf countries in particular Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and most recently the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for two fundamental reasons: Firstly sport allows these countries to project a completely different image; Secondly, through sports states can achieve much more international prominence and have more influence regionally and internationally.”

The Qatari government bought Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) the biggest football club in France. Of course the arrival of the new owners was accompanied by a huge influx of money and host of stars such as Ibrahimovic, Beckham, Neymar, Mumbai, Dimaria, Ramos and Lionel Messi. In fact the two most extensive agreements in the history of football were made by PSG and it could be a real showcase for the country and its revitalized football industry. For example the PSG president was in turn appointed president of the European Club Association a position that also placed him directly on the UEFA executive council a more than influential position when it comes to encouraging many big teams to spend training periods in the emirate. In addition over the years they have also developed their own national league because that was essentially the idea for world famous stars to live in Qatar and become true ambassadors for the country. David Beckham signed a 150 million pound deal to be an ambassador for Qatar but the biggest challenge came in 2010 with the awarding of the hosting of the 2022 world cup.

The Qatari leadership was very clear that this was the perfect moment to show the world the best image of a modern developed and prosperous country. What better showcase than to have the whole world watching Qatar and thus they have been executing a huge investment plan of almost $200 billion dollars that has completely transformed the emirate. The metro, the airport, new highways, thousands of new hotel rooms, promenades, even a new island city, located about 9 miles or 15 kilometers from Doha: a city that will have marinas residential areas, shopping malls, luxury shops, beaches and two golf courses are part of a final phase of the world cup. In that regard at least 10 years the Formula-1 Grand Prix will be held in Qatar and of course among the projects that have gone ahead are some of the most modern stadiums in the world.

Clearly if we are thinking about Qatar or Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabia we are witnessing state influence sovereign wealth fund investment connections to state-owned airlines. If we think about Paris Saint-Germain and Qatar you have Accor hotels as the main shirt sponsor in which the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) has a significant shareholding. About the PSG shirt on the tail at the back you have a logo which is the state-owned telecoms provider. You can see that Qatar National Bank (QMB) and Qatar Tourism Council that PSG also has a relationship with. So this considerable state involvement we have is a very different kind of influence on global sport and it’s this notion of the geopolitical economy of sports that really captures this process of soft power through sports. The characteristics of the geopolitical economy of sport is the particular case of Mclaren Formula-1 team which was established by an Australian racing driver Bruce Mclaren back in the 1960s. The heyday of the Mclaren Formula-1 team was kind of 1970s into the 1980s the team that then had a massive resurgence.

Lewis Hamilton became world champion when he was driving for Mclaren for the first time. Today Mclaren is primarily owned by Mumtalakat, the Bahrain Sovereign Wealth Fund. Similarly, we have seen over the last 12 months that the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (SABIC) has also taken a shareholding in Mclaren. So essentially this is a team based in Britain largely populated by British engineers with a history that originates in Australia but it is currently owned by the Gulf countries.

Likewise, as part of vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, sports and its soft power plays an important role in the vision of these countries for their economic development. A further illustration of sport as a source of economic activity is furnished by the case of South Korea. South Korea has an E-sports strategy and itis trying to be the world’s leading nation in terms of not just playing E-sports but also developing hardware, software, becoming a center for event hosting, and creating tech startups around the E-sport industry. So again that gives a flavor of the economic activity and that sport is a means of deploying and acquiring resources. Another important case in point is China’s policy of stadium diplomacy in Africa where the Chinese government for the last 15 years has often gifted stadiums to African nations as a means through which to secure access to natural resources. Thus soft power sport diplomacy is a way of deploying and acquiring resources for securing strategic and competitive advantage.


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About Khalid Latif 6 Articles
The author is the Executive Director (COPAIR), Director Program (Middle East) Editor, The Asian Telegraph and Melange Magazine.