Qatar's diplomatic hedging: A World Cup insurance policy

April 06, 2018 09:32
Qatar’s 2022 World Cup organizing committee. The way the country is going about in planning and organizing the World Cup involves classic hedging.  Photo: Reuters

Following the recent re-election of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president, Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani sent him a note of congratulations. This was in spite of Russia’s apparent involvement in the poisoning of former double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Great Britain. During the same week, the Emir played host to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the two eventually reaching a series of agreements intended to draw the two countries closer together.

The irony of this is that, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and an ongoing conflict with Russian-backed forces in Eastern Ukraine, Kiev and Moscow have a deeply antagonistic relationship. Adding further irony to matters, only days later Al Thani traveled to Russia for a meeting with Putin to discuss a range of issues, notably Syria but also their mutual oil and gas interests.

In Syria, Qatar has aligned itself with the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, alongside the United States and its allies. In recent months, rumors have circulated that the Doha government is seeking closer relations with Washington, and has proposed that a major US naval presence be established in the country. Following almost a year of feuding with its neighbors, Qatar has already garnered military support from Turkey which has sent troops to the country.

Adding still further irony, Qatari actions have consequently juxtaposed the US and its support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, with vehement Turkish opposition to Kurdish military personnel whom President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has labeled as terrorists. Quite where Russia stands on Turkey – and vice versa – remains somewhat unclear, though recent evidence suggests that an often fractious relationship has recently become more amicable.

Meanwhile, Al Thani and Putin also discussed collaborative opportunities between two of the world’s leading producers of natural gas. The Qatar Investment Authority is an existing investor in Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft, though China’s CEFC Energy has recently acquired a significant proportion of QIA’s stake (thus also entwining China into Qatar’s diplomatic mix).

Qatar’s flirtation with Russia deepens the irony even further when one considers that Doha has looked to Iran (a key Moscow ally) for help following Saudi Arabia’s Donald Trump induced diplomatic stand-off with the former British protectorate. Still it deepens; in losing a recent court case in Sweden, Russian energy company Gazprom could yet cut off gas supplies to Europe, perhaps during this summer’s World Cup.

The response of some European nations, such as Poland, has been to identify Qatar as a potential alternative source of liquefied natural gas. Supplying new markets in Europe is entirely consistent with the Doha government's plans to become the world’s biggest LNG producer by 2024.

And this is just a small snapshot of how Qatar goes about its diplomatic business. Here is a country that seeks to simultaneously position itself alongside both Russia and the US, while keeping the likes of Ukraine and Iran onside, at the same time ensuring that France, Britain and China remain allies too. Professor Mehran Kamrava of Georgetown University Doha has referred to Qatar’s approach to international relations as "diplomatic hedging", a term that would appear to aptly describe Qatar’s successful bid for the right to stage FIFA’s World Cup in 2022. For Doha, the World Cup is the ultimate diplomatic hedge.

One can imagine a scenario, ten years ago, when cabinet members in the Qatari government (typically people linked to the country’s royal family, as the country does not democratically elect its politicians) asked themselves: "What brings the world together, engenders a feel-good factor, and puts a nation globally center-stage?" Answer: the World Cup – an opportunity to get as many countries, some of which will inevitably be antagonists, in the same place at the same time while at the same time wowing the world with one’s stadiums and infrastructure.

Even the way in which Qatar is going about planning and organizing the World Cup involves classic hedging. Many of the venues have been designed and are being constructed as joint ventures. For instance, the Lusail Iconic Stadium (which will stage the final game of the tournament in 2022) is being built by Qatari constructor HBK Contracting and the China Railway Construction Corporation. Furthermore, in preparation for the competition, the Qatar Football Association has signed deals with the likes of the Iranian and English Football Associations to provide training camp facilities and development assistance.

Such hedging is often characteristic of small states (of which Qatar is one – its population numbers less than three million), whereby they seek to mitigate risk and uncertainty by trying to balance the interests of other nations with which they are associated. Sometimes labeled as bandwagoning or balancing, small states are often concerned that their actions may result in adverse consequences – for example, invasion by a rival military power or, in Qatar’s case, loss of the right to host the 2022 tournament.

This is telling; given some ongoing concerns about the legality of Qatar’s World Cup bid win and the country’s apparent treatment of immigrant workers, the country apparently remains somewhat exposed to the potential removal of hosting rights. And with the likes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates lobbying hard for the tournament to be taken away from Qatar, the country is fighting battles on several different fronts.

However, with China, Iran and Britain, among others, now significantly invested into the tournament, Doha’s hedging has embedded the World Cup in a network of geopolitical interests from which it will be extremely difficult to extricate the competition. Indeed, with Qatar also seeking a military presence from the United States and closer energy collaboration with Russia, those football fans expecting FIFA to take the tournament away from Qatar are likely to be disappointed.

The intangible in this situation is the ambiguity that hedging creates. Doha’s government seems to be playing on all fronts, which creates confusion and exposes the country to the possibility of undue outside influence. Nevertheless, at the end of this summer’s World Cup in Russia, scrutiny of Qatar will intensify, and we should therefore expect the hedging to continue.

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Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani congratulates Russian President Vladimir Putin over his re-election during their meeting late last month in Moscow. Photo: Reuters
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani meets US President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington on Tuesday. The country seeks to position itself alongside both the United States and Russia. Photo: Reuters
Logo of Qatargas seen outside its building in Doha. The country aims to become the world’s biggest LNG producer by 2024. 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.