Twelve years ago in Zurich, the international football federation FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, an Arabian Gulf state well known for its oil wealth—and quite unknown at the time for any established association with the sport of football. Since, the Qatari government has spent not only billions of dollars developing stadiums and other sporting facilities for the tournament but hundreds of billions on supporting infrastructure—from elaborately renovated airports and highways to advanced new transit systems and luxury hotels. Holding a World Cup has long meant significant investment from a host country, but even by historical standards, Qatar’s has been enormous.
Meanwhile, over the more than a decade the country has spent preparing for the tournament, it’s also been expanding its football presence globally. Through majority state-owned corporations such as Qatar Airways, it’s directed billions into sponsorship deals with high-profile European clubs like FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, and AS Roma. Through its state media conglomerate beIN Media Group, it’s put billions more into contracts for global broadcasting rights. And through Qatar Sports Investments, a subsidiary of its sovereign wealth fund, it bought the French club Paris Saint-Germain in 2011—just months after winning the 2022 World Cup bid—for US$58 million, transforming the French team into one of the most valuable sports properties in the world, valued today at US$3.2 billion. What’s motivated all of this?
Sarath K. Ganji is a foreign-policy analyst based in the United States, previously in the Arabian Gulf, and a recent Penn Kemble Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. As Ganji explains, Qatar’s investment in football belongs to a strategy that’s emerged across the Gulf monarchies—and among autocratic regimes globally—to win the hearts and minds of Western publics and, ultimately, secure the allegiances of Western elites. It’s a complication for these regimes that the strategy can also bring unwanted attention to their human-rights transgressions—but so far, that’s not getting in the way.
Eve Valentine: How did the World Cup end up in Qatar this year?
Sarath K. Ganji: It won the bid back in December 2010. That was despite being relatively new on the global sports scene—and really, despite not having a particularly deep football history or culture at all. But by then, Qatar had been investing a lot of money in football as part of a strategy of economic diversification. Why? This is a country with the third-largest oil fields in the world—and the number-one exporter of liquefied natural gas. Hydrocarbon wealth has been the driver of Qatar’s economic development—and hydrocarbon wealth is inherently limited; it’s only going to last for so long. That’s the context for the country’s interest in investing in sports—and its campaign to host the 2022 World Cup.
Originally, Qatar’s investment in football goes back to the 1970s, when it got involved in a regional cup featuring a number of Arabian states. Gradually, that interest expanded over into auto racing, which is very big in the Middle East; then global sports broadcasting, with Al Jazeera Sport; and from there, sports sponsorships—and eventually the full acquisition of the French football team Paris Saint Germain, PSG, in 2011. At the same time, Qatar was investing increasingly in big multi-sport competitions and state-of-the-art sporting infrastructure. In 2006, it hosted the Asian Games—the second largest multi-sporting event in the world, behind the Olympics—which was a major success. The previous year, it opened the Aspire Zone, a world-class 250-hectare sporting complex in Doha.
Qatar made a few unsuccessful bids to host the Olympics themselves along the way, but the Asian Games and the Aspire Zone gave its leadership a lot of confidence by the time the country secured the World Cup for 2022.
Valentine: Why did it win the bid?
Ganji: When Sepp Blatter became the president of FIFA in 1998, he announced that he wanted to take the World Cup to places beyond Europe, North America, and South America—its traditional settings. So Africa was to get a World Cup; the Middle East was to get one; East Asia was to get one. The notion was that every part of the world has a football culture and can accommodate an event like this, given the chance. That’s the ideal Blatter articulated.
But for decades now, there’s been a shift in FIFA’s business model from professionalization to, you could say, commercialization. That began under FIFA’s president João Havelange in the 1970s and continued with Blatter into the ’80s—all the more after he became president in the ’90s. There’s been a lot of reporting—corroborated by documents leaked in the FIFA Files, Football Leaks, and the Pandora Papers—on the machinations behind the FIFA executive committee’s decisions on broadcasting rights for World Cups and on who gets to host them.
