PULASKI COMMENTARY: Qatar’s political gains after the 2022 World Cup (Robert Czulda)

PULASKI COMMENTARY: Qatar’s political gains after the 2022 World Cup (Robert Czulda)

The State of Qatar’s decision to host the biggest and most popular sporting event in the world – the World Cup – was not driven by its love to sport and football, but purely by political calculations. For Qatar sport is an important element of building its influence and strengthening its soft power. Despite some controversies, Qatar has demonstrated great organizational skills and benefited from the tournament politically.

Qatar has made a very long, yet successful journey from being a relatively unknown member of the international community to one of the most important and influential actors in contemporary global politics and business. To achieve this, Qatar used a wide array of tools. These includes sport which has been since the 1990s one of the most useful means to build its international position with worldwide influence.

The case of Qatar clearly shows that a significance of sport nowadays goes far beyond physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle. Sport in the emirate plays a key role in supporting the state’s policy – both internally and, more importantly, externally (internationally). Qatar is one of designers of a modern approach, which is known as a sport diplomacy. Hosting the most important sport event – the World Cup – is a natural and logical step in using sport for political goals.

Already before the World Cup, numerous controversies began to appear around Qatar, including the way it was awarded a right to host the tournament. Other issues, such as labour rights, were discussed too. Over time, also just before the World Cup itself, more allegations and controversies appeared. Ultimately, some media labelled Qatar’s World Cup as „the most controversial sporting event since the 1980 Moscow Olympics”.[i] Although such a statement is exaggerated (it is sufficient to mention then 2016 Summer Olympics and 2022 Winter Olympics in China, as well as the 2018 World Cup in Russia) undoubtedly the atmosphere around Qatar on the eve of the tournament was bad. There was a financial burden too – it has been estimated that Qatar spent at least USD 200 billion to organize the World Cup.

Undoubtedly those elements constitute a cost, which cannot be neglected by Qatar. However, when it comes to a financial side, some of this amount was spent on infrastructure, which will remain. This includes highly modern and useful metro and the Lusail development (Qatar’s “self-contained sustainable and comprehensively planned” future city). Moral dilemmas were forgotten as soon as the first ball was kicked. It is impossible to identify any argument to support a claim that Qatar was or will be severely affected by those controversies.

The only exception may be in the case of a post-World Cup story, which might develop further. Qatar was accused of bribing members of the European Parliament and other officials to secure favourable terms in bilateral treaties. This international scandal, which has already resulted in an arrest of European Parliament Vice-President Eva Kaili and three other officials, has a potential to impact both Qatar and the European Parliament, but in fact this seems unlikely – Doha has already threatened the European Union and most likely this pressure is enough to deter the EU from making any moves against Qatar. After all, this is not the first corruption scandal in Europe. Unfortunately.

While costs are relatively low, gains are potentially high. Now, after the 2022 World Cup it might be argued that Qatar, who just five years ago was blocked by its Arab neighbours due to regional disagreements, enhanced its position – both locally (in the Persian Gulf and wider – within the Middle East and North Africa) and globally. Regarding the Arab world, millions of people in the region saw Palestinian flags flying high during the games. Moroccan players even celebrated with the flag after beating Spain. Many videos of fans from various countries refusing to talk to Israeli journalists, surfaced on the Internet. This pro-Palestinian narrative appeals to the “Arab street”, while at the high political level Qatar did not antagonise Israel. Although both states do not have diplomatic relations and their ties have been strained since the 2008 “Cast Lead” Israeli military operation in Gaza, Israeli football supporters were allowed to visit Qatar. Direct flights between Tel Aviv and Doha were established.

Moreover, the way Qatar was depicted in the Western media triggered an outrage among Arabs and many Africans and created a sense of solidarity both in Qatar and within the region. A positive attitude towards the 2022 World Cup, and thus Qatar, was also a result of undoubted success of Morocco, which reached the semi-finals with a sensational 1:0 victory over Portugal. Morocco was cheered not only by supporters from Middle East and North Africa, but also in many places in Sub-Saharan Africa. Media – including Qatar’s Al-Jazeera – underscored the fact that Morocco was the first Arab, the first African and the second Muslim (after Turkey in 2002) national team to advance that far. The fact that this success was achieved in Qatar is not without a meaning for Doha.

Particularly important from the perspective of Qatar’s goals is the fact that Doha was visited by numerous high-ranking decision-makers. There was no serious boycott that some activists called for. In fact, rather the opposite happened – in the end Qatar’s World Cup was openly endorsed by some leaders, including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron. This boosts Qatar’s international position and recognition of that state, as well as its prestige. It also creates an opportunity to establish new networks of contacts, which may prove important in the future, either for Doha’s unilateral goals or for Qatar’s mediation efforts between feuding parties (which Qatar has successfully done in the past).

