Making sense of Qatar’s sports diplomacy – what it is and why it matters

March 04, 2022 Blog , , 0

Paul Vater | 4 Mar 2022

The Asian Games in 2006 and in 2030, the Asian Football Cup in 2018, and the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Paris St. Germain, FC Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. All of these events and clubs can be connected via just one link – Qatar. The aforementioned events were or will be hosted in the small peninsular nation, and government-funded companies invested hundreds of millions of US dollars for either ownership or sponsorships in the football clubs above. However, all of this begs just one massive question – what for? As the title suggests, this article argues that these actions are not merely a coincidence nor done solely for sport’s sake either. Rather, they fit into a much larger plan of using sports as a means for diplomacy. Although this article revolves around Qatar, it is much bigger than that. To do this story justice, this article discusses what sports diplomacy is, how Qatar utilizes it, and why this matters to all of us.

Sports and international diplomacy have a long history together, even being utilized as a means for fighting city-states to engage with each other in Ancient Greece. Made up of many facets, sports diplomacy has retained much of its original purpose while evolving and growing with time and improved technology. Sports can still be an effective tool for bringing nations and their people closer together, potentially improving relations between the involved states. This does not even stop at the state-level, as many non-state actors (such as sport associations, companies etc.) will be involved in e.g. large international competitions as well. Although also important, perhaps the most significant factor of sports diplomacy in regards to Qatar might be using sports as a means through which one’s international image can be projected/improved.

In order to achieve this improved international image, sports can be utilized in many different ways. In the case of Qatar, the country uses almost all of them at least to some degree simultaneously. Firstly, there are sports victories, perhaps one of the most conventional ways to better the international perception of a nation. No matter if during a FIFA World Cup or at the Olympics Games, states that are more successful or have better performing athletes are held in higher regard by domestic and foreign audiences. As Qatar boasts only a population of just under three million inhabitants, the Gulf state has been known to offer promising athletes Qatari citizenship in exchange for said athletes competing for the nation in international competitions. Another means, sports development aid, is used by the Qataris through e.g. the creation of the ‘Sports for Development and Peace Initiative’.

Possibly the most public and perhaps most influential form of Qatar’s sports diplomacy, however, are its investments in sports and hosting sport events. These tools allow the country to shape and recreate its nation image, the mental image a person has of a given place. This nation image consists of several factors such as nation brand, nation reputation, and nation identity. Essentially, if Qatar was a company, this is its PR department. Events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games (which Qatar also unsuccessfully applied for) are some of the most televised events of the year, football clubs like the FC Barcelona or Bayern Munich are some of the most well-known clubs on the face of the Earth. In this sense, sports are an incredibly efficient way of guaranteeing a large audience’s attention. Moreover, partnerships with established organizations such as FIFA or Paris St. Germain give the country further credibility.

Although Qatar’s diplomatic efforts via sports is perhaps the most publicized, it is by no means the country’s only approach. Arguably following the same goals of improving its national image and international perception, for instance, is the government-funded news agency Al-Jazeera. Providing some of the most objective news coverage, as well as investigating stories from traditionally underrepresented regions (e.g. in the Global South), there is just one major exception – news concerning Qatar itself. Being situated between two much more powerful neighbors – Saudi Arabia and Iran – the country has historically always preferred to take a rather neutral stance, hosting meetings between the US and the Taliban, opening relations with Israel, maintaining a working relationship with Iran while allowing US troops into the country.  Being a mediator in multiple international conflicts – partly due to its non-partisan positions – Qatar’s ‘seat at the table’ itself provides the state with certain powers.

For what it is worth, Qatar’s diplomatic efforts, particularly regarding sports, are working. During the past decade, the number of tourists visiting Qatar has roughly doubled. The nation is receiving more international attention than ever before, especially in anticipation of the upcoming FIFA World Cup in late 2022. However, Qatar’s sports diplomacy is not merely about just promoting the country on an international stage. Rather, it is about showing a global audience a very selective perspective of what their country is like. What Qatar invests into sports and what events the state hosts, all of this is true. But it is not the whole truth – and this article cannot be complete without accounting for what Qatar is trying to cover up.

One of the core tenets of the criticism against Qatar (regarding its sports investments and events) is its many Human Rights abuses. Among these, the nation’s treatment of foreign migrant workers under the ‘kafala’ system is perhaps the most foremost. Literally translating to ‘sponsorship’, this system ties the migrant workers’ immigration status to their employer. Effectively, the workers cannot leave the country or change their jobs (among others) without their employers’ approval. Although illegal, employers often also confiscate the employees’ passports. Combined with unacceptably low wages, this system has often been compared to modern-day slavery. As the death count of migrant workers reaches ever new heights of over 6.500 and many athletes have spoken out against the Qatari FIFA World Cup, this is perhaps why Qatar’s sport diplomacy matters to all of us.

Hosting massive sport events, investing hundreds of millions of dollars into football clubs – all of these means focus attention onto the state of Qatar. The goal, for Qatar, is to use this attention to improve its international perception. However, we – as the intended international audience of these messages – can and should make up our own minds about the country and its ‘programs’. This is not to say that through its sports diplomacy Qatar has not done some good. Sport events, as hundreds and thousands of years ago, still bring people together – no matter their creed, beliefs, or race. Funding sports programs in the Global South allows many more people to enjoy internationally beloved sports. This article is not arguing against that fact. Instead, it asks at what cost these benefits have been achieved.

Was it worth it? Was it worth it to de-facto enslave many thousand migrant workers, many of whom later died at work, to build stadiums in a country that can barely fill them after the FIFA World Cup? Was it worth it to let a country advertise itself as modern, progressive, and sport-centered – just so the very same country has even more of an excuse to disregard domestic Human Rights? This article has discussed Qatar’s sports diplomacy, what it is, and why it should matter to all of us. However, this phenomenon of using sports to cover one’s own tarnished Human Rights records, is not limited to Qatar. Saudi Arabia’s investments and hosting of events in e.g. the Formula 1, wrestling, or boxing paint a similar picture, as do many more countries. While sports diplomacy causes these countries to enter the international spotlight, we – the audience – get to decide in what way this attention is received.


Photo: Palácio do Planalto [Flickr]

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