Since 2010, this reporting has uncovered evidence of bribes and payouts, along with a broader pattern of collusion and corruption, associated with Qatar winning the bid. A lot of the reporting centers on the Qatari billionaire Mohammed bin Hammam, who was able to use his position as the president of the Asian Football Confederation, as well as his close connections to the Qatari royal family—the House of Thani—to direct funds to the African Football Confederation, for example. He was able to influence CONCACAF—the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football—through their former head, Jack Warner. And so on.
Hydrocarbon wealth has been the driver of Qatar’s economic development—and hydrocarbon wealth is inherently limited; it’s only going to last for so long. That’s the context for the country’s interest in investing in sports—and its campaign to host the 2022 World Cup.
At the same time, the Qatari royal family held meetings with Michel Platini, then the head of UEFA—the Union of European Football Associations—as well as France’s then-president Nicolas Sarközy. Altogether, these connections and lines of influence swung enough votes in Qatar’s favor.
Ultimately, Qatar used its wealth, and the shortcomings in FIFA’s governance, to buy the World Cup—despite well founded questions about the country’s ability to create eight new stadiums, properly accommodate swaths of fans in the heat of the summer, and put on a carbon-neutral, logistically sound tournament overall. On all these questions, the technical documentation had rated Qatar quite poorly—certainly behind the United States, which many believed should have won the 2022 bid. And all the logistical concerns have since borne out to one degree or another—with relatively low attendance across a number of stadiums and with accommodation difficulties, including whole fan villages having to issue refunds because they weren’t in the end finished or even functional.
Valentine: There’s been a lot of disturbance around the world, well beyond these logistical problems, related to Qatar’s authoritarian character and human-rights issues in the country—presumably the kind of issues Qatar would have been most anxious to suppress. How have these issues developed since 2010?
Ganji: Yes, it’s an irony. The majority of attention since 2010 has been on Qatar’s migrant population—and in particular, the population brought in to develop the infrastructure for the World Cup. Qatar is a country of just under 3 million people in total. And as much as 85 percent of this population is foreign-born.
Labor migrants are non-citizens, and the majority of them come from South Asia—six countries in particular: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. In the summer of 2013, The Guardian published a shocking report about dozens of Nepalese men, men in the prime of their lives, working on World Cup construction sites and suddenly dying of cardiac arrest.
This is when a lot of attention started coming to the plight of migrant workers in Qatar—not just in the construction sector but in the hospitality sector too, where there have also been chronic issues with labor trafficking, as well as with sex trafficking. Across sectors, there’s been damning evidence of wage discrimination, poor living accommodations, passport confiscation, and even employer retaliation and state detention.
There are also, of course, ongoing issues around LGBTQ rights. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar—and punishable. Public displays of affection are grounds for detention, deportation, even trial. So a lot of the activism that we’ve seen, from European countries in particular, has been focused on that—and on trying to sound the alarm for LGBTQ people who might be traveling to Qatar and who could face discrimination or outright punishment.
And then there are ongoing concerns around women’s rights. In the context of the Middle East, Qatar is often more progressive in this domain than its Gulf neighbors are. But there’s been clear evidence over the years of instances in which women, including foreign nationals, have been detained—for example, on flights—and being searched in very intrusive ways, based on fraudulent assumptions. So a lot of apprehension globally has centered on the extent to which women will be able to operate freely in Qatar and receive the same kind of protections that men will be afforded as fans there.
Ultimately, Qatar used its wealth, and the shortcomings in FIFA’s governance, to buy the World Cup—despite well founded questions about the country’s ability to create eight new stadiums, properly accommodate swaths of fans in the heat of the summer, and put on a carbon-neutral, logistically sound tournament overall.
Valentine: As it tries to navigate the controversy around these issues, what does the Qatari government hope for out of its investment in the World Cup?
Ganji: The umbrella consideration is security. Looking at the contours of Qatar’s history since the 1980s and ’90s, two developments have been especially challenging to the regime in that time frame. The first is the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which demonstrated emphatically to the Qataris the vulnerability of a small state in the Gulf. The second is a growing unease with Qatar’s security dependency on Saudi Arabia in the early ’90s. After Qatar’s bloodless palace coup of 1995—in which the Qataris’ relationship with the Saudis was a tense issue—the new emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, made a priority of moving away from this dependency. And he made a priority of creating new interdependencies—with strong, postindustrial Western states, through investments in sectors that mattered to them.
In the defense sector, we saw this priority with Qatar building an air-force base that ended up becoming the headquarters of the United States Central Command in the Middle East—and then its forward operating base there. In the education sector, we saw it with Qatar building Education City in Al Rayyan and creating partnership deals with a number of international universities—including Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, and Northwestern, along with U.K. and French institutions. And in the arena of sports, we saw it with Qatar investing not just in hosting football events but in broadcasting football events to audiences globally—and then in massive spending on sports sponsorships and, even more powerfully, on ownership in football clubs in Europe, first PSG in France and more recently Sporting Braga in Portugal.
The goal with all these investments has been to tie Qatar so closely to its target Western states that it can count on them as reliable allies if its territorial integrity or political economy should end up being threatened in the future. One of Qatar’s guiding premises has been that these target countries—both their publics and their policy makers—will never care about you, a small state in the Arabian Gulf, if they don’t have a reason to. So Qatar wants mindshare in these places. To Qatar, the World Cup is a way to take up and capture that mindshare—and, the Qataris hope, irreversibly deepen the global interdependencies they’ve been creating since the 1990s to assure their economic and geopolitical security.
Valentine: How do you see that going for them, in the context of some of the more negative coverage around the World Cup?
Ganji: It’s a good question, which goes to the crux of what it means to succeed or fail at sportswashing—a term coined back in 2015 for the strategic framework authoritarian states like Qatar have been developing for reputation laundering through sports.
I see the strategy of sportswashing as having three main tactics in its repertoire.
The first is using what I call smokescreens. This is when a laundering regime uses sports to try to change the narrative about the regime in the global media. At the moment, I think it’s hard to know how this is going for Qatar in the aggregate. In the U.S. media market, for example, it looks like the situation with migrant workers—including the number of migrant workers who were recently kicked out of Qatar right before the World Cup started—hasn’t been covered very much.
The goal with all these investments has been to tie Qatar so closely to its target Western states that it can count on them as reliable allies if its territorial integrity or political economy should end up being threatened in the future.
In the U.K., though, it has been. In fact, whereas the U.S. coverage gave a lot of play to the tournament’s lavish opening ceremonies, broadcasts in the U.K. tended to downplay or ignore them and instead ran segments on migrant, LGBTQ, and women’s rights. So in this World Cup, Qatar’s attempts at sportswashing through the media have been working in some media markets better than they have in others—effectively displacing damaging content in some, drawing attention to it in others. As of now, it’s a mixed bag.
The second sportswashing tactic, I describe as using character references. You see this when a laundering regime uses intermediaries—public-relations firms, celebrities, administrators, and so on—to help advance its cause. With this tactic, I’d say, Qatar has done exceptionally well.
In the United States, you can see prominent figures in the country’s soccer culture—like Landon Donovan or Alexi Lalas, or Carli Lloyd—promoting Qatar. You can see them talking about going around Doha, and about eating pigeon for the first time, and about how they enjoy the whole cultural experience. All of this bodes well for Qatar when it comes to changing the narrative and to repositioning the country in the minds of the American public. Likewise with prominent footballing figures from around the world, including official Qatari ambassadors among them, such as the U.K.’s global celebrity David Beckham—who, after visiting some of Qatar’s World Cup facilities, praised them as safe and fantastic—or Australia’s Tim Cahill, or Cameroon’s Samuel Eto’o. With its success in securing public character references from figures like these, Qatar is winning.
The third tactic is using what I call augmented realities. This is about the atmospheres that people experience when they’re at World Cup games themselves, when the emotions of football really come into play. When you’re in a collective—and you’re seeing your team play, and you’re all chanting and singing, and you have the banners up, and there’s this intense experience of rivalry—all these things end up conditioning the ways you feel and think about the place you’re in at that moment.
So if you’re in Education City Stadium, say, with tens of thousands of people, you’re having an experience that puts a positive spin on that stadium. If you are in Doha, traveling around after your team has won an upset against Germany, then you’re having a very positive experience in Doha—and in Qatar. Maybe most importantly, you’re taking in the surrounding visuals, and so all the Qatari sponsors, like Qatar Energy or Qatar Airways—you’re bringing their logos and their messaging back with you to your home country in a positive light.
With this tactic, we probably don’t quite know yet how effective it’ll be through this World Cup. After the tournament is over, we’ll see what stories end up going back to people’s home countries—and we’ll see what kinds of commercial or industrial deals end up being concluded as a result. But so far, in the coverage of the events, you can see a ramping-up of exuberance at the match sites around Qatar. Even if all the stadiums aren’t entirely filling up, the collective effervescence the Qataris are generating bodes well for how people come away feeling and thinking about their country.
When you’re in a collective—and you’re seeing your team play, and you’re all chanting and singing, and you have the banners up, and there’s this intense experience of rivalry—all these things end up conditioning the ways you feel and think about the place you’re in at that moment.
Valentine: How sustainable do you expect this set of tactics will be over time? Do you see it as simply continuing to work the way it does now, or do you think it might eventually exhaust itself—as more and more people are able to understand and communicate about the realities of sportswashing?
Ganji: That’s the question. I can’t see sportswashing unwinding as a strategy for authoritarian regimes anytime soon. One reason is that it succeeds, for the most part, very gradually. Autocratic states like Qatar have become so adept at scaling the value chain in their sportswashing operations in ways that sustain their investments. They host tournaments; they sponsor kits; they buy teams, and then they transform these teams, with enormous resources, into steady champions and global brands. It’s incremental, and it works.
In the meantime, the authoritarian approach to globalization you see in sportswashing isn’t, as a whole, actually unique to sports. So my broader concern with this approach is about how much we see it in different areas—such as higher education or health care, for example. Here, autocratic states have been forming bonds with the Georgetowns or the NYUs of the world, or the Cleveland Clinics of the world—first through student exchanges, then through teacher exchanges, then through curriculum development, and eventually by bringing entire brick-and-mortar locations to Abu Dhabi. You’re seeing the same scaling of value chains across a range of sectors—which is allowing autocracies to strengthen and diversify their economies in the ways they want to, while also progressively influencing foreign publics and foreign elites.
Whether and how these dynamics change over time will come down primarily, I think, to two sets of elite actors—as I’d call them, the enablers and the gatekeepers.
The enablers are the intermediary institutions—the educational institutions, the health-care institutions, and so on—that are partnering with authoritarian countries. For their own sakes, these institutions will have to get to a point of understanding their interests in caring more about human rights—not just because it’s the proper thing to do but because, if they don’t, they’re going to expose themselves to a growing number of legal, financial, and reputation risks that will hurt their bottom line.
The gatekeepers are the policy makers. And they will have to get to a point of understanding the importance of screening investments from authoritarian countries—because football competitions and football clubs, to return to them, aren’t just pastimes for people in strong, postindustrial Western states; football competitions and football clubs represent critical infrastructure that shapes entire communities. An autocracy like Saudi Arabia buying a storied club like Newcastle in northeast England—that autocracy isn’t really investing in a passion; it’s investing in a containment hub for its global business. It’s targeting an area of the world that has industrial value to it. It’s making a highly calculated strategic move as a state actor.