21 January 2020
People loiter in the Mall of Qatar in Doha, with ads of Barcelona FC showing on a giant screen in the background. Photo: Reuters
People loiter in the Mall of Qatar in Doha, with ads of Barcelona FC showing on a giant screen in the background. Photo: Reuters

2017 Gulf Cup draw and what it reveals about Qatar’s power

Think back ten years to 2007, and see what you remember: Seeds of the global financial crash being sewn? The iPhone’s launch? Twitter first entering public consciousness? Or perhaps North Korea agreeing to cooperate with international authorities over its nuclear program in return for aid?

For most people, Qatar probably did not loom large in their minds back in October 2007. The largely anonymous Middle Eastern state was at that time being out-thought and out-run by its near neighbor, Dubai. Indeed, as the latter set about nurturing itself as a global tourism hub, stories circulated that 75 percent of the world’s cranes were being used in to create it.

Three years later, Qatar’s position of relative anonymity dramatically changed when the country won the right to stage the 2022 football World Cup. So too apparently did the balance of power across the Gulf region.

Notwithstanding concerns about the bidding process that led to Qatar being awarded the hosting rights, the hosting decision was consistent with the country’s vision of becoming an advanced country by 2030, capable of sustaining its own development and providing a high standard of living for its people.

In turn, Qatar had adopted a well-defined sports strategy aimed at promoting greater community participation in sports and physical activity; improving planning for community and elite sports facilities; and boosting sports talent development, management and performance.

The Qatari government had a notion too that staging the World Cup, as well as investing in sport in general, would raise the nation’s profile, contribute to establishing its image and reputation, and help it in exercising soft power influence.

And now, years later, many people across the world do know Qatar, although one suspects that most of them would still struggle to locate the country on a map. Furthermore, while the established notion of soft power accentuates appeal and attraction as a means through which to influence the perceptions and behaviors of others, it is questionable how positively people view the country.

One lesson Qatar has surely learnt is that hosting a sports mega-event imposes a level of scrutiny on a country, shining a light on its inadequacies and failings. In Qatar’s case, immigrant labor has become a millstone around the neck of its efforts to tell a more positive story about itself.

Indeed, despite introducing several measures designed to address issues of worker exploitation, the International Labour Organization will, in November, decide whether to officially investigate Qatar for alleged ‘forced labor’.

In recent months, the pressure of playing the global soft power game has been exacerbated by the onset of a regional conflict which has been variously referred to as both a geopolitical crisis and an intense family feud. In moves by several of its closest neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and Dubai, Qatar has effectively been isolated, with flight, trade and other bans imposed.

It hardly seems a coincidence that such measures were imposed shortly after Donald Trump visited Riyadh in May this year. Hawks within his team are thought to be vehemently anti-Qatar, and share concerns with countries in across the Gulf region that the 2022 tournament hosts are funding terrorism.

This appears somewhat ironic given that the British government under David Cameron commissioned a report to investigate Saudi Arabian funding of Islamist extremism in the United Kingdom. However, current prime minister Theresa May has refused to publish it for fear it may damage relations with its Middle East ally.

Among trade-deals Britain has had with the country in recent years is one involving Westland, supplying military helicopters. It was therefore somewhat ironic that, when Qatar’s Emir (Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani) recently returned from a United Nations (UN) speech in New York (where he had held crisis talks about his nation’s ongoing regional spat with the likes of Saudi Arabia), his motorcade was protected by helicopters acquired by the Qataris from, yes, Westland.

Britain has been referred to as an ethically challenged butler to Qatar’s World Cup ambitions. However, with the country’s industrial strength already greatly diminished and Brexit looming, it seems Britain cannot help but embed itself in what is a complex regional network of tribal power politics, wrapped-up in a quest for global influence.

Stories have now circulated that Trump has asked Saudi Arabia to ‘back-off’ from Qatar, and look for a diplomatic rather than a military solution to the region’s problems. For several months, there has been talk that Qatar’s neighbors would lead a coup to overthrow Doha’s government. This would have made for an interesting backdrop to the country’s World Cup preparations.

Whilst the threat of armed conflict may now have subsided, regional tensions have not. The day after Sheikh Tamim returned from his visit to the UN, the draw for this year’s football Gulf Cup took place in Doha. The tournament will be staged in December this year, Qatar having stepped-in as host when Kuwait was suspended from FIFA in 2015.

Kuwait has refused to take sides in the recent regional conflict, instead adopting the role of mediator. In turn, Qatar has been lobbying for Kuwait’s reinstatement as a FIFA nation. Even so, Kuwait’s absence from the Gulf Cup draw yielded a bizarre outcome: one group consisting of four teams, the other of three.

Remarkably (or is that suspiciously?), Qatar and Saudi Arabia were drawn in different groups. Even so, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain boycotted the draw. The latter was drawn in the same group as Qatar, which could make for a somewhat fractious upcoming contest. Qatar’s regional opponents, though, have called for the tournament to be postponed.

So much, then, for the soft power influence of sport! Qatar has inadvertently drawn attention to itself with a World Cup bid and now close rivals see it as an attempt by Doha to challenge an established regional hierarchy.

The consequent fallout now threatens other sports competitions, while other purveyors of soft power, notably Great Britain and the United States, appear constantly hamstrung by their attempts to exercise it. Perhaps soft power is a harder notion that many commentators first envisaged?

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Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (L) holds up a copy of the World Cup he received from FIFA President Sepp Blatter (R) after an announcement that Qatar will be the host nation for the FIFA World Cup 2022. Photo: Reuters

A file picture shows Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani meeting US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

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.