Geopolitics

What’s driven Qatar’s extravagant spending for this year’s World Cup?

The Signal

What’s driven Qatar’s extravagant spending for this year’s World Cup? Sarath K. Ganji on a powerful strategy for global influence and the subtle tactics of “sportswashing.”
Nasif Tazwar
Nasif Tazwar
Twelve years ago in Zurich, the international football federation FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, an Arabian Gulf state well known for its oil wealth—and quite unknown at the time for any established association with the sport of football. Since, the Qatari government has spent not only billions of dollars developing stadiums and other sporting facilities for the tournament but hundreds of billions on supporting infrastructure—from elaborately renovated airports and highways to advanced new transit systems and luxury hotels. Holding a World Cup has long meant significant investment from a host country, but even by historical standards, Qatar’s has been enormous. Meanwhile, over the more than a decade the country has spent preparing for the tournament, it’s also been expanding its football presence globally. Through majority state-owned corporations such as Qatar Airways, it’s directed billions into sponsorship deals with high-profile European clubs like FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, and AS Roma. Through its state media conglomerate beIN Media Group, it’s put billions more into contracts for global broadcasting rights. And through Qatar Sports Investments, a subsidiary of its sovereign wealth fund, it bought the French club Paris Saint-Germain in 2011—just months after winning the 2022 World Cup bid—for US$58 million, transforming the French team into one of the most valuable sports properties in the world, valued today at US$3.2 billion. What’s motivated all of this?
Sarath K. Ganji is a foreign-policy analyst based in the United States, previously in the Arabian Gulf, and a recent Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. As Ganji explains, Qatar’s investment in football belongs to a strategy that’s emerged across the Gulf monarchies—and among autocratic regimes globally—to win the hearts and minds of Western publics and, ultimately, secure the allegiances of Western elites. It’s a complication for these regimes that the strategy can also bring unwanted attention to their human-rights transgressions—but so far, that’s not getting in the way.
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Eve Valentine: How did the World Cup end up in Qatar this year?
Sarath K. Ganji: It won the bid back in December 2010. That was despite being relatively new on the global sports scene—and really, despite not having a particularly deep football history or culture at all. But by then, Qatar had been investing a lot of money in football as part of a strategy of economic diversification. Why? This is a country with the third-largest oil fields in the world—and the number-one exporter of liquefied natural gas. Hydrocarbon wealth has been the driver of Qatar’s economic development—and hydrocarbon wealth is inherently limited; it’s only going to last for so long. That’s the context for the country’s interest in investing in sports—and its campaign to host the 2022 World Cup.
Originally, Qatar’s investment in football goes back to the 1970s, when it got involved in a regional cup featuring a number of Arabian states. Gradually, that interest expanded over into auto racing, which is very big in the Middle East; then global sports broadcasting, with Al Jazeera Sport; and from there, sports sponsorships—and eventually the full acquisition of the French football team Paris Saint Germain, PSG, in 2011. At the same time, Qatar was investing increasingly in big multi-sport competitions and state-of-the-art sporting infrastructure. In 2006, it hosted the Asian Games—the second largest multi-sporting event in the world, behind the Olympics—which was a major success. The previous year, it opened the Aspire Zone, a world-class 250-hectare sporting complex in Doha.
Qatar made a few unsuccessful bids to host the Olympics themselves along the way, but the Asian Games and the Aspire Zone gave its leadership a lot of confidence by the time the country secured the World Cup for 2022.
Valentine: Why did it win the bid?
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Ganji: When Sepp Blatter became the president of FIFA in 1998, he announced that he wanted to take the World Cup to places beyond Europe, North America, and South America—its traditional settings. So Africa was to get a World Cup; the Middle East was to get one; East Asia was to get one. The notion was that every part of the world has a football culture and can accommodate an event like this, given the chance. That’s the ideal Blatter articulated.
But for decades now, there’s been a shift in FIFA’s business model from professionalization to, you could say, commercialization. That began under FIFA’s president João Havelange in the 1970s and continued with Blatter into the ’80s—all the more after he became president in the ’90s. There’s been a lot of reporting—corroborated by documents leaked in the FIFA Files, Football Leaks, and the Pandora Papers—on the machinations behind the FIFA executive committee’s decisions on broadcasting rights for World Cups and on who gets to host them.
Since 2010, this reporting has uncovered evidence of bribes and payouts, along with a broader pattern of collusion and corruption, associated with Qatar winning the bid. A lot of the reporting centers on the Qatari billionaire Mohammed bin Hammam, who was able to use his position as the president of the Asian Football Confederation, as well as his close connections to the Qatari royal family—the House of Thani—to direct funds to the African Football Confederation, for example. He was able to influence CONCACAF—the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football—through their former head, Jack Warner. And so on.
At the same time, the Qatari royal family held meetings with Michel Platini, then the head of UEFA—the Union of European Football Associations—as well as France’s then-president Nicolas Sarközy. Altogether, these connections and lines of influence swung enough votes in Qatar’s favor.
Ultimately, Qatar used its wealth, and the shortcomings in FIFA’s governance, to buy the World Cup—despite well founded questions about the country’s ability to create eight new stadiums, properly accommodate swaths of fans in the heat of the summer, and put on a carbon-neutral, logistically sound tournament overall. On all these questions, the technical documentation had rated Qatar quite poorly—certainly behind the United States, which many believed should have won the 2022 bid. And all the logistical concerns have since borne out to one degree or another—with relatively low attendance across a number of stadiums and with accommodation difficulties, including whole fan villages having to issue refunds because they weren’t in the end finished or even functional.
Moosa Moseneke
Moosa Moseneke
More from Sarath K. Ganji at The Signal:
The goal with all these investments has been to tie Qatar so closely to its target western states that it can count on them as reliable allies if its territorial integrity or political economy should end up being threatened in the future. One of Qatar’s guiding premises has been that these target countries—both their publics and their policy makers—will never care about you, a small state in the Arabian Gulf, if they don’t have a reason to. So Qatar wants mindshare in these places. To Qatar, the World Cup is a way to take up and capture that mindshare—and, the Qataris hope, irreversibly deepen the interdependencies they’ve been creating since the 1990s to assure their economic and geopolitical security.”
I can’t see sportswashing unwinding as a strategy for authoritarian regimes anytime soon. One reason is that it succeeds, for the most part, very gradually. Autocratic states like Qatar have become so adept at scaling the value chain in their sportswashing operations in ways that sustain their investments. They host tournaments; they sponsor kits; they buy teams, and then they transform these teams, with enormous resources, into steady champions and global brands. It’s incremental, and it works.”
The authoritarian approach to globalization you see in sportswashing isn’t, as a whole, actually unique to sports. So my broader concern with this approach is about how much we see it in different areas—such as higher education or health care, for example. Here, autocratic states have been forming bonds with the Georgetowns or the NYUs of the world, or the Cleveland Clinics of the world—first through student exchanges, then through teacher exchanges, then through curriculum development, and eventually by bringing entire brick-and-mortar locations to Abu Dhabi. You’re seeing the same scaling of value chains across a range of sectors—which is allowing autocracies to strengthen and diversify their economies in the ways they want to, while also progressively influencing foreign publics and foreign elites.”

Categories: Geopolitics, Sports

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