World Cup in Qatar caps big gulf push into international sports

Over the past decade, Qatar and its resource-rich Gulf neighbours have poured billions of dollars into international sports. PHOTO: AFP

For most of Mariam al-Anezi’s life, it felt as if no one knew where Qatar was. She would tell people she came from a place next to Dubai, the better-known Gulf Arab emirate a seven-hour drive away.

Now, as the throngs of fans from around the world descend on her country for the World Cup, she is roaming the streets of the Qatari capital, Doha, greeting strangers from India and Europe and revelling in a sense of pride in her nation’s new visibility on the global stage.

“People know Doha now,” al-Anezi, 35, said as her children kicked balls around a seaside promenade on one recent evening.

“Those who come, they’ll see it with their own eyes and they’ll know how to judge with their hearts.”

Over the past decade, Qatar and its resource-rich Gulf neighbours have poured billions of dollars into international sports, buying teams and sponsorships and hosting events, in part to bolster their global clout but also out of a desire to diversify their economies, attract tourism, further their foreign policy goals and stoke nationalism at home that legitimises their authoritarian rule.

Saudi Arabia started a new golf tournament in 2022 that competes with the PGA. Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, hosted pre-season NBA games in October. Ruling family members and government entities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all bought football teams abroad, including the Saudi sovereign wealth fund-led takeover of Newcastle United in 2021.

Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, which kicks off on Sunday, is the pinnacle of the regional drive into international sports. For the country of 3 million people, the month-long tournament is the culmination of 12 years of preparation and more than US$200 billion (S$274.8 billion) in infrastructure spending, subsumed into a grand nation-building project for a state the size of Connecticut surrounded by more powerful neighbours.

With more than 1 million visitors expected in the coming weeks, it is also part of a broader push by the Qatari rulers to thrust their conservative Islamic country from obscurity into the global spotlight – a strategy funded by vast natural gas wealth. So much is riding on the event’s success that this week in Doha, it has felt like the whole city is holding its breath in anticipation.

Although critics accuse Gulf governments of using sports to cleanse their international reputations amid accusations of human rights abuses, sports mean a great deal more than a better image abroad for the Gulf’s hereditary rulers.

Saudi Arabia is rushing to diversify its oil-dependent economy, and sports can spur job creation and consumer spending. Across the Gulf, public health advocates want to use sports to encourage physical activity among populations that struggle with childhood obesity and diabetes.

Buying a global football team is also a symbol of prestige for a billionaire royal. And football is adored by many in the region, making it a perfect vehicle for leaders to increase their popularity and raise their profiles.

“The whole reason for the World Cup is it’s an exercise or a step in Qatar seeking to secure itself and have relevance and legitimacy,” said Simon Chadwick, a Paris-based professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema business school, who has been travelling to Qatar for more than a decade and has watched it change in the lead-up to the tournament.

All of that attention comes with downsides and, in recent months, Qatar has absorbed a hail of scrutiny, criticism and mockery from American, British and European commentators who have pointed out that the state is an authoritarian monarchy with negligible political participation.

Discrimination against LGBTQ people and the treatment of migrant workers have cast shadows over the tournament.

Like many of its Gulf neighbours, Qatar relies on low-income workers from South Asia and Africa, who often work gruelling hours for meagre pay and sometimes face outright abuse. The sheer number of workers who toiled to build the infrastructure surrounding the tournament has highlighted the region’s exploitative employment system for foreign workers, spurring some changes that activists have said do not go far enough.

A last-minute decision to ban beer at the stadiums also caused an outcry from fans. Indeed, some Qataris say they feel the World Cup has attracted more negative attention than positive.

But for the Gulf monarchies – each of which face its own internal and external challenges – investments in sports are often a strategy to strengthen national identity and legitimise their leadership, directed as much to domestic and regional audiences as foreign ones.

When Qatar bid for the World Cup more than a decade ago, the goal was simply to be known at all. Now, it is home to an international airline, a US military air base and the Al Jazeera news network, which projects its influence around the world.

Officials hope the World Cup will establish Qatar as a distinct state that can stand on its own beside larger neighbours, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The government’s efforts to link itself with the international community are partly motivated by Qatar’s vulnerabilities, which include its own self-defence, said Danyel Reiche, a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar, who studies the politics of sports.

Those insecurities are obvious on a map. Qatar has fewer than 400,000 citizens and is a peninsula with much larger regional powers on either side: Saudi Arabia and Iran. It currently maintains friendly relations with both, but neither can be taken for granted.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut off diplomatic and transportation ties with Qatar, accusing the country of supporting Islamist extremists and terrorism, and of meddling in their internal affairs. Qatar denied those charges and the rift simmered for years, becoming increasingly rancorous, before it was largely resolved in 2021.

Still, it was a galvanising moment for the young nation.

“What motivates me, truly, is I feel like we’re nation-building,” said Machaille Al Naimi, executive officer of strategic initiatives at the Qatar Foundation, a deep-pocketed education and social development organisation that is run by Qatari ruling family members and a key part of the state’s soft power strategy.

For the past 12 years, Al Naimi said, it felt like everyone in the country was working towards the World Cup – unifying the population through a trying time.

Since winning the bid to host, Qatar has poured more than US$200 billion into building up its capital, erecting a network of highways and constructing a new metro system. The World Cup was “used as a vehicle to accelerate these initiatives,” Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary-general of Qatar’s World Cup organisation, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, said in an interview in October.

Hosting the tournament means that people will know Qatar “as a destination,” he said.

Some Qataris are uneasy with the deluge to come, including the potential for drunken crowds, and the pace and direction of change the event has brought to the country. Many are planning to stay home or travel abroad to avoid it entirely. Others are thrilled, though.

At a new sports-themed museum in Doha, exhibitions trace the development of sports from ancient times to the present, ending with a history of football in Qatar.

The sport, which was introduced to the region by colonial officials and foreign oil companies, has taken root in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa over the past century, harnessed as a tool by nationalist movements and autocratic regimes, according to the work of Abdullah Al-Arian, a Qatar-based scholar who has written about football and politics in the region.

At the same time, the game has become a rallying point for protest and political mobilisation in countries where other civil society groups and political parties are effectively banned. In Algeria and Egypt, die-hard fan groups have played a significant role in revolutionary movements, organising crowds and confronting police and the military.

Officials hope the World Cup will establish Qatar as a distinct state that can stand on its own beside larger neighbours. PHOTO: AFP

Football provides a precious release in countries with few outlets for collective energy, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote in 1982.

“Football is the field of expression permitted by secret understanding between ruler and ruled in the prison cell of Arab democracy, which threatens to destroy guards along with prisoners,” he wrote.

In November, as fans began arriving in Doha, the city’s traditional marketplace felt like a carnival. Young men with air horns beeped their way through streams of people, past children in football jerseys, as tourists posed for photographs and television cameras soaked in the footage.

Draping his shoulders in his country’s flag, Abdulmajeed al-Harthi, 28, from Saudi Arabia, said he planned to stay in Doha until the tournament was over, even if the Saudi team were to be knocked out early.

“This is our second religion,” he said.

When he sees sporting events happening in Saudi Arabia or Qatar after a lifetime of watching them on television, broadcast from the United States or Europe, he feels proud.

“Most Western and European countries have a bad image of us,” he said.

“We want to improve the way they look at us. We want to change their view, first of all, of Islam.” NYTIMES

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