‘Drowning in bad publicity’: Has Qatar’s World Cup soft power push backfired?

Qatar has received an avalanche of bad publicity ahead of hosting the World Cup in November and December. The football extravaganza has prompted Western media and NGOs to decry the desert nation’s human rights record, notably concerning the treatment of migrant workers. But while this may dent Qatar’s soft power, its abundant natural gas reserves are a more formidable tool of influence than ever as the energy crisis racks Europe.

Qatar’s ruler was at once jubilant and determined back in 2010 when FIFA made it the 2022 World Cuphost. “Today we celebrate, but tomorrow, the work begins,” said then emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

It was the biggest success for oil-rich Gulf states’ use of football to boost their profiles – a strategy first demonstrated when a private equity group linked to Abu Dhabi’s royal family bought Manchester City in 2008.

And aggrandising soft power through sport is an especially big priority for Qatar.

“One time when I was in Doha someone close to Hamad bin Khalifa told me he’d said that in the modern world being in the International Olympic Committee was more important than being in the UN,” said Karim Sader, a Beirut-based political consultant specialising in Gulf states. “Qatar has bolstered its international profile thanks to its use of soft power; it has to do this because it’s a tiny country in a neighbourhood of big countries – and sport is a very significant way of doing this.

“So it was a huge success when Qatar was made World Cup host, a big success in terms of the image it was going for when it bought PSG [Paris Saint-Germain] in 2011,” Sader continued. “It put Qatar on the map for a lot of people around the world. They’ve become a country people know, largely thanks to sport.”

‘Soft power only works with good behaviour’

However, controversy surrounded the 2022 World Cup from the off. FIFA’s announcement of Qatar’s winning bid prompted many to wonder why a country whose team never qualified for the World Cup should host it. A headline in The Guardian attributed Qatar’s win to “political craziness”. None other than Barack Obama chipped in: Making Qatar host was the “wrong decision”, the then US president said.

Qatar and FIFA addressed concerns about footballers playing in the desert nation’s blistering summer heat, deciding in 2015 to move the tournament from June and July to November and December. But the shift only provoked complaints about disruption to the club game’s schedule.

Above all, concerns about exploitation of migrant workers have featured prominently in the international media. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch shone a light on mistreatment of people constructing a stadium in a 2016 report titled “Qatar World Cup of Shame”. The Guardian followed up in 2021 with an investigationfinding that at least 6,751 migrant workers died in Qatar from 2010 to 2020.

In this context, several French cities including Paris announcedthey will boycott the World Cup and will not set up the usual fan zones for people to watch the matches outside on giant screens – even though France are the defending champions. Across the Belgian border, councils in the Brussels area have also ditched fan zones, in part to protest Qatar’s human rights record. And even if it did not cite criticism of Qatar, the Berlin council also announced that their popular fan zone next to the Brandenburg gate will not be there this time – further demonstrating a lack of enthusiasm for the 2022 World Cup.

Human rights concerns also prompted a symbolic declaration from one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Former Manchester United and France striker Eric Cantona vowed to boycott the tournament. “Personally, I will not watch it,” the football legend told the Daily Mail. “It’s only about money and the way they treated the people who built the stadiums, it’s horrible. And thousands of people died. And yet we will celebrate this World Cup.”

All this suggests hosting the World Cup has given Qatar critical press coverage instead of soft power. “Qatar is drowning in bad publicity about its cruel labour practices,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.

“What happened during the building of football stadiums is getting more attention than the games,” Riedel continued. “Once the matches begin, some attention will go to the games – but to the teams, not the hosts.

“Bottom line is soft power only works with good behaviour,” Riedel concluded.

Need for ‘realpolitik’?

Nevertheless, some forms of soft power are harder than others. As Europe reels from an energy crisis – and even energy powerhouse the US complains about OPEC+ cutting oil output – Qatar’s natural resources make it well-placed to win friends and influence people.

As well as bountiful oil reserves, Qatar boasts the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves behind Russia and Iran, both of whom are subject to Western sanctions. The Gulf state surpassed the US in April to become the world’s biggest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG). Plentiful fossil fuels have given it the highest GDP per capita in the world.

So it makes sense that, even when President Joe Biden was framing geopolitics as a “battle between democracies and autocracies” back in March, the same month he designated absolute monarchy Qatar as a “major non-NATO ally” of the US.

European countries are adjusting to a world without the Russian behemoth’s abundant gas supply. Qatar has become crucial to the EU’s gas strategy as it scrambles to find new suppliers – even though the Gulf state currently exports more than 70 percent of its LNG to Asian countries, locked into long-term contracts.

As the EU focuses on the Russian menace, it has been happy to overlook controversial behaviour by other non-democratic states that might sell Europe more gas. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went to Baku in July to sign a deal doubling the bloc’s gas imports from authoritarian Azerbaijan. Unsurprisingly, Brussels’ response was muted when Azerbaijan’s military broke the fragile truce with its neighbour and arch-rival Armenia in September.

For all the bad publicity, Western policymakers – in Europe especially – are unlikely to change their stance on Qatar, Sader said: “We’re already seeing Europe court countries without great human rights resources because they have lots of gas resources; countries like Azerbaijan. And because Europe is courting Qatar as an alternative to Russian gas, European leaders know that criticising Qatar isn’t the best way of getting the gas.

“They know they won’t get it straight away; LNG doesn’t export easily and you need to construct liquefication terminals and draw up long-term contracts with Qatar, which isn’t going to redirect gas from its Asian customers to Europe,” Sader went on. “The West has to engage in realpolitik.”

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