23 October 2018
Qatar Airways has been associated with Spanish football club FC Barcelona before signing up as a World Cup sponsor earlier this year. Photo: Qatar Airways
Qatar Airways has been associated with Spanish football club FC Barcelona before signing up as a World Cup sponsor earlier this year. Photo: Qatar Airways

Football’s Middle East airline sponsors snared in geopolitics

The next time you are flying West from Hong Kong, as you kick your shoes off and settle down to watch a movie keep in mind that you are sitting at the heart of a political storm. That is, if you are travelling on Qatar Airways, Emirates Airline or Etihad Airways, which are all state-owned Middle Eastern carriers.

If you fly using one of these carriers, the chances are that you may have been drawn to them by one of the many football sponsorship deals they have all been involved in over the last decade. When it comes to shirt deals, Emirates is king of the skies; the company has systematically built a portfolio of properties that includes top clubs such as Real Madrid, AC Milan, Arsenal and Paris Saint Germain.

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways has been associated with FC Barcelona before the carrier signed up as a World Cup sponsor earlier this year. Abu Dhabi’s Etihad most notably has sponsored Manchester City, with the club also being owned by a member of the country’s ruling family.

Alongside these shirt sponsorships (which are part of an aggressive approach to marketing each of them pursues), the airlines have been actively supported by their respective governments. Hence, Dubai and Doha airports have become important transit hubs. At the same time, state support has enabled the airlines to be ultra-price competitive in the global airline market.

Perhaps too competitive.

For some years, US carriers such as United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and American Airlines have been calling for action to be taken against their Middle East rivals, claiming they have an unfair advantage and are in breach of Open Skies agreements. Whether the US State Department ultimately decides to act against them remains a moot point, yet this hardly constitutes American fudging on the matter.

Indeed, the various travel and laptop bans imposed by the Donald Trump administration are believed by some observers to have been one of the ways in which the US government has sought to erode the competitive advantage built-up by Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. As The Economist recently noted, business-class travellers who often choose to travel with these airlines because of price, have been adversely affected by the recent laptop ban.

So, as you fly through, for example, Doha on Qatar Airways (possibly wearing your FC Barcelona shirt adorned with the company’s logo), be aware of how much a political statement you are making. Be advised though not to fly Emirates through Dubai wearing the same shirt as, in recent weeks the airline industry has become even more political.

Following a series of disagreements, several countries including the United Arab Emirates (home of Etihad and Emirates) broke-off diplomatic ties with Qatar. This resulted in a different travel ban being introduced, with flights to and from Doha being curtailed. The commercial and sporting ramifications of this have already been felt, with Saudi Arabian football club Al Ahli immediately terminating its shirt sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways.

Rumors have also circulated that some countries in the Gulf region were fining people for wearing Barcelona/Qatar Airways shirts, although officials have denied this. Even so, such stories illustrate the sensitivities now encircling the airline industry, its football sponsorships, and geopolitics in general, which in turn are throwing-up troubling, sometimes even darkly humorous, contradictions.

For instance, during the Federations Cup in Russia millions of people across the Gulf region will have enjoyed the tournament whilst being bombarded with an endless stream of Qatar Airways adverts on pitch-side signs that constantly rotated throughout matches. This is ironic when, for citizens of the UAE (as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt), they cannot (and should not) travel on Qatar Airways nor are they supposed to make any explicit reference to their Middle Eastern rival.

And with the new European football season looming on the horizon, we are faced with the prospect of an even more confusing clash of interests. Paris Saint Germain, Qatari-owned and Dubai sponsored (by Emirates Airline) is the ultimate in contradiction. Yet if one imagines the French club drawing Manchester City in next season’s Champions League, what in previous seasons would have been a clash of two top sides may next season become the apex of a regional political confrontation that has its roots in the Oval Office in Washington DC.

Interestingly, Qatar Airways deal with FIFA comes to an end in 2022, which is hardly a coincidence as the world’s richest country per capita is hosting that year’s World Cup. It is already being suggested with some certainty that the 2026 tournament will be heading to the US, which means that in the razzamatazz of the bidding process Qatar’s name will be writ large (courtesy of its airline sponsorship) every time the US is mentioned.

Should the geopolitical shenanigans of the last few weeks continue in the years to come, it may even be that Qatar Airways chooses to extend its deal with FIFA. Aside from landing one of its jets on the White House lawn, this would be one of the most provocative moves the small nation could make.

Although Donald Trump would no longer be in power, the endless pitch-side signage rotation advertising Qatar Airways would certainly be an irritation about which the US could do very little.

So, as you prepare to fly, it might be worth thinking about where your allegiances lie and not just with regards to the airline upon which you are flying. If you are going to wear a football shirt for duration of your journey, be careful to check the name of the sponsor glaring out from the chest of your replica jersey – it may be a more political statement than you could ever have imagined.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.

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