The list of eminent guests in Qatar includes French President Emmanuel Macron, Malaysian King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, Jordanian King Abdullah II bin Hussein, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, Croatian President Zoran Milanović and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

In this context, a presence of four leaders was particularly crucial for Qatar and its interests. First of all, Doha was visited by Mohammad ibn Salman – Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia. He was seated in the first row, next to FIFA President Gianni Infantino. Obviously, this is too early to argue that this means an improvement in difficult ties with Saudi Arabia, which was behind a more than three-year-long blockade on Qatar (it ended in 2021). Nevertheless, this visit was not only symbolic, but it also confirmed an attitude of both states, which are willing to make a breakthrough in bilateral relations. Moreover, Qatar’s success with the World Cup could lay foundations for Saudi Arabia’s future success. Riyad, jointly with Greece and Egypt, wants to host the 2030 World Cup. Until recently, this seemed impossible.

The same applies to a visit paid by United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, who held brief talks in Qatar with Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. This might be also a sign of warming ties. Another crucial guest in Doha was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. First of all, it has a direct importance to Qatar, because Turkey is considered by Doha as a key partner. This cooperation “has created another regional axis in addition to the Emirati/Saudi/US/Israeli and the Iranian/Iraqi/Syrian/Lebanese (mostly sub-state in nature) blocs”.[ii] Already before the World Cup – in October in Istanbul – both states inked 11 new cooperation deals, which cover various field, including diplomacy, media, culture and disaster and emergency management.

Even more important for Qatar was a presence of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (he also visited Doha in September 2022). Qatar and Egypt have been slowly rebuilding their ties (Cairo has also boycotted Qatar). Moreover, el-Sisi met with Erdoğan during an official reception hosted by Emir of Qatar. Practically it means that during the World Cup Doha became a stage for a potential rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt and most likely also between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In a result, that might also bring a thaw in strained relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Once again Qatar presented itself as a good mediator in international affairs.

A very professional organisation of the World Cup contributed to strengthening the already existing image of Qatar as a reliable economic partner. Controversies over Qatar were irrelevant to decision-makers, even if some of them sometimes publicly declared their criticism. This applies, for instance, to Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who condemned Qatar[iii], but later he went to Doha to enjoy the World Cup.[iv] During the tournament Qatar sealed some multibillion energy agreements. For example, Germany signed a 15-year deal for 2 million tons of LNG annually from 2026. Simultaneously, China signed a 27-year deal, worth USD 60 billion. Among several states interested in Qatari gas is Hungary, who was represented during the World Cup by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó.

Conclusions

As mentioned earlier, from the very beginning Qatar’s actions related to the World Cup have been driven by political calculations. An embarrassing fact that Qatar became the first host nation to lose every game was undoubtedly a painful blow to the Qatari national pride, but from a political point of view it was not of much importance.

All controversies were very soon forgotten. The final game between Argentina and France – probably the greatest and the most emotional ever – blurred even more all negative narratives in minds of people. According to the BBC poll results, the World Cup in Qatar was the best in the 21st century (78% of votes). It was placed before such excellent tournaments like those in South Korea and Japan in 2002 (6%) and in Germany 2006 (4%).[v]

Ultimately, Qatar showed itself as an efficient, hospitable, and reliable organizer. This success will have a long-term impact on strengthening an image of Qatar as a good place for investment and an interesting tourist destination, as well as an important political partner. What is more, visits paid by politicians important from Qatar’s point of view (including those from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates) create an opportunity to warm up relations with the countries of the region (of course, this might not happen. Those meetings should only be considered as an opportunity. All problems between Qatar and its fellow Arab states have not been entirely solved).

There is no doubt that Qatar will continue its policy of using soft power and sport diplomacy to enhance its political position and to strengthen regional relations. More opportunities will come very soon – Qatar has already secured rights to host annual Formula One grand prix between 2023-2033, the 2023 AFC Asian Cup the World Swimming Championships in 2024, and the Asian Games in 2030. Qatar is also interested in hosting the 2036 Olympic Games.

Author: Dr Robert Czulda, Resident Fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation

[i] World Cup 2022: Expert panel to explore how the world can hold Qatar to account on human rights , Independent, accessed January 5, 2023, https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/world-cup-2022-qatar-human-rights-b2128149.html

[ii] Engin Yüksel, Haşim Tekineş, Turkey’s love-in with Qatar A marriage of convenience, accessed January 5, 2023, https://www.clingendael.org/pub/2021/drivers-of-turkish-qatari-relations/

[iii]Michael Bruxo, Qatar does not respect human rights,” says Marcelo, accessed January 5, 2023, https://www.portugalresident.com/qatar-does-not-respect-human-rights-says-marcelo/

[iv] President of Portugal arrives in Doha, accessed January 5, 2023, https://thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/24/11/2022/president-of-portugal-arrives-in-doha

[v] Alexandra Evangelista,  Qatar 2022 dominates BBC poll with 78% win as ‘best World Cup this century’, accessed January 5, 2023, https://thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/26/12/2022/qatar-2022-dominates-bbc-poll-with-78-win-as-best-world-cup-this-century

Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations