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.
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?