Small Nation, Big Games – Qatar Gets Ready for 2022

10 septembre 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

Qatar has been in the news again this summer. As the Taliban swept into Kabul, government in Doha sought to play a pivotal role both in helping to evacuate people from Afghanistan and by seeking to broker deals between the country’s new government and other nations.

To some observers, it may have seemed ironic watching Globemaster military jets ferry desperate evacuees to Al-Udeid airbase near Doha (the US’ largest military base in the Middle East), given that for the last twenty years the Taliban’s leaders have been allowed to reside in the Qatari capital.

Adding further irony, the US officials’ regular meetings with the Taliban over the last two years have taken place in an American chain hotel – the Sheraton. Interestingly, the beach resort venue was amongst the favourite places to stay of leading FIFA figures, ahead of the 2010 announcement that Qatar would play host to next year’s men’s World Cup.

As the Afghan toing and froing gathered pace, the small Gulf nation also hit the sporting headlines. Most notably, Lionel Messi made the switch from FC Barcelona in Spain to France’s Paris Saint Germain, a move driven by Qatar Sports Investments’ (owner of PSG) desire to win the UEFA Champions League in 2022.

It’s not just on-the-field that Qatar has been making moves; QSI’s chairman and president of PSG – Nasser Al-Khelaifi – took advantage of European football’s Super League debacle to secure the chair’s role at the European Clubs Association (which gives him a seat on UEFA’s Executive Committee). This ensures that Al-Khelaifi now sits at the heart of European football, in positions of considerable power and influence.

Meanwhile at the Olympics in Tokyo, Qatari athlete Mutaz Barshim shared his high jump gold medal with rival Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy. Much was made of the personal friendship between the two competitors, though in actuality the gesture was ‘classic Qatar’: sport as the field on which to play, politics the game, with broader national interests the end goal.

As for Barshim, so too for Messi, Qatar’s role in the Afghanistan crisis and, for that matter what’s to come in 2022. As Mehran Kamrava so aptly captured in the title of his 2013 book – ‘small state, big politics’. The author also notes how the country’s government commonly engages in hedging as a means through which to keep others happy, cooperative and, where necessary, at bay.

With numerous Afghans now exiled across Qatar and the country’s officials continuing to actively engage with the Taliban, there is ample evidence of this approach. And in the cases of Messi, Al-Khelaifi and the World Cup, the same DNA can be observed, soft power and diplomacy being instruments of choice for leaders in Doha.

In the short-term, PSG winning the Champions League is presumably seen as something of an imperative: an important measure of Qatar’s progress towards its 2030 National Vision but also of symbolic value to the nation during the same year that it hosts football’s biggest tournament.

At the same time, in constructing the world’s most fearsome attack (which matches Messi with Brazilian Neymar and France’s Kilian M’Bappe) PSG has signalled that it values and wants the best and aspires to playing the kind of high-quality football which fans across the world can fall in love with.

Such an approach has already paid dividends for the club and for Qatar. PSG has increased its revenues six-fold in the ten years since QSI bought the club. This is important for the country as it is a rentier state, its wealth derived from an over-dependence upon gas and oil revenues. Money made in Paris is good news for the coffers back in Doha.

At the same time, instead of preoccupying itself with the environmental degradation that oil and gas use inflict upon the planet or concerns about migrant labour, the world is instead anticipating the triumphs associated with Messi’s PSG signing and enthusiastically wearing the team’s shirts in ever growing numbers.

Over the last ten years, Qatar has become much more adept at managing communications and shaping perceptions of the nation’s brand. This has involved accentuating the kind of qualities and actions displayed by Barshim at the Olympics. Rather than fearing Qatar’s ambitions, the message coming out of Doha is that the world should trust the country because it wants the same things as we do.

As the financial numbers being reported by PSG illustrate, the country’s leaders are not merely seeking something ethereal. For a country that is forever vulnerable, due to its geographic position and characteristics, being seen to embody a particular set of values whilst hedging in relations with others, is part of a risk mitigation strategy designed to keep the country safe. Just as in Afghanistan, so too in the offices of the ECA, PSG and elsewhere.

In going about the business of nation building, Qatar’s leaders remain aghast at attitudes towards them from elsewhere in the world; ‘why do they hate us so much?’ is often a common refrain. However, with 2022 looming one suspects that the leaders should brace themselves for more of the same.

Sport mega-event hosts are always subject to scrutiny, though Qatar has been exposed to it for more than a decade. Whilst some in the country may be encouraged that sport is effecting positive social changes, others elsewhere believe it has something to hide. Indeed, as the 2022 World Cup qualifying games have resumed, so too have suspicions that Qatar is engaged in sport washing.

The substance of such an accusation is that Qatar has exploited sport for the purposes of diversion and subterfuge, to mislead people and divert attention away from its problems. The treatment of migrant workers has been a millstone around the neck of government in Doha, whilst issues pertaining to LGBTQ rights will loom large the closer we get to World Cup kick-off time.

Qatar is playing a big game for such a small nation, which is bound-up in its notion of the need for self-protection allied to its sense of aspiration. Seen through the eyes of its government, sport is part of nation building, central to nation branding and key in promoting attractiveness through soft power. Seen through the eyes of some others, the summer of 2021 and beyond are something completely different.


This